When Billy Hamilton first arrived in Cincinnati back in late 2013 he was a game changer. The Reds called up the 22-year-old speedster and used him off of the bench in September as they fought to make the playoffs.
The presence of Billy Hamilton’s speed was felt immediately. In a pitchers duel between Michael Wacha and Homer Bailey, the game was scoreless in the bottom of the 7th inning. The two teams were separated in the standings by 2.5 games in the standings. Ryan Ludwick led off the inning with a single and on came Billy Hamilton to pinch run. The entire world knew that he would be trying to take second base. And sure enough, that’s exactly what he did. Hamilton scored on the next play. It was the only run of the game.
The rest of the month was more of the same from the Cincinnati Reds and Billy Hamilton. He played in 13 total games, and only had three starts in the month. He would steal 13 bases and score 9 runs. In six games he entered as a pinch runner and in all six games he stole a base. That was his role. Come into a close game when someone else got on, steal a base, and hope someone could come through with a hit of any kind because he was going to score if that happened.
Despite just 22 total plate appearances in 2013, Billy Hamilton posted a 0.6 WAR (Fangraphs). The reason was rather simple: He had a baserunning value of 3.2 runs. That ranked 54th best in baseball. Out of the 717 players who had at least 10 plate appearances. His baserunning was THAT impactful.
But following the 2013 season Shin-Soo Choo left in free agency and Billy Hamilton took over the role in center field as the every day option. What he did in that role was provide some of the best defense in baseball. And he continued to be outstanding on the base paths. But he also was among the absolute worst hitters in baseball. Much of the value his glove and speed on the bases brought was negated by the fact that he was so poor with the bat. His 6-year stretch with the Reds led to a .245/.298/.333 line – good for a 70 OPS+ (100 is league average).
After the 2018 season the Reds chose to non-tender Hamilton, allowing him to become a free agent. The Royals picked him up on a big league deal and brought him on as their starting center fielder. He proceeded to have the worst offensive year of his career, hitting just .211/.275/.269. Kansas City placed him on waivers and on Monday he was claimed by the Braves.
Atlanta is currently 74-52 and 5.5 games up on the Nationals and 9 games up on “being out of the playoffs”. While it’s not impossible that they would miss out on making the playoffs, Fangraphs has their chances of making the playoffs at 99.6%. The risk of missing out is very small. So they decided to take a chance on Billy Hamilton as the 25th player on their bench.
Their plan is simple, and it’s one that has been talked about for years when it comes to Billy Hamilton: They are only going to use him as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. They have no plans to give him at-bats. This plan is to utilize his strengths and to minimize his weakness.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. We got a glimpse of it seven years ago in Cincinnati. Now the Braves are going to give it a shot.