Maybe I need to start collecting dues for the Billy Hamilton Fan Club. The more I look at this guy, the more I think he’s going to develop into some version of the player we’ve been hoping for.

Maybe he won’t be as good as was predicted during the early excitement of his big league debut. Perhaps I’m getting too excited over small sample sizes. I’ll concede either of those could be true. But some of the early returns this year are very interesting.

If you haven’t seen the piece I wrote about Hamilton for Cincinnati Magazine yesterday, go take a look at it.

The short version is this:

1. Billy Hamilton is already one of the greatest defensive center fielders on planet earth;
2. He’s also the best baserunner in the game;
3. He’s still very young, and won’t hit his peak for at least a couple more years; and
4. I think we’re seeing real improvement in Hamilton’s approach and production at the plate.

The reasons that I’m seeing such improvement, at least in the short term, are two-fold. First, Hamilton’s hitting the ball on the ground at a career-high rate, 48.6% of the time. If you look at his progression, Hamilton has improved his ground ball rate every single year of his career, and he’s made a pretty big jump this year.

Everyone has always known that Hamilton hitting the ball on the ground is the key. He can’t outrun a pop up. So this is a good development, right?

The other reason I was optimistic in that Cincinnati Magazine piece is that Billy is hitting his grounders much harder than he ever has. Here’s how I put it over there (and please click on that link and go read the piece, if only to make me happy…because my happiness is the most important thing to you, right?):

Billy is hitting his grounders much harder than he ever has before; 17.4% of Hamilton’s grounders are measured “hard-hit,” compared to last year’s 12.8%.

So he’s hitting more ground balls and hitting more of those ground balls hard. That’s manifesting itself in more balls getting through the infield, which means more chances for Hamilton to reach base. And when Hamilton reaches base, he’s an elite player. Sure, there are small sample size caveats that we should consider, since we’re only 200+ plate appearances into the 2016 season. But the early returns are very good.

I’m not kidding about the small sample size thing. Billy could completely regress and end up with a second straight poor season at the plate.

As I looked at Hamilton’s numbers even more deeply last night, however, I actually became even more optimistic that these are real gains. First of all, it’s not just that Hamilton is hitting more ground balls this year. He’s also hitting line drives at a career-high rate. The flip side of that is that Hamilton is hitting far fewer fly balls than he ever has: 29.3% compared to 37.8% last year and 37.3% in 2014. That’s a pretty significant difference, and if it holds up, it’s a big data point for the claim that Hamilton is improving as a hitter.

There’s something else that I gives me reason for optimism. My good friend — and constant companion on the Redleg Nation Radio podcast — Bill expressed a little skepticism about whether Hamilton will ever hit consistently. I can’t argue with that skepticism. Billy is a below-average hitter this year, and he was one of the worst in the league last year.

But I’m trying to wear rose-colored glasses, so I took a second look. Whereupon I found something interesting. Take a look at Hamilton’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) for his career, both minors and majors:

2016: .322 (MLB)
2015: .264 (MLB)
2014: .304 (MLB)
2013: .310 (AAA)
2012: .371 (AA)
2012. .404 (A+)
2011: .360 (A)
2010: .388 (Rookie)

One of those years is not like the others. I’m not here to tell you that this is the only reason Hamilton regressed in his second full season in the big leagues, but it seems interesting to me that Hamilton just happened to have a BABIP that was forty percentage points lower than anything he’s ever experienced. It’s not conclusive, certainly, but it makes me think that the gains we’re seeing from Hamilton this year might be real.

And here’s where I remind you that Billy is just 25, and should be expected to keep improving for at least the next couple of years. It’s not a complete stretch to see Hamilton being something close to a roughly league-average hitter by 2018, when he’s 27.

And if Billy Hamilton is a league-average hitter, Billy Hamilton is the best center fielder in the league.