[Doug Gray is returning from a trip to scout the Reds minor league teams in Florida. He will publish his usual Tuesday column on Friday.]
Billy Hamilton has had a rough sophomore season in the box. He is hitting .223/.265/.283 on the year partially due to a declineÃ‚Â in both his power (ISO down 42% from last year) and his BABIP (a 14% decline). All in all, his wRC+ sits atÃ‚Â 48, meaning he is hitting 52% worse than league average, or that the league average is more than 100% better than Hamilton’s production. Out of 158 qualified hitters, HamiltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s on base percentage ranks 152. Due to his defensive range and speed on the base paths, however, Hamilton has created positive value for the Reds both this year (1.4 fWAR) and last year (3.6 fWAR).
The Reds have a dilemma: the teamÃ‚Â benefitsÃ‚Â fromÃ‚Â HamiltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s defensive prowess in the field but cannot bat him tenth. This past offseason the Reds encouraged Billy to become a better bunter and set him up with Ã‚Â Louisville manager Delino DeShields to work on his craft. The logic was sound: if Hamilton could become a better bunter he could improve his on base percentage without having to improve his overall hitting ability. Furthermore, as Hamilton improves as a bunter he will cause the defenders to pull in at the corners and create large gaps in the infield.
The result has been a spectacular flop. Last year Hamilton bunted 52 times and converted 17 of them (a 32.7% success rate). This year Hamilton leads the league with 36 bunt attempts and has a 30.6% success rate. Of the 43 players with 5 or more bunts this season, HamiltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s success rate ranks well below the the groupÃ‚Â average (36.8%).
If the Hamilton bunting experiment continues until the end of the season, expect to see him lay down 51.6 total bunts this year and he will convert 5 of the remaining bunts for hits. While this matches his 2014 total, because he has been batting lower in the order, Hamilton will reach this mark in almost fifty fewer plate appearances.
Hamilton isn’t becoming a better bunter. On the list the most prolific bunters since the year 2000, HamiltonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 2014 total ranks 13th, but his success rate does not hold up with the others in the group. If you restrict this to the top twenty most prolific bunters since the new millennium, the median success rate is 39.3% and the average is 37.3%.
How can the median be so much higher than the mean? The answer is Juan Pierre. In 2007, the Dodgers allowed him to lay down 66 bunts and he converted on only 28.8% of them. Not satisfied with this showing of futility, the 2010 White Sox gave Pierre the green light for 55 bunts, watching him convert these attempts at an astonishing 21.8% of the time.
But let’s sayÃ‚Â Hamilton does improve his bunting skills and is able to raise his 32.4% success rate to something higher, perhaps 42.9% or even 47.7%. Those would be much higher than the average forÃ‚Â even the best of bunters. Those numbers, in fact, would match the best conversion rate of any bunter with more than 50 attempts in a season since 2000. Hamilton saved 22 runs in center field and, pairing that with a 42.9% successÃ‚Â rate would make him …
A worse-OBP version of Willy Taveras, circa 2006. The numbers speak for themselves:
|Taveras, 2006||Hamilton, 2015|
I know that Ã¢â‚¬Å“Willy TaverasÃ¢â‚¬Â is a four-letter word around Reds country. But it is important to point out that Taveras created lotsÃ‚Â of value — 5.5 WAR — in his first two years as a full-time major leaguer almost entirely via his legs. TaverasÃ‚Â was a defensive star playing the most important defensive position in the game.
It is impossible to avoid the comparisons: In 2006 Taveras was 23 and completed his second year as a full time starter. In Hamilton’s second year, he is 24. In their first two years, bothÃ‚Â hadÃ‚Â incredible speed, and despite struggles at the plate bothÃ‚Â were able to create positive value due to base running and defense. Their DRS are almost identical.
In fact, if you wanted to make a case that these players wereÃ‚Â dissimilar, the easiest argument to make would claimÃ‚Â thatÃ‚Â Taveras was the better hitter. That is frightening.
The tragedy is that speed is a gift for the young. In 2006, Taveras was 23 years old. Age was brutal to Taveras:Ã‚Â after compiling 5.5 fWAR in only two seasons, he would never again break the 1.0 fWAR mark. The decline was swiftÃ‚Â andÃ‚Â decisive: 2.2 fWAR (2005), 3.3 (2006), 0.9 (2007), -0.2 (2008).
At the end of 2008, Colorado released Taveras. Based on a BABIP-inflated 2007 batting average (.327 AVG/ .370 BABIP) and 68 stolen bases in 2008, Walt Jocketty signed Taveras as a free agent to a 2-year, $6.25 million contract. The Reds unloaded Taveras to the Oakland A’s in a swap of bad contracts. The A’s released Taveras 8 days later. Other than 37 at bats for the Nationals, Taveras never played major league baseball again.
There are some important differences between these two: Hamilton is both faster and a better baserunner than Taveras. Due to this, his specialized talent is higher than what Taveras offered. Billy Hamilton, however, will be 25 before the end of the season and his defensive numbers are already starting to decline. Is this a sign of things to come? Or is he just having a down year? It is unclear.
As Reds fans, we are pulling for Billy Hamilton to figure it out, but Willy Taveras is a cautionary tale thatÃ‚Â players only have so long in the show untilÃ‚Â their skills start to decline.
And for players given the gift of swift, Father Time seems to give less than most.