Billy Hamilton stole second off Yadi Molina on the first pitch. 

Hamilton had entered the game in the 7th inning to pinch run for Ryan Ludwick. Todd Frazier drove in Hamilton for the game’s only score. Chris Heisey took Ludwick’s place in left field. Homer Bailey, for the second time in a week, shut out the Cardinals for 7+ innings. Aroldis Chapman struck out the heart of the St. Louis order, several times registering 103 mph on the radar gun.

With that bang-bang moment, Billy Hamilton burst into our consciousness, if not Dusty Baker’s everyday lineup. Hamilton’s major league debut that humid September Cincinnati night came a handful of days before his 23rd birthday.

During that memorable final month of the 2013 season, Baker used Hamilton as a pinch runner and defensive replacement for Shin-Soo Choo. The young centerfielder played in 13 games, attempting 14 stolen bases, succeeding in all but one. Hamilton hit .368 and walked twice in his 22 plate appearances. He was 7-for-14 in the three games he started. He was fast. 

None of us suspected it at the time. How could we? We were watching peak Billy Hamilton.

Amazing is a worn-out adjective. But not in Hamilton’s case. He did amaze us. He did astonish us. Every Reds fan has easy recall of a favorite feat of Billy Hamilton’s feet. Most of all, the wonder boy entertained us. Hamilton became an in-the-flesh Flash in our small universe of Reds superheroes.

Meanwhile, he slid into our ready hearts. 

Billy Hamilton was a phenom in the true sense of the word: a person of outstanding talent and great promise. In those early, heady days, Reds fans believed Hamilton was transcendent, a player who would revolutionize the sport of baseball. We spoke in delirious, otherworldly terms. We abandoned appropriate skepticism. 

In addition to producing marvel, the likable Billy Hamilton became a point of pride for us. Hamilton’s legs joined Chapman’s arm and Joey Votto’s batting eye as qualities we Reds fans could brag on. They made us feel we were still part of the major league highlight reel. 

Photo: David Jablonski/WHIO

Hamilton’s stolen bases meant more than just the Reds being 90 feet closer to scoring a run. They were a larger validation of our team. 

The Reds speedy centerfielder also offered sweet respite from the exhaustion and drudgery of losing. It’s the same reason we became addicted to watching opponents flail at Chapman’s triple-digit fastball. Hamilton’s historic base running and acrobatic catches triggered jolts of fan adrenaline. We needed the thrill to stomach seasons that otherwise dragged and dragged.

Billy Hamilton’s exploits transformed our sports world. It was just for an instant, but those moments were glorious. Our hearts raced. The victory music in our heads throbbed. We granted ourselves permission to feel confidence in the Reds. The distant and implausible notion of success became real and present for a split second.

Billy Hamilton was intoxicating. When we watched Billy, we looked to score more ways than one and sometimes both paid off. We ordered another round. 

Ah, but that stubborn aftertaste. We loved the euphoria, but the morning after we ached for it to stick around. We wanted Hamilton to run and hit and catch every night. We yearned for Billy Hamilton to be a superstar, not a shooting star.

It turned out he wasn’t.

Our thirsty imagination had outstripped the facts on the ground. Those flush sensations we felt watching Billy Hamilton were thrilling but the hopes were false. Hamilton’s speed was a powerful narcotic that blinded us to his broader flaws as a player.

Our collective frenzy was understandable, if unjustified. We desperately wanted our idealized Billy Hamilton to make sense in our heads as it did in our hearts.

But buzz and brain didn’t connect. As fast as Billy Hamilton runs, he couldn’t keep up with our breakneck expectations.

Photo (also headline photo): USA Today Sports Images

Billy Hamilton is now the better part of five seasons and 2400 plate appearances into his major league career. This September, he turns 28. His electrifying debut feels a lifetime ago in the Upside Down.

The gap between our ideal and reality is measured. If you dare look, you’ll find Billy Hamilton at the bottom of the list of major league players in important offensive indicators – hard-hit balls, exit velocity, run creation, expected hitting. Out of 169 major league players with at least 200 plate appearances, Hamilton has the lowest xwOBA at .240. Player #166 is at .270.

Over his career, Hamilton has slap-hit .243/.297/.329. His contribution to scoring runs (wRC+) has been 30 percent below league average. His Win Probability Added (WPA) has been negative every year except 2013. We’re not talking about a single bad month by a 24-year-old rookie.

The odds are against Hamilton getting better. Aging curves slope downward for a reason. In fact, Hamilton’s performance this year has been well below his career average. He’s not stealing bases. Since May 1, Hamilton has swiped just five to go with three times caught stealing. He’s seemed mortal in centerfield. When Hamilton bats in key situations, it feels surprising when he hits the ball in play.

Can we say Billy Hamilton’s game has improved since 2013? Does he hit more line drives and fewer fly balls? Does he bunt better? Does he swing less often at bad pitches? Nope. Every spring we’ve been handed breathless reporting of a new mentor and point of emphasis for Hamilton — all ineffective. 

Was Billy transcendent? Eric Davis stole 80 bases in 1986 while hitting 27 home runs. Rickey Henderson stole 100+ bases three times and at age 39 swiped 66. Henderson also maintained a .401 on-base percentage over 24 seasons. Hamilton has earned 7.7 bWAR. Henderson earned 111 bWAR.

Our outsized hopes have been unfair to Billy Hamilton. But no more so than his treatment by the same front office that signed cautionary tale Willy Taveras to a 2-year contract. They installed a raw player as the Reds centerfielder and leadoff hitter in 2014 with no competition and wouldn’t take a serious second look. They didn’t hesitate giving Hamilton 1700 plate appearances at the top of the order. 

Reds officials still enable our misplaced faith. Through indifferent force of habit, the team’s broadcasters express ongoing wonderment over every non-routine play Hamilton makes in the outfield. The latest manager still mumbles about “havoc” Hamilton creates on the base paths. They point to the faintest signs that Hamilton is getting it together, as if evidence of progress must be believed to be seen.

Photo: David Kohl

It’s time to move beyond Billy the phenom. 

We’ve spent nearly five years patiently lowering the standard of acceptability for Billy Hamilton. If he could just be league average on offense … forget power, if he could only get on base … no, if he could simply manage a league-average on-base percentage … hold on, if he could raise his OPB to a mere .300 … just wait and see what happens when he gives up switch-hitting … why, he’d be the league MVP, you know. 

We’ve laid a big stack of hope on Billy Hamilton. We’ve mistakenly declared permanent improvement based on a few good months, a couple solid weeks, back-to-back nice days or, lately, decent at bats. Hamilton’s career has turned more corners than a beat cop.

It’s time to give centerfield to Scott Schebler for the rest of the season and evaluate how his overall game plays there. Shin-Soo Choo proved Olympic sprinter speed isn’t a necessary quality for a Reds centerfielder to provide value. Choo nearly earned more WAR in his one season with the Reds than Hamilton has in a career.

It’s time to play Jesse Winker every night. For the third outfield spot, a case can be made for Scooter Gennett, Adam Duvall, Nick Senzel or Jose Peraza. Any of those make more sense than playing Hamilton every night. 

Given the flat free agent market, the Reds were unlikely to get enough in return for Hamilton in a trade last winter to satisfy the owner. But the front office should be able to trade Hamilton in the next few weeks if they don’t ask for much. No contending team will give Hamilton’s bat a full-time gig. But Billy could help a deep veteran squad, like the 2013 Reds, by reprising his first major league role. 

If the Reds can’t find a trade partner, they should understand what that means and release Hamilton at the end of the season. He’s due a third year of arbitration and already makes $4.6 million. If Schebler can’t hack it in center, the Reds can build the bridge to Taylor Trammell or a major trade acquisition by signing a cheap free agent for 2019.

It’s time to move on from Billy Hamilton. It won’t be a sudden good-bye, nor should it be. In a sense, the Reds have already buried him. You can’t get lower than batting after the pitcher. But Hamilton will continue to take the field in a Cincinnati uniform for a while. He’ll still make wonderful plays, get big hits, maybe even string together a couple good games.

And like that bag he pilfered five years ago off the Cardinals’ villainous catcher, Billy Hamilton will steal our hearts again, for another phenomenal moment.

Photo: Charles LeClaire/USA Today

36 Responses

  1. ericsammons

    I can’t believe how sad reading this article made me. I agree with every word, but the joy Billy has given me and my son watching him makes it hard to part with him.

    • Jazzmanbbfan

      Saw him in Arizona this spring and he was terrific with the kids. I’m also sad that he most likely will never be able to hit enough to be an effective everyday player.

  2. Matthew Habel

    Well said, Steve. Just don’t let Chad read this

  3. Sabr Chris

    Always wondered how he would have developed with a full year at AAA in 2014.

  4. Spaceman Red

    Much respect to the author of this piece and I agree with the main premise: it is time to cut bait with Billy Hamilton and find alternative solutions. It is beyond clear, and has been for several years, that this player cannot hit major league pitching. At all, really. It is not going to change. Stolen bases and good outfield defense cannot compensate for that.

    The one part with which I would quibble is the part about the breathless arrival. I have not run the numbers but I strongly suspect that players fresh up from the minors have initial success at the plate because pitchers have not yet figured out how to pitch them. It is common in my experience to see a guy come from the minors, do well, and then crash back down to earth once pitchers find their weaknesses. I remember when Hamilton arrived and it was pretty widely known even then that he was a potential liability with the bat. I do not recall that being a hidden or surprising revelation from engaged fans of the team. I seem to recall even authors on this site saying it would take time to find out who Hamilton was. His minor league numbers did not project him as a good hitter, though.

    I also strongly agree with the comments here about getting away from stereotypes. The centerfielder does not need to be an Olympic sprinter. The leadoff guy does not need to create havoc. The closer does not need to throw three digit fastballs. All these are items that it seems large segments of the Reds fan base and ownership have fallen in love with over the past several years and they are complete red herrings. This franchise has to find value where others miss it and subscribing to outdated typologies is the exact wrong way to do that.

    Also, bad on the front office for doing nothing for so long. Did we not try to move Brandon Phillips for Brett Gardner a few years ago to address this problem? That fell through but it would appear the front office simply ceased trying in the belief that Billy would come around. Any chance we could deal Iglesias for a viable centerfielder? If only.

  5. Sliotar

    Nice piece, though I think many of us at RLN sense anything involving Hamilton is an emotional issue involving the primary owner, rather than any logical baseball business decision.

    I would go further regarding Schebler, and just as with Winker, suggest that he has to play every day, whether RF or CF, just to confirm what production level he can be at.

    Because he got a starting gig late in his career, Schebler is the rarest of gems in 2018 MLB…a player who see all of his peak years under team control. He won’t be a FA agent until 2023, his age 33 season.

    Schebler has provided $8.8M of value already (1.1 WAR) and is making $580K this season.

    That is the kind of outperformance to market value the Reds have to keep finding and developing, to get enough of a core to compete.

    • VottoMatic125

      BOOM! This comment hit the nail on the head.

  6. big5ed

    Billy is useful in the right circumstances. Needs a team with a big outfield and enough lineup stability to be able to find spots to use his speed offensively in the late innings. The Astros would work for him, and maybe San Francisco and Colorado.

    He has great baseball instincts, both on the bases and the field. He gets good secondary leads; he reads pitcher’s pickoffs well; he gets great jumps on balls on defense; and he throws to the right base. He just can’t hit, and the giveaway is that he can’t bunt. (He got in a run-down last night, but the low-line drive at the pitcher’s ankle kind of put him in no-man’s land.)

    Hey, Ozzie Smith was worse offensively than Billy, before turning the corner at age 27. And Billy is 27 . . .

    • Sliotar

      I have seen this narrative “hey, Team X could surely use him” thrown around several times. Travis Sawchik is probably the worst of anyone at pushing it.

      Billy Hamilton is awful offensively. His season high for wRC+ is 79, done in 2014 and 2016.
      That’s more than 20% worse than league average.

      His wRC+ this season is 56. “Havoc” indeed.

      Here are the team wRC+ of some of the contenders “who could use him”:

      Rockies 80 (30th)
      Phillies 88 (25th)
      Nationals 91 (21st)
      Giants tried to trade for him, Reds wanted too much, SF made other OF moves

      These teams need more offense, not a reduction by playing Hamilton often.

      Short of the vague PTBNL or cash considerations, I think the Reds will have a tough time moving Hamilton…if Castellini even allows it.

      • David

        Absolutely true. Billy will likely still be a Red at the end of 2018 because no one will take him for anything. The question is then do they pay him arb money, or cut him loose.

  7. David

    I actually take about a 180 degree opposite view of this. The failure to become the player we hoped he would be rests on Billy Hamilton. None of the coaches were at bat for Billy.
    1) Billy has NEVER learned how to bunt properly. And they have tried to teach him
    2) Billy has never developed any more upper body strength. This would have helped him with bat speed, which is crucial to being a good ML hitter.
    3) Billy has continued to hit a lot of fly balls. He should be trying to hit ground balls and keep the ball in play. That’s what they told Ken Griffey (senior) when he came up and was blazingly fast.

    So what if he came up a little too early? A lot of guys spend too much time in the Minors. That should not and did not prevent him from developing to become a better ball player. Davey Concepcion came up at 21 to play very good SS for an NL Pennant winner, batting 0.260. The next two years were a nightmare of bad hitting, worse than Billy. Davey finally did what the coaches and Sparky were telling him to do, switch to a lighter bat. 1973 was a very good year for Davey, before he broke his ankle. The years after also saw him hit well.
    Players sometimes just DO NOT pay attention to coaches. You would think they would, but history says otherwise.

    I don’t hate or love Billy. He could have become more, but he chose NOT to do and learn the things he should have. You could say that about a LOT of Major League ball players.

    • Spaceman Red

      This feels closer to the truth for me. The tiring thing, as the article points out, are all the claims about how some magic elixir will suddenly help Billy turn the corner. That is just so rarely what happens. We know who Billy is. The numbers are there.

    • Tim

      This analysis of Hamilton’s career is spot on …

    • Joshua

      I have to disagree with you. Billy has tried very hard the issue has been coaching and here is why. The coaching staff has allowed everyone to teach Billy instead of just one…the hitting coach. That being said we should have learbed our lesson with Drew Stubbs blazing speed and no hitting. All that being said at no point did Billy ever show he could hit upper echelon pitching,and anyone who says they never seen this coming was only fooling themselves.

  8. Bill

    Steve, good article and I agree. I remember when I was in high school we won a game 25 – 0 and our 2nd baseman didn’t have a hit. Coach told him on the way back he wished we played 10 men so he could bat join 10th. I feel that way about BH.

  9. Matt Esberger

    It’s almost as if CF has been a curse since the millennium (Curse of Mike Cameron) starting with the constant injuries of Ken Griffey Jr, Taveras not working out, Stubbs & Hamilton regressing badly after promising starts at the plate, and also having Josh Hamilton fall on our lap and then trading him for a pitcher who needed Tommy John surgery a year later. I would have been content if Hamilton could have turned into Dexter Fowler with more steals but minus the power but just not in the cards. I can’t see the Reds getting any more than a C/D Level prospect at most and most likely Reds tenure will end as a DFA situation. Detroit would be intriguing because of huge CF, can bat him 9th, and in early rebuild situation ( no pressure/ vet presence).

  10. Still a Red

    Hmmm, reading Barnhart’s and Votto’s comments on Billy’s performance last nite suggests that it is not just BC who’d like Billy to be a Red forever. Not sure how I come down on whether Billy might have benefitted from a longer stay in AAA. Makes sense that it might have. Also, hard to say that Billy’s problem is he isn’t doing what he’s being told to do (implying an attitude issue). More likely that he can’t do what he’s been told to do and perhaps as a result he’s being told by too many people to do too many things and now he’s all screwed up.Gist of the article though seems accurate, the Reds went all in before doing due diligence.

    • Sweendog

      Sounds like maybe Joey and Tucker need to ask Billy to hang out with them in the weight room and with Joey being such s student of hitting, maybe its time to be a teacher.

      I have said on other posts to try Scooter in CF, but maybe now its time to pull the trigger and put Nick there. He can always switch to 2B later if need be. Remember Eric Davis was a SS. How times did Pete move, 4? By the way, he was a serviceable lead off hitter and did not have blazing speed. Just an incredible work ethic. That is the rub with many of today’s players. Again, Billy not changing hitting style and should hit from one side. He is exciting, but it’s getting to be fewer occasinos. Its like waiting to ride The Beast waiting in line for 2 hours and you do get a thrill, but it is short lived and you have another long line for the next ride.

      With Herrera, maybe he is a solution. The injury he had may have been a reason for prior poor performance.

  11. Davy13

    The only thing better than this written blog post is Tom Rinaldi reading it out loud. Read good job, Steve!

  12. Rob Cheshire

    Bravo Steve! The quality of the writing on RLN just gets better and better….

  13. nicolecushing

    I was thinking about Billy’s popularity with children and have come to this conclusion: kids can identify with Billy because they know the thrill of running fast. They can’t identify as well with the game’s great hitters, because their hand/eye coordination stinks. They can’t identify with pitchers because they can’t easily acquire that skill either. But every kid knows what it’s like to run fast and can thrill to Billy’s exploits in that department. They can easily imagine themselves as Little Billys.

    Obviously, that’s not a good reason to keep him around. I agree he needs to go. But the speed was thrilling to watch, and I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the guy.

    It just goes to show you the limitations of having one great skill. Give a track star a bat and he’s just a poorly-hitting track star. Baseball requires a whole collection of skills.

  14. George

     SLIOTAR
    06/13/2018 AT 1:52 PM
    “if Castellini even allows it”.

    The above post by Sliotar is the bottom line. No matter what logic says, no matter what the analytics say, not even common sense makes a difference. “Billy” is Bob’s shiny toy and he won’t let go of it.

    • big5ed

      I’ve always thought that people have way over-read the Castillini comment. He said “I hope Billy is with us forever.” I interpret that to mean, “I hope he can be productive, so we can be a Red his whole career.” It is a stretch for it to be interpreted as “By God, I like that guy, it’s my team, and there is no way we’ll ever not play him.”

      People don’t earn Castellini’s kind of wealth without a clear-eyed understanding of business.

  15. George

    ” nepetistic” WOW!!!! great adjective. 🙂

  16. CP

    Are you suggesting that the Yanks would actually trade for Brandon Finnegan or Robert Stephenson to be the 5th starter? Is that something that the Yankees would ever do?

  17. Jack

    Can’t agree more on Frazier. The Yankees are looking to win it all this year. The Reds are not for quite awhile. Sweeten the deal for them.

  18. ShermanTPotter

    Steve – Excellent article, over the past few games I find myself hoping this is the moment Billy turns the corner. Unfortunately the moments of awe are fewer and fewer and the moments of aargh come more often. I wish Billy the best but the Reds have got to move on to a new everyday center-fielder.

  19. kmartin

    Great article. Here is an odd thing. This year Hamilton’s BB% is 11.5% versus his career of 7.1% and his K% is 30.8% versus a career of 20.4%. So both his BB% and K% are up simultaneously which strikes me as odd.

    • Steve Mancuso

      Was thinking of addressing this in the post but left it out. Billy’s contact rate on swings is WAY down. That’s putting him later in counts so his walk and strikeout rate are way up. His swinging-strike rate, which use to be relatively low has spiked.

  20. Greg Eades

    A contender that will use Billy as a designated stolen base stealer, and a late inning defensive replacement will appreciate his God given abilities. And their fans will enjoy it, without the daily expectations that Reds fans have.

  21. Still a Red

    The kid is 28…maybe he needs glasses. Also, I thought, well Ichiro Suzuki can’t weigh very much, so why does Billy have to put on 20 pounds. Well, it turns out Ichiro at 5″11 weighs 175 and Billy at 6’0 weighs 160…so, yeah, maybe he did need to put on some weight (of course it would probably slow him down some)

  22. Joel

    Call me cold hearted, but I think this article is about 3.5 years too late. Exciting as a handful of plays per month are, he’s not a good mlb player, and it seemed obvious shortly after the “magic” of his 2013 debut. This is simply not a sport, like football or hockey, where speed can overcome major flaws in hitting. And as all the great mlb base stealers say, speed is not necessarily the most important factor in stealing bases, but timing is. Even in Hamilton’s most potent offensive weapon, his best physical ability isn’t essential to good baseball.

  23. Matt Esberger

    Sorry just can’t see Brian Cashman giving up one of his top prospects (the gem in the Andrew Miller trade) for 2 pitchers (Stephenson & Finnegan) that can’t crack the worst pitching staff in the majors. Cashman is too shrewd of a GM to do so. Just think of the return we got for Chapman. Yes Frazier is blocked which had to do with concussion issues earlier this year and Yankee brass liking Hicks as CF. If he is moved, it most likely will be for top line pitcher (deGrom, Snydergaard).

  24. Michael J Hampton

    Just some things to ponder on about valuing (or devaluing Billy). The majority on here won’t like this because it uses the old stat “RUNS CREATED”, which is basically (Runs Scored + RBI – HR). The number of HR is subtracted so that a run doesn’t get counted twice.

    As everyone is well aware, the problem for Billy is not scoring runs, but getting on base. For his career he scores around 46% of the time when he gets on base. Winker in a much smaller sample size scores about 33% of the time that he reaches base. This year, so far, Billy is scoring exactly 50% of the time, up slightly from his career average while Winker is scoring around 28% of the time, down slightly from his career average over the short sample size.

    I think it is interesting to compare Billy and Winker this season, they have almost the same number of plate appearances and Winker has batted primarily leadoff while Billy has batted primarily in the 9th position (kind of a pseudo lead off).

    I think it is interesting to look at the chart below and compare runs scored per plate appearance and runs created per plate appearance between the two (I included Votto, well, because he is Votto). My numbers could be slightly off because I did not include SF and SH in the PA totals, but the numbers should be close.

    Even though Billy’s OBP is about 80 points less than Winker’s, he still out scores Winker per PA 0.142 to 0.100. If you project that over 500 PA (I chose 500 because I have a simple mind and nice round numbers are easy to work with), that comes out to approximately 71 runs for Billy and 50 for Winker, a not insignificant difference of 21 runs.

    If you compare my old favorite, Runs Created per PA, Billy, even with his gosh awful batting average of less than .200 and slugging of .282, still comes out slightly ahead at 0.192 per PA to Winker’s 0.174. Projected over 500 PA, Billy creates 96 runs to Winker’s 87, a difference of 9 runs.
    Now, I realize there is more positives to be gained from getting on base than just runs created by the batter. Getting on base can move up the runner(s) without giving up an out, it can keep the inning alive (keep the line moving) and give the next batter the opportunity to drive in the run(s), etc. But I also think one might want to consider factoring in Billy’s defense, it may well trump those benefits, but of course that is hard to quantify.

    I’m not trying to belittle Winker, just wondering if Billy’s value to the team is being undervalued a little bit. Just some things to ponder on.

    PA AB H BB HBP R RBI HR RC R/PA RC/PA
    Hamilton 239 213 42 26 0 34 14 2 46 0.142259414 0.192468619

    Winker 229 196 50 31 2 23 19 2 40 0.100436681 0.174672489

    Votto 307 252 76 50 5 34 32 2 64 0.110749186 0.208469055