As far as
small microscopic sample sizes go, you could say that Billy Hamilton did more than enough to make a strong first impression.
A .368/.429/.474 triple slash, good for a .902 OPS? A whopping 155 wRC+, with 13 stolen bases in 22 PA? Why, if you were to translate that into 500 PA, that would set him up to steal … 295 bases. He would be unlike anything that the baseball world has ever seen, creating offense at will with his legs as long as he could put the ball in play anywhere.
Naturally, the Cincinnati Reds are excited about the prospects of a full season of Hamilton wreaking havoc on the basepaths and chasing down balls at center field with aplomb. Those expectations, however, come with a number of caveats.
Obviously, even the most hopeful Reds fans should know that even the speedster is not going to end up swiping a base for every 1.7 PA. Even during his remarkable season at high-A where he swiped 104 bags in just 82 games, he did so at a rate of a steal per 3.8 PA; and while it seems like his initial MLB outburst suggests that he’s ready to be an impact player on offense, the SSS numbers themselves come chock full of warning signs that suggest otherwise.
Yes, Hamilton is very fast and he did post reasonable BB and K rates are 9.1 and 18.2 percent respectively, but it’s should be pointed out that his slash line came with a .467 BABIP, higher than his minor league-best .404 in 2012. That alone doesn’t suggest that he’s been helped out by the baseball gods as he did hit line drives at a fantastic 35.7 percent rate, but that he did so while posting a 3.50 GB/FB ratio and a whopping 57.1 percent infield hits rate should.
In short, he hits a lot of balls on the ground, and as the sample sizes become more meaningful and both the LD and IFH rates normalize, that’s more than likely going to translate to a lot of outs.
That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, considering that Hamilton posted a .256/.308/.343 triple-slash in this first and only full season at triple-A, and both Steamer and Oliver projects him as essentially a non-factor with the bat (77 wRC+, .643 OPS for the former and 63 wRC+, .599 OPS for the latter).
But as long as he can play a strong defense and run like the wind, that’s all that matters, right?
Well, maybe the Reds should ask the Los Angeles Dodgers how an all-speed, no bat approach worked out for the team’s shortstop prospect Dee Gordon. While Reds GM Walt Jocketty is confident in the Hamilton’s ability to perform in the leadoff role and will give the youngster a sufficient leash, the reality is that it is far from a sure bet.
After all, the team’ can’t expect to compete all season with a leadoff man who owns a sub-.300 OBP and .250 average, and both numbers seem fairly realistic to expect from Hamilton in 2014 given his ground-ball friendly ways. Should this be the case, the team will quickly find out that giving away potential baserunners at the top of the order is not all it’s chalked up to be even when the return is a guy who can go first-to-third on a bloop single.
From there, it would be fairly realistic for the shortstop-turned-outfielder to be moved closer towards the bottom of the lineup, where his very particular skill set may be best utilized. He’ll still swipe 60-70 bases even in a worst-case scenario with a full season of at-bats, but whether he’ll actually offer positive offensive value with speed alone remains a major question mark.
The thing is, while the team might not outright say it at this point, there’s obviously a threshold somewhere. For the Dodgers and Gordon, it was 2012 and 2013 seasons with OPS numbers of .561 and .612 respectively, and this is despite Baby Flash’s 70-steal upside. You can bet that if Hamilton owns an OPS near .600 by the time it’s July, the Reds will be thinking seriously about whether he needs more seasoning in the minors even if he has 35 steals to his name.
That’s not to say that the 23-year old can’t improve over time and end up being a dynamic presence on both offense and defense, of course; but failure is always an option at the highest level, and the Reds would be wise to look for a backup option just in case Hamilton stumbles in his first full season.