Don’t look now, but Billy Hamilton is hitting.
The 23-year-old center fielder struggled out of the gate, batting just .140 through his first 12 games. Since then, however, he’s quietly overcome the dismal start to his rookie campaign.
Headed into Thursday’s series finale against the Pirates, Hamilton had hit safely in seven of his last eight games, with three multi-hit performances and a .355 average during that span. And yes, he also stole his share of bases—seven, to be exact.
The same question has followed Hamilton throughout his professional career: Will he hit well enough to stick as an everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter?
The concern was magnified last season with Hamilton’s underwhelming performance at Triple-A Louisville, when he batted .256/.308/.343 with a 102/38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 547 plate appearances. However, his impressive showing as a September call-up—.368 batting average and 13 stolen bases—overshadowed his struggles in the minors and ultimately convinced the Reds he was ready to assume a full-time role in 2014.
Even though the Reds announced during the offseason that Hamilton would serve as the team’s leadoff hitter and center fielder this year, there still was an undeniable feeling that the job would be his to lose in spring training.
But Hamilton didn’t struggle as many expected he would; he actually excelled, batting .327/.381/.527 with 14 runs, six extra-base hits, nine steals and a solid 9/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Basically, he did everything the Reds hoped he’d do—and more.
Unfortunately, Hamilton’s spring success was tossed out the window with his 0-for-4, four-strikeout performance against the Cardinals on Opening Day. Through his first three games, Hamilton was 0-for-12 with six strikeouts.
However, despite his recent success at the plate, Hamilton’s weaknesses as a hitter already have been exposed just three-plus weeks into the season. More significantly, it’s led to doubt as to whether Hamilton’s bat will ever allow him to consistently change games with his speed.
As a switch-hitter, Hamilton has quick wrists from both sides of the plate that allow him to generate above-average bat speed and be short to the ball. Yet, while he controls the zone relatively well, Hamilton makes far too much weak contact to be a dynamic hitter in the major leagues. Specifically, he struggles to keep his weight back and lunges at too many pitches both in and out of the strike zone. That’s especially true when it comes to breaking balls:
Most of Hamilton’s success this season has come against fastballs (or fastball variations such as a sinker) and changeups, evidenced by his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and whiff-per-swing rate against both offerings (via Brooks Baseball). Conversely, Hamilton has been utterly useless against breaking balls, posting obscenely high whiff-per-swing rates versus both curveballs and sliders due to his tendency to lunge at the ball.
Considering that Hamilton faces mostly right-handed pitching, it’s not particularly concerning that 16 of his 19 strikeouts this season have come batting left-handed (28.6 percent strikeout rate), according to FanGraphs. On the other hand, his two walks from that side of the plate (3.6 percent walk rate), especially as a leadoff hitter, is very disconcerting.
Hamilton makes more contact as a right-handed batter (three strikeouts in 25 plate appearances), but his .167 BABIP and 42.9 percent fly-ball rate indicate that it’s rarely quality contact. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hamilton, albeit several years down the road, scraps batting right-handed entirely to eliminate a glaring weakness from his game.
The combination of Hamilton’s aforementioned flaws is also why he doesn’t rank among the best non-power-hitting leadoff men in the game this season. Entering Thursday, there were six leadoff hitters (with at least 16 games batting in that spot) with a walk rate of at least seven percent, .317-plus BABIP and .345-plus on-base percentage:
Compared to his top-of-the-order peers, Hamilton ranks last in batting average (.230), BABIP (.291) and on-base percentage (.256), which is a direct result of his 40.4 percent (second lowest) and 3.8 percent (third lowest) ground-ball and walk rates, respectively.
Hamilton’s career obviously is just beginning; the 23-year-old has just 33 games and 103 plate appearances in the major leagues under his belt. However, there will be a greater emphasis moving forward on his production as an integral component of the Reds’ winning formula than on his future projection. Hamilton should improve as he refines his approach and pitch recognition and eliminates some of the swing-and-miss from his game, but it’s difficult to envision him ever becoming an impact hitter.
Hamilton has a wiry frame at 6’0”, 160 pounds that lacks physical projection. Even if he continues to mature physically in the coming years, he’ll never be regarded as strong. That being said, he actually does a decent job creating backspin carry by driving through the baseball, especially from the left side of the plate, where he showcases a more leveraged swing. However, there’s doubt as to whether he’ll ever develop the necessary strength to make consistently hard contact and drive the ball.
In the wake of his call-up last September, I compared Hamilton to legendary speedster Vince Coleman, who led the major leagues in stolen bases for three consecutive years (1985-1987) as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Will Billy Hamilton hit enough to change MLB with his speed?
Like Hamilton, Coleman was a switch-hitter who never posted a high batting average. In fact, he never batted above .300 in a single season during his 13-year career. With the Cardinals, his highest mark came as a 28-year-old in 1990, when he batted .292 in 124 games. While he never developed into a sound all-around hitter, he was serviceable enough with the bat to make his speed a necessity atop the everyday lineup.
Coleman’s approach was to put the ball in play and utilize his speed, and because he continued with what worked, he never truly developed into an impact hitter like some of the other elite leadoff hitters of his era. He never reached base at a particularly high clip and recorded multiple seasons with more than 100 strikeouts. However, when he did reach base, Coleman made sure his presence was felt.
Based on the projected development of Hamilton’s hit tool, a Vince Coleman-like career probably is a fair representation of his ceiling as a big leaguer. Hamilton boasts arguably the most dynamic tool among all players, with speed that can’t be quantified using the 20-80 scouting scale.
However, until he can make consistent contact and reach base at an acceptable rate, then Hamilton is just another guy who’s really, really fast.