Ã¢â‚¬Å“It took me 17 years to get 3,000 hits in baseball. I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.Ã¢â‚¬Â — Henry Aaron
The notion that speed matters only so much is a well-known truism in baseball. And yet, every time baseball people catch a glimpse of human beings running at an exceptionally quick pace, it once again becomes the drug theyÃ‚Â canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t quit.
The Kansas City Royals reintroduced speed to a national baseball audience last fall. It was hard not to swoon overÃ‚Â the sight of road runnersÃ‚Â Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore tearing up the base paths…except when you remember that the impact of Dyson and GoreÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s speed on the base paths was relatively minimal in a statistical sense. (Whether Dyson and Gore messed with pitcherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s minds while dancing off a base is another story.) Though he went 3-for-3 in stolen base chances, Gore had zero plate appearances last postseason. Dyson recorded two hits and two walks in 19 playoff plate appearances, and was caught stealing in two of his three attempts at base thievery. To begin the 2015 season, Gore was sent back to the minors and Dyson went back to being a part-time player.
The Reds are encountering a similar problem — except on a larger scale — with their resident speed merchant, Billy Hamilton.
Through 23 games and 106 plate appearances, Hamilton is slashing .215/.267/.337. By itself, that line is a cause for alarm, but not a cause for panic. Hamilton started slow last March/April (.245/.280/.330) before improving in MayÃ‚Â and then recording a slash of .327/.348/.500 last June, his best month of the season. Furthermore, Hamilton is walking more this season — his walk rate is up to 6.6 percent from 5.6 percent in 2014 — he’s hitting the ball on the ground more often, and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s suffering through some miserable BABIP luck (.250), considering heÃ‚Â hit .304 on balls in play last season and owns a .301 BABIP for his entire minor league and major league career.
But, the cold, hard truth is this: Hamilton isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t getting on base enough, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s time the Reds bumped their young center fielder to the latter half of the lineup.
On-base percentage isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the be-all, end-all number for a leadoff hitter, but it is one of the most important components for a good hitter, especially one that racks up as many plate appearances as Hamilton.
A quick recap on HamiltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 2014: he was the worst-hitting National League outfielder not named B.J. UptonÃ‚Â with at least 550 plate appearances, which especially stings considering HamiltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 2014 on-base percentage (.292) was 20 points below league average. Those numbers should not have have been that surprising. While his pre-Triple-A numbers indicated he could reach base at a proficient clip, HamiltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s .256/.308/.343 slash in 547 plate appearances during his 2013 stint at Louisville is a more accurate reflection of his ceiling as a hitter, and there were plenty of scouting reports likeÃ‚Â this one that added a dose of temperance to the prodigious hype that surrounded Hamilton before and after he chased down the single-season minor-league stolen base record in 2012.
I was flabbergasted prior to last season that Reds not only handed Hamilton the starting center field job without a legitimate backup to push the then-23-year-old, but also presented Hamilton with the keys to the leadoff spot with all of 22 big-league plate appearances.
I am in no way advocating for HamiltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s removal from the everyday lineup. (Especially since the options behind Hamilton are unsavory.) Despite his offensive woes and inefficiency stealing bases in 2014 — Hamilton was successful in 56 of his 79 stolen-base attempts (71 percent), a success rate that was below league average — heÃ‚Â was nearly a four-win player thanks to his exceptional defense in center field and being one of the top base runners in the game.
I already noted that Hamilton has made someÃ‚Â strides at the plate this season. Also, he is the majors best base runner; he remains a savant in center field; and he has upped his base-stealing smarts, resulting in a 93 percent (13-of-14) success rate.
I think Hamilton — who appears to be a level-headed dude — would handle the Ã¢â‚¬Å“demotionÃ¢â‚¬Â well, too. I imagine a potential conversation with Hamilton and manager Bryan Price in PriceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s office would go something like this:
Price: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Billy, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m going to drop you to the bottom half of the lineup for awhile. This decision in no way means myself or the organization has given up on you as a leadoff hitter; we just want to take some pressure off of you and give a few of the other guys that are going pretty well right now the chance to get more at-bats. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re still going to be out there in center field every day.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Hamilton: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Sure, skip. Whatever helps the team. I know I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t exactly been tearing the cover off the ball.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Price: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Thanks for understanding. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve already made some big improvements to your game, and with some time, I think weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll get that batting stroke of yours figured out, too. You still have the green light on the bases, and once you show some improvement in the batter’s box, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll bump you back up to the front half of the lineup.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Hamilton: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Sounds good, skip. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll keep working at it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Price: Ã¢â‚¬Å“YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re the man, Billy. Just do one thing for me: take it easy on the Mountain Dew. WaltÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s busting my chops about having to order two cases of Dew for you before every homestand.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Hamilton: Ã¢â‚¬Å“[Smiles]. WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll see about that.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The problem is, of course, is that the Reds have limited options to replace Hamilton. (Price isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t doing Hamilton any favors by batting Zack Cozart second, nullifying the good early chemistry Hamilton and Joey Votto seemed have batting first and second, respectively.)
Aside from re-inserting Votto in the No. 2 hole, the easy choice to replace Hamilton in the leadoff slot would be to ride the hot start of Cozart after he returns from his finger and wrist ailments. CozartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s slash of .304/.343/.533 is aided by a BABIP of .319, but it canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t hurt to bat Cozart first until he levels out.
I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t believe IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m typing this, but Brandon Phillips may not be a bad option to lead-off either. Yes, PhillipsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ current .298/.327/.340 slash is influenced by a high BABIP (.329), but the second basemanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s contact numbers indicate a slightiy more disciplined approach this season. PhillipsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ career slash in the leadoff spot is .266/.325/.431 — a line thatÃ‚Â doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t scream Rickey Henderson — but is nonetheless a respectable slash.
The point here is to save Hamilton from himself and to save him from making far too many outs ahead of the Reds best hitters. I think Hamilton has a better idea of what he wants to do at the plate this season, but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to shake the feeling that most times, HamiltonÃ‚Â looks a little overwhelmed. The Reds should slotÃ‚Â Hamilton in the latter half of the lineupÃ‚Â for awhile, see what happens, and then evaluate whether itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s best for the team that Hamilton bats leadoff again in 2015.