Aug 10

Billy Hamilton: Cincinnati Kid Flash

Billy Hamilton exists in a world where his speed is both his best and worst asset. He can, when so inclined, steal a base whenever he’d like. He is that fast. Blink and he’s standing on second, wondering when Todd Frazier will drive him in. Hamilton, who moves in hazy lines of white and red, would be the most feared base runner in the game today if only he allowed himself to stay on base long enough for it to happen.

On Friday night, Hamilton was picked off by a pitcher for the seventh time1 this season when he was caught by the righty Nathan Eovaldi.  Hamilton broke on first move.

Here’s the gaffe in all its unique glory.

HamiltonCSEovaldi

Marlins vs Reds, August 08, 2014

After a great at-bat where he took some close pitches for balls, Hamilton for some reason felt the need to guess because the presence of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and his underwhelming caught stealing percentage of 19.7%, mandated such. Only Miguel Montero and Jonathan Lucroy have allowed more stolen bases in the NL this season than Saltalamacchia (in 24 and 21 more games, respectively), yet Hamilton figured he needed that precious extra half-step. Oh, let’s not forget that Eovaldi had just thrown over to first two times prior, so Hamilton probably should have gotten a fairly decent read on his move.

Yeah, and one more thing . . . Eovaldi is right-handed. Did I mention that?

The big concern with Hamilton coming into the season was if he was going to hit enough to be worth the extra value his speed provides. For the most part, those fears were justified as he’s hitting a rather blah .269/.298/.396 with an OPS+ of 93 and a wRC+ of 90. His OBP of .298 ranks next to last in NL ahead of the case of buyer’s remorse otherwise known as B.J. Upton and the 46+ million owed through 2017. Has Hamilton hit well enough to stay in the Majors? Other than the month of June where he hit a robust .327/.348/.500, not really. He rarely takes a walk and strikes out quite a bit (BB% of 4.0 and K% of 20.1), but he has scored 58 runs, good enough to be tied 22nd in the NL. At the moment, his value is derived almost entirely from his stellar defense (his UZR of 14.5 fourth in all of baseball), but he’s a 23 year-old kid learning the game, so whatever. Maybe he figures it all out.

Right now, however, instead of the game slowing down, Hamilton is trying to outrace the game at every moment, and the Cincinnati Reds are suffering for it. In many ways, he reminds me of another young speedster with a lightening quick first step and a penchant for leading with reckless abandon: Kid Flash.

KidFlash_Short

Thanks to my comic book guru Chuck Dill for providing the reference. Or, perhaps you’re the type who likes video:

Whatever your flavor, the lesson is still the same. Abilities without the knowledge of how to use them often lead to slip ups.

Sometimes the learning process is slow. Sometimes the learning process takes repeated failings, each one more embarrassing than the last, before knowledge is finally acquired. Take for instance this game against San Francisco on June 28 when Hamilton was picked off second base by starter Matt Cain.

Hamilton_0628Reds vs Giants, June 28, 2014

So, I ask, what was the point of stealing third? To start off the inning Hamilton singled and then stole second easily a few pitches later. He has speed to spare. Why would he feel the need to swipe third here, with two outs no less, when a Brandon Phillips base hit would score Hamilton easily? Madison Bumgarner had picked Hamilton off first the game before in the first inning, so he had to be, you know, aware of the possibility that the Giants may try to keep him close to the bag. Pitchers try at this level.

There is no point. It’s a wasted opportunity.

These lessons take time, remember? Check out this video from a game two weeks later against the Pirates Jeff Locke.

Hamilton_0711

Pirates vs Reds, July 11, 2014

That wasn’t even a good move by Locke. He wasn’t even trying. It was simply a soft toss to keep Hamilton honest.

Good Base Runner, Horrible Thief

If you look at Fangraph’s BsR statistic, which is a means of determining the value a player adds with his baserunning, Hamilton is actually good on the bases. He currently ranks 10th in MLB, and BsR accounts for stolen bases and caught stealing. His value, though, comes almost entirely from his ability to remain on the bases, for while Hamilton is fast and can steal bases he’s actually a negative to his team in terms of run value.

In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, run values were calculated for a specific event based upon the various states (think situations within in an inning such as man on second with one out, runners on first and third with no outs, etc.). For the purposes of our discussion, a stolen base averages out to be worth 0.175 runs while a caught stealing is worth -0.467 runs.

For the season, Hamilton has 43 stolen bases and has been caught 18 times. In total, then, his value added via stealing bases is -0.881 runs. For all the good he does on the base paths, he actually hurts his team trying to swipe bases. Is he the worst in this department? Not even remotely close, but he is second worse (behind only Elvis Andrus) for anyone who’s tried to steal over 30 bases, and he’s by far and away the worst for anyone who’s attempted over 40 stolen bases.

Moreover, in The Book, the authors state that the break-even point for success rate in stealing bases is 67.8%. This means that based upon the changes in win probability for stealing a base or making an out, a runner needs to have a success rate north of 67.8% to have any positive influence on his team’s chances for winning. Hamilton comes in at 70.1%, which is just good enough to hover above even.

A Little History Lesson

Prior to 2014, in the history of baseball, there have been 865 seasons where a player stole 40 or more bases, and of the 415 seasons where there is data for caught stealing, Hamilton is tied for 44th with Lonnie Smith in terms of stolen base percentage. Remove the dead-ball era players and Hamilton is sitting 36th. Why remove the dead-ball era players? This is the 1910s according to Bill James in the Historical Baseball Abstract:

Baseball for the rest of the decade was a resumption of the dead-ball game of the years 1902-1910. Batting averages were low (around .250), home runs were rare (the normal league-leading figure was about twelve), and much of the basis of an offense was baserunning and strategy. Control pitchers again dominated the decade.

Again, it’s about context. When everyone is running, then you strategize to stop the run. Another note of interest is that Hamilton is behind only Juan Pierre’s inept baserunning of 2004 for lowest in the aughts. Is that meaningful? Not unless you’re doing a study of how the game has changed over the years. I just found it interesting for some reason. The four worst seasons for stolen base percentage by players who swiped 40 or more bags belong to Burt Shotton (twice, 57.3% and 59.4%), Tris Speaker (59.2%), and Eddie Collins (60.5%), and all four of those seasons occurred between 1914 and 1916. Seeing that teams only played 152 games then, the general idea must have been to reach base, take a breath, and motor (Model T was invented in 1908) for second.

Players who steal an inordinate amount of bases are going to get caught . . . a lot. For every Jose Altuve who has stolen 45 while being caught just six times, there’s a Lou Brock who was caught 33, 27, 20, 19 (twice), and 18 (thrice) times. The all-time leader in stolen bases Rickey Henderson was caught a MLB record 42 times in 1982,2 and unless Hamilton develops catatonia when leading off first he’ll have even a difficult time matching Vince Coleman’s NL rookie record of 25 for caught stealing. Seven doesn’t sound like a lot, but there’s only so much baseball left to play and so many bone-headed gaffes a manager is willing to tolerate.

Summary

I never thought Billy Hamilton would be doing this well, not hitting anyway. Coming into the season I thought a league average line similar to 2013’s .257/.322/.403 would be extremely optimistic. Sure, he could steal bases, but I figured there weren’t going to be that many opportunities for him to do so. In fact, in my District on Deck preseason awards prediction column, I had this to say: “How long until some enterprising manager decides to just walk the pitcher in front of him? By June? That would effectively neutralize the one legitimate weapon Hamilton has, his otherworldly speed, and take away the infield single with the force out at second.”

Hamilton provides enough value in the field and running the bases in general that if he could figure out how to just slow down a little, stop jumping at every pitcher’s motion like a frightened rabbit he would be extremely dangerous. Don’t take my word for it, though. Just ask Nathan Eovaldi how he would currently neutralize Hamilton on the base paths. Apparently, it takes not one, not two, but three throws to first.

  1. A game on May 19could be considered eight when he was caught trying to steal home by Stephen Strasburg, but since Strasburg actually threw the ball to the plate, sort of, the play should probably be considered a caught stealing. Well, technically it was a balk on Strasburg, but the umpires ruled it an out, so an out it is.
  2. He also stole 130 bases that year, giving him a success rate of 75.6%.

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