Billy Hamilton became Broadway the second Shin-Soo Choo left for Texas. He's been cast to center stage with about all of a month's worth of experience working as an extra. A sideshow in the background. Now he's expected to set the table for an offense that just lost arguably the best table-setter in baseball. In a sense, his job will be to end the Joey Votto RBI angst, or at least give Votto the chance to.
The Reds have now completed 1.9 percent of its regular season. Billy Hamilton hasn't recorded a hit, and on his Opening Day debut was awarded a golden sombrero. That isn't to say that a bus bound for Louisville should be waiting outside of Billy Hamilton's residence this morning. That's not to suggest he not be given a fair shot.
That's to say that in this very minute sample size, Billy Hamilton is living up to consistent ominous scouting reports. This one was written in 2011 by Adam Foster of ProjectProspect.com:
He's very thin with little room for physical projection. The switch hitter has poor pitch recognition and poor balance at the plate, a combination that will leave him at the mercy of advanced pitching. His swing is upper-body-driven and he's not a patient hitter.
He lacks the natural ability to square up on a baseball. And he doesn't have the frame or barrel awareness to hit for any kind of power.
I've talked to plenty of baseball people who are high on Hamilton's upside. Just be warned that he's going to be a big project at the plate, won't blaze through the minors and offers very limited offensive upside.
Pretty daunting stuff. But that was years ago. What about in 2012? This from Charlie Saponara of ProjectpProspect.com, when Hamilton was playing in Pensacola:
Hamilton’s swing is fluid and quick from the left side, fitting for his line-drive/ground-ball approach. His right-handed swing is slightly longer, but generates a bit more pop. One of the only issues I have with Hamilton’s approach is how he tends to lunge at pitches outside the strike-zone too often.
His two-strike approach in terms of shortening up is great, but he won’t get away with chasing bad pitches as often at the higher levels against better pitching and better defensive players. Unless he improves this part of his approach, I foresee him struggling to hit for AVG early in his big league career. He also has very little power and won’t likely develop much in the future, though inside the park homeruns might be a more frequent occurrence for him that just about any other player in the game.
In 2013, the year he would be called up by the Reds, from Baseball Prospectus:
The speed is absolutely fantastic. He's fun to watch when he's on the bases, but I just don't see how it's going to work. There's nothing else that makes me believe he's an everyday big leaguer. You can knock the bat out of his hands with good velocity and he doesn't have the discerning eye to work counts and lay off spin. I just think the hit and on-base comes up short and he's a virtual zero offensively. If he can figure everything out in center field then maybe has a future hitting eighth or ninth and playing good D, but that's even stretching it for me.
That's three years of scouting. That's not to dismiss any positive reports in between, but these reports stuck to him like pine tar. That particular report was written in July. By December, with Choo headed to the Texas Rangers, general manager Walt Jocketty said to the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay, “He’s the guy. We feel confident he can be a good leadoff hitter."
How does Walt Jocketty arrive at this conclusion? Is it the infamous scouting reports? Or was it Hamilton's .256 batting average and .308 OBP in Louisville?
I'm not suggesting Hamilton won't go on to be the player everyone expects or hopes he will be. I'm suggesting that we have very little evidence to suggest that he will. I'm suggesting that Billy Hamilton is starting in center field because of poor organizational planning. There was no concrete contingency for a guy that would knowingly be leaving at the end of his contract.
Billy Hamilton is a coin toss to the wish fountain. Because he's not playing in a setting meant to hone all that raw potential. He's batting leadoff for a playoff-contending team with heavy expectations and a shrinking window to meet them.
The ramifications of rushing a player way before his time can be long-term. Hamilton isn't the only rookie playing in the majors before he probably should. But how many of those are being asked to bat leadoff for a team that’s made the playoffs now three of the last four seasons?
Hamilton is here, and he should be given a fair shot, lest the opinions and insight of the Cincinnati Reds organization are fruitless. But from the outside looking in, tailor your expectations. At least at this level of baseball, there is more evidence to suggest he mimics the series with St. Louis Cardinals, who obviously boast some of baseball's best pitching, than anything else.
How long does he get? Chris Heisey had a very impressive spring. In 20 games, he hit .310 and knocked six home runs. He's off to a decent start this year, driving in a Reds' winning run, which kept them from being swept by St. Louis.
Chris Heisey isn't a long-term answer because there's no evidence to suggest he can do anything different than what he's done thus far. The #FreeHeisey campaign was in 2010. It's 2014, Heisey hit .237 last year in 244 plate appearances. New hand position or not, there's no evidence that says Heisey would do better.
But if the Reds are picking their poison, wouldn't it be more advantageous to let Heisey fill in at center field this year while Hamilton is given time in Louisville? Shouldn't Hamilton be allotted the space to improve outside of the enormous magnifying glass he's already under?
Does Hamilton's best-case scenario, which might be .250-.260 BA, .310-.320 OBP equate to his worst-case scenario, having his confidence annihilated, along with one of the Reds more marketable prospects?
Dusty Baker was routinely scrutinized for his incessant need to keep speed a priority at the leadoff spot. Names like Willy Taveras, Corey Patterson and Drew Stubbs might still infuriate the Cincinnati faithful. But how is what Bryan Price is doing with Hamilton any different?
There’s no rationale Price can give that would suggest a positive trajectory at the major league level. There’s just raw speed and hope. How long until the sabers reach Price’s door?
It’s just three games, but the Reds are in a division that could easily be decided by one. Watch Billy Hamilton carefully, keep Chris Heisey close.
Note: All stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com.