“If he could just get on base more often, just think of the damage he could do.”

Since Billy Hamilton’s first full season in 2014, that’s a statement Reds fans have heard over and over. His speed is sensational, and his defense is dazzling – but his bat has always lagged behind.

Coming into the 2017 season, many were cautiously optimistic about Hamilton, however, as the Reds’ center fielder showed noticeable improvement as last year wore on.

Hamilton slashed an ugly .236/.283/.350 heading into the all-star break. With an abysmal 5.6% walk rate leading to such a low on-base percentage, he was only able to steal 22 bases. But he turned things around in the second half, batting .293/.369/.333 and wreaking havoc on the basepaths with 36 steals. Along with his increased walk rate (10.7 percent), the most encouraging sign was an increase in hard contact rate from 18.1 percent to 20.4 percent.

Although he ended the season on the disabled list, his campaign ended on a high note. The question was whether he could carry over that improvement into 2017 and beyond.

Through the Reds’ first 10 games of this season, Billy hit the ball well (.300 batting average) in 42 plate appearances but wasn’t exactly building on the improved plate discipline he showed last season (one walk). Through the next 13 games, he had only eight hits in 61 plate appearances, though he did walk six times. At the end of April, he was hitting only .213/.265/.245 with a wRC+ of 35, leaving many thinking his second-half performance in 2016 was nothing but a fluke.

But once the calendar flipped to May, he turned it around in a hurry. On the first of the month, he went 2-for-5 and swiped three bases. He hasn’t looked back since. Hamilton is hitting .302/.356/.438 with 13 steals and a 108 wRC+ for the month, raising his overall slash line to .258/.311/.342. He’s still not walking that much (7.6 BB% in May, 7.2 BB% for the season), but there are reasons to be encouraged by his performance of late.

What is Hamilton doing differently this month? He’s simply squaring the ball up better and hitting it harder. As he told Mark Schmetzer of the Dayton Daily News:

“It’s just me learning the game and getting better,” said Hamilton, who’s already in his fourth full season with the Reds and has sensed that he is, in fact, hitting the ball harder. “I’m staying square and staying through the ball.”

Here are Hamilton’s quality of contact stats broken down by month:

As you can see, Hamilton is, indeed, hitting the ball with more authority. With five games still to go in the month, he already has more balls hit over 90, 95, and 100 mph than he did in all of April.

How he’s hitting the ball is also making a difference. Although launch angle is a rising trend in baseball, a high one isn’t great for a hitter who has little power. Thus, fly balls are something Hamilton needs to avoid, while ground balls and line drives are typically good for him.

For reference, here is the breakdown for launch angle results (obviously, these figures are indicative of a single batted ball, but they’re good to see as a guideline):

  • Ground ball: Less than 10 degrees
  • Line drive: 10-25 degrees
  • Fly ball: 25-50 degrees
  • Pop up: Greater than 50 degrees

In April, Hamilton’s average launch angle was 12.4 degrees. That isn’t all that high (the league leaders hover in the 18- to 22-degree range), but it still wasn’t good for him since he was making weak contact. Hamilton has dropped his average launch angle to 8.5 degrees in May, which has equated to better success. He’s hitting more line drives (31.5 LD% in May compared to 26.0% in April) and ground balls (41.1 GB% in April, 43.8% this month), while decreasing his fly-ball rate from 32.9% to 24.7%. Further evidence of Hamilton making better contact is a reduction in infield pop-ups — which are almost always easy outs — from 16.7% to 5.6%.

Looking at Hamilton’s season overall, he possesses both a LD% and FB% of 28.8%, marking huge improvements from his career rates (22.0 LD%, 34.4 FB%). He’s clearly made some adjustments to his swing to do that, and this should bode well for the future if he continues on this trajectory.

(Perhaps that time spent with Joey Votto is starting to pay off?)

You can’t read too much into month-by-month statistics or make any definitive conclusions, but Hamilton has undoubtedly worked his way out of his early-season funk. While his plate discipline is still a work in progress, he’s making more solid contact and hitting line drives rather than weak grounders and pop-ups, which is encouraging. The question is: can he continue this throughout the whole season?

Whether he does or doesn’t, he’ll still be the most exciting player in the game when he does get on base.

24 Responses

  1. Alex

    Billy is an enigma for sure, I havent really ever seen anything like him. I’m curious. Let’s say Billy had a full season OBP of .350, stole 80 bases, scored 110 runs or something and was the best defensive CF in the game. Could he be MVP candidate? Not saying it will happen just really curious what you all think. Has an MVP ever hit less then 10 home runs who wasn’t a pitcher? He clearly adds a ton of value and effects the game as that video showed in a really unique way. I wonder if it can be quantified.

    • CTRedsFan

      Billy is a near clone of Gary Pettis, who played in the 80’s and early 90’s. He won 5 Gold Gloves in CF, had great speed, but struggled to get on base. Yet his speed and defense allowed him to carve out a nice 11 year career mostly with the Angels and Tigers. One difference in the AL Pettis batted 9th much of the time rather than leading off like Billy. Pettis was an asset to those teams as Billy is to the Reds.

    • eric3287

      I think a .350 OBP Billy is an All-Star, probably starter, but I don’t think he’s close to MVP conversation unless he has some kind of power surge. Assuming an 8% walk rate, a .350 OBP over 610 PAs (more than he has had in any one year) looks like .300/.350/.408, roughly .340 wOBA. Unless he were to couple that with 120-130 SB at a 95% success rate and have his best defensive season ever, I don’t think he has enough to pop to ever be have an MVP season. Obviously that’s not an indictment on him. A ceiling of top 30 player in the league is a good ceiling still.

  2. james garrett

    Billy is sooooo fast its hard not to imagine him being in center field for a long time to come.However this is his 4th year I believe so is he turning the corner or not.It remains to be seen but if he could get his OBP up around 330 then that does it for me because right now his true vale is based for the most part on his defense and speed.Of course you can’t steal first.

  3. gaffer

    Is this the semi-monthly write up based on a small data set that AGAIN says that BHam is actually an asset to this team. Wait a week and we will have the semi-monthly report on that he is not again.

    • Big56dog

      I do not recall an article ever saying he was not an asset to the team. I think it is widely accepted his speed and defense make him more valuable, even when his OBP was near .250 or whatever. Billy Hamilton is a fascinating baseball player and if he can get on base above average, it is interesting, not sure I get your point other than to complain about fabricated issues.

  4. gaffer

    That tweet is wrong, Billy is not in scoring position when he is walking back to the dugout after striking out or weekly popping up (which is a fair bit of the time).

    • Michael

      Not to be picky but the best hitter imo in reds history Joey Votto walks back to the dugout the majority of the time.

      • Keith

        Joey Votto’s OBP in May is .510. So he’s not walking back to the dugout the majority of the time over the last month.

        I point this out not to nitpick, but rather because I’m amazed at how good Joey Votto is. I love watching his at-bats.

    • Gaffer

      I have no problem with Hamilton on this team, but batting 8th would be better. I think the problem is that he is not really getting better but we are soooo eager for it we make small stats mean more than they do.

  5. Scott Carter

    Another good thing I noted is that even though his walk rate is still low, he is seeing more pitches per at bat. I believe that the last game in Cleveland his first two at bats went over 6 pitches and went to 3 and 2 counts.

    • Matt Wilkes

      You are 100% right. He’s being more selective this year than he ever has.

      Pitches Per Plate Appearance
      2017: 4.2
      2016: 3.8
      2015: 3.7
      2014: 3.8

  6. cfd3000

    One more reason for optimism, and a big reason why I think the recent changes may be lasting. Somewhere around the first of May Billy changed his batting stance from relatively open and stepping toward the plate, to relatively square and stepping toward the mound. This appears to be a more stable, repeatable setup for better contact, and I suspect for seeing the ball better. It also means there’s more than just statistical variation happening here. His walk rate hasn’t changed much in May, but the eye test tells me he’s seeing more pitches, and swinging and missing less often as well. And for those of you crying for a .330 OBP note that he is 25 points above that rate for May, meaning he could get worse and you would still be happy. Except for some you’ll only be happy when Billy hits 40 home runs and steals 100 bases too. He has been a force in May. I expect him to be productive as long as he’s healthy. He can play centerfield on my Reds team any time.

  7. james garrett

    Yes a 330 OBP gets him a job in center field for me but last year of 321 was his high and he hasn’t even averaged 300 over his career so we will see.He has world class speed and plays gold glove defense and several teams would love to have him in center field but this is year 4 so again has he turned the corner or not.I really hope so.

  8. eric3287

    Intuitively, you’d think someone with Billy’s speed would be a better bunter. But he is SO fast, I doubt it’s anything he really needed to do. He could probably beat out ground balls to the left side of the infield pretty regularly until, what, HS varsity team? And even then I bet he beat out anything that required more than two steps from a fielder.

  9. Streamer88

    The arguments about BHams value are the manager and front offices fault. If he was batting 8th or 9th 140 games a year for the last 3 years we’d still be hoping googley eyed that he’d learn how to be a batter, but we would be less concerned about it.

    Our arguments are Bryan Prices fault!!!

  10. james garrett

    He is not feared as a gap or a power hitter so he must be more selective in order to get on base more but I see times where he is actually doing it so lets hope it continues.I like him in the 9 spot in the order.

  11. CaliforniaRed

    While they’re at it, they can teach all the pitchers and the rest of the team how to bunt. I’ve never seen such poor execution as i have this season from our Reds. Furthermore, Bryan Price still doesn’t seem to know when to bunt and when not to bunt. Maybe they should never bunt since no one knows how. That is all.

  12. Dewey Roberts

    Billy does at least two things as well as any player in Reds history- defense in center field and base running. He is Eric Davis without the hitting part. A player like him has or should have a place on any Reds team.

  13. Dewey Roberts

    I posted nearly the same thing before I saw your post. I totally agree with you. I also compared him to Eric Davis on defense and base running.

  14. big5ed

    You are correct. He saw 3.69 pitches/PA in 2015; 3.85 P/PA in 2016; and 4.175 P/PA this year, including 4.266 P/PA in May this year.

    A player should never stray too far from Ted Williams’s #1 rule: Get a good pitch to hit.

  15. cfd3000

    There’s an interesting point Pinson. If Billy continues to improve and eventually has an OBP above league average, or even well above league average (remember .400 in AAA) how critical is it that it happens in a Reds uniform? I’d extend him soon, and lock down his first two free agency years. Eventually the speed will fade and perhaps his all out defensive style will catch up to him, but it would be a shame to nurture him up the learning curve then see him really succeed with another team. A gamble of course, but one I’d probably take.