Last September, I wrote a piece on this very website about Billy Hamilton, who was, at the time, the presumed front-runner for National League Rookie of the Year. Things have gone very poorly for young Mr. Hamilton since that time.
As you know, Hamilton finished second to New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, receiving only four of 30 first-place votes. There is no debate over why deGrom overtook Hamilton to win the award: Hamilton’s production got progressively worse over the second half of the season, and that decline has continued through the first six weeks of the 2015 season.
At the All-Star break last year, Hamilton was flying high. He was hitting .285 with a .319 on-base percentage and 38 stolen bases. Hamilton’s OPS+ was 109 (100 is average), he was playing defense at an elite level, and we had dreams of a future MVP candidate roaming center field at Great American Ball Park for years to come.
In the second half of 2014, those numbers dropped precipitously: .200/.254/.257, a 49 OPS+. In 21 games in September and October, Hamilton hit just .123/.219/.154. Yes, he tanked down the stretch, and deserved to miss out on the rookie award. On the other hand, Hamilton finished the season with a 3.7 WAR, thanks mostly to his superb defense. For a 23-year old, that’s a number that makes you think we have a future All-Star on our hands here.
So there was reason to believe that Hamilton would come back in 2015, with a year of experience, ready to take a step forward offensively. That hasn’t come to pass; through 29 games, Hamilton has posted an almost inconceivable slash line of .198/.258/.298. He continues to play great defense, and when he gets on base, Hamilton is as exciting as ever. The problem is that he is rarely on base.
However, if you dig a little deeper into his statistics, there are actually some reasons to think that Hamilton is making progress as a hitter this year. Sounds counter-intuitive, given that stat line above, but it’s true.
First of all, Hamilton is drawing walks at a better rate than he did last year. His walk rate is up from 5.6% in 2014 to 7.5% this season. We are only a month and a half into the season, and the sample size is small, but we can hope this is a tiny glimpse into Hamilton’s maturation as a leadoff hitter.
Everyone knows that for Hamilton to be successful as a big league player, he needs to take advantage of his speed by hitting the ball on the ground more often. This year, he’s made progress in that area too. Hamilton has increased his ground ball rate (to 46.7% from last year’s 41.5%) and reduced his fly ball rate (33.3%, from 37.3% in 2014) to a mark that’s lower than the league average. He still has work to do in this area, and I’m not ready to declare that he has really improved, but the signs are positive at the moment.
Also, let’s not forget that Hamilton’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is just .232 this season. Last year, it was .304. More balls are going to fall in as the year progresses, and Hamilton will get a chance to use his legs.
Before the season, Jeff Sullivan said this about Hamilton over at FanGraphs:
It’s a difficult situation for Hamilton and for the Reds. What they’d like is for him to finish above last year’s final statistics. Assuming he doesn’t grow into more power, he’ll need to walk more, or strike out less, or hit fewer fly balls.
Well, Hamilton has done all those things, yet still ranks near the bottom in most offensive categories in the National League (7th-worst OBP, 6th-worst SLG, 5th-worst wRC+, 4th-worst wOBA). I’m trying to squint in order to see the positives. There is hope for substantial improvement very soon, methinks.
On Twitter and talk radio, fans are always wondering whether or not they should be worried. The answer, generally, is no. We are talking about professional sports here. Enjoy, but don’t let the games cause you anguish.
I know you aren’t going to listen to me on that point, so I’ll answer the question above as it relates to Billy Hamilton. Don’t get worried about him just yet. He’s still only 24-years old. He’s still a unique player with a unique set of skills. He’s still a great defensive center fielder. He still very well might develop into an All-Star. And there are signs that he’s making progress at the plate.
In the meantime, it would be really nice if manager Bryan Price would drop Hamilton to eighth in the lineup until he gets things going again. And there is every reason to believe that Hamilton will get things going again, and soon.
Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.