A couple of weeks ago, it appeared as if the countdown to Billy Hamilton’s coronation as National League Rookie of the Year had begun. Mark Sheldon had this piece, and Trent Rosecrans countered over at the Enquirer. Trent had this to say:
On the field is where Hamilton enters the final month of the season as the favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year. He leads all National League rookies in runs (70), hits (133), total bases (190), doubles (25), steals (54) and RBI (46) and is second among all players in steals. Overall, he’s hitting .267/.302/.382 on the season. Hardly eye-popping numbers, but they are aided by the steals and Gold Glove-level defense in center field.
But the final month of the season can do in a rookie, precisely because he is a rookie. Two years ago, Todd Frazier entered September as the odds-on favorite to win the Rookie of the Year, but hit .176 over the last month, dragging his average down 20 points and finishing third in the voting behind eventual winner Bryce Harper of the Nationals and Diamondbacks starter Wade Miley.
Two weeks later, Hamilton still leads NL rookies in runs (72), hits (140), total bases (199), doubles (25), stolen bases (56), and RBI (48). Hamilton also leads NL rookies in wins above replacement (3.3, a total that places him third among all rookies in either league). That’s good, and it very well might be enough to win the Rookie of the Year award. Heck, I hope it is enough to win. I like Hamilton, and I think he has a big future with the Reds. Let’s be honest though: Hamilton’s rankings in those categories is also a function of the fact that he has nearly 200 more plate appearances than any other rookie in the National League. Give me enough plate appearances, and I’d be able to accumulate 3.3 WAR too. (My guess is that it would take me roughly six billion plate appearances, based upon my solid .245 batting average in Little League.)
Some will take my last paragraph as being mildly critical of Hamilton. Well, buckle your seatbelts. I’m getting ready to tell you why Hamilton’s season hasn’t been as good as many might think.
A couple of days ago, High Heat Stats (via their Twitter account, which you should absolutely follow) had a number of interesting observations about Hamilton’s 2014 season. For example, did you know that, among all players who have attempted at least 40 stolen bases, Hamilton ranks dead last in success rate (71.795%)? Billy has been caught stealing 22 times, a total that leads the league. No Red has been caught stealing more than 22 times since Bob Bescher in 1913. For those of you who (like me) expected Hamilton to be a base-stealing Zeus, that probably comes as a surprise. Wasn’t he supposed to be the best base-stealer of this generation?
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Hamilton may, in fact, be the guy who challenges Rickey Henderson for base-stealing superiority, but he’s not there yet. He may never be, which isn’t a slight on his talents. Hamilton still has much to learn about pitchers at the major league level, and even if he masters the skill of stealing bases, he’s not likely to be one of the all-time greats.
After all, the stolen base is utilized much less than in previous eras of baseball, thanks to changing attitudes about the game. Billy has attempted 78 SBs so far this year; during the year that Henderson set the major league record for stolen bases, he attempted 172 steals. (Of course, Rickey walked 116 times that season. If Hamilton—who has walked 30 times in 2014—ever reached those totals, he’d be an MVP candidate. Further, while Rickey attempted 172 steals, Hamilton has only been on base 172 times in 2014).
Much has been made of the fact that Hamilton has broken the all-time Reds record for stolen bases by a rookie. Kudos to him; he topped Bescher’s previous record of 54 SBs, set way back in 1909. Going into Monday night’s game in Chicago, Hamilton was 12th on the single-season all-time list for the Reds. But those are just raw totals; let’s look at the success rate of all Reds in history who have attempted more than 50 stolen bases:
Billy Hamilton (2014) 71.8%
Bip Roberts (1992) 73.3%
Gary Redus (1983) 73.6%
Bobby Tolan (1972) 73.7%
Those are the BOTTOM four in Cincinnati franchise history. Now, I was sitting in the green seats at Riverfront Stadium when Gary Redus stole home back in 1983 (in the first MLB game I ever attended), so I refuse to believe he was not the greatest base-stealer of the 1980s. The numbers, however, seem to contradict my hazy memories. The point is that Billy Hamilton has not been an elite base-stealer this season, despite how we have all become enthralled by his speed.
(Again, go follow High Heat Stats on Twitter. Those guys are doing great work over there.)
Let’s look at some other rate stats. Among National League rookies in wRC+, Hamilton (83) ranks 11th. That means that Hamilton created 17% fewer runs than a league average hitter would have in the same number of plate appearances. (Arizona’s David Peralta leads the NL with a 114 wRC+.) In wOBA, Hamilton’s .294 ranks 12th among NL rookies, behind such luminaries as Arizona’s Ender Inciarte and San Diego’s Tommy Medica (and the rookie leader: Peralta).
Remember, we’re only talking rookies. Among all National League hitters, Hamilton ranks 58th (among 68 qualified batters) in wRC+ and 59th in wOBA. That’s not exactly elite production, you guys.*
*For what it’s worth, Reds shortstop Zack Cozart ranks 68th— dead last—in both wRC+ and wOBA among National League hitters. Ugh. Good thing he can play defense!
Enough of that; I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I’m not a Billy Hamilton fan. The kid is only 24 years old (he was born a month before the Reds last won the World Series!), and he figures to improve mightily. If I’m going to be honest with you—and I promise, I will always be honest with you in this space—Hamilton has far exceeded what I expected of him this season. As noted above, he has posted 3.3 WAR in 2014; Mets rookie Jacob deGrom is second in the league in that category. Honestly, deGrom is the only player who looks to have a chance of stealing the Rookie of the Year award from our guy, and he’s finishing the season very well, so it may be a tight race yet. After Monday night’s start, deGrom is 8-6 with a 2.68 ERA, but he has been on the disabled list twice. The fact that Hamilton has been able to contribute all season long is likely to work in his favor.
Also, though I’ve wasted far too many words describing how poorly Billy Hamilton has performed at the plate, we must not forget that he has been outstanding defensively (which is largely responsible for his respectable WAR total). Among National League center fielders, Hamilton is second only to New York’s Juan Lagares in defensive runs saved; Billy is sixth overall in the league (while teammate Cozart is second overall). Among all major leaguers, Hamilton is a top-ten defensive performer, according to the advanced metrics.
You may not entirely believe in those defensive metrics, but even the untrained eye can see that Hamilton has been a huge upgrade over 2013’s Shin-Soo Choo. Since defense in CF is very important, we have to give Hamilton a little credit here. Sure, Hamilton’s exceptional defense accounts for most of his WAR, but think about it this way: the last two Reds center fielders who accumulated more WAR than rookie Hamilton were Ken Griffey Jr., and Eric Davis. Those guys were good.
So, if we’re being realistic, what’s the bottom line? Frankly, Hamilton has not been very good at the plate, and while he has been okay on the basepaths, he hasn’t been as good as you would expect. Meanwhile, Billy’s defense has been exceptional. That adds up to a guy that can be a real asset to Cincinnati’s lineup if he’s hitting 8th; unfortunately, he’s leading off and a .258/.298/.366 line just isn’t going to get it done. I feel confident that he’ll improve as he gains more experience, but we can’t delude ourselves: Hamilton has dragged down the Cincinnati offense this year. Despite that, there is every reason to believe that Hamilton remains the odds-on favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year, with a great chance to win a Gold Glove, as well. Keep those fingers crossed, Reds fans. The team might win something after all.