How Do You Solve a Problem Like Billy?
The Reds opened their season a day late due to the dreary Spring Break weather here in the QC, celebrating Good Friday with a 2-0 loss at the hands of the Washington Nationals. Homer Bailey spun up six strong innings in his first-ever Opening Day start, giving up just one run and pitching out of a couple of jams. On the other side of the ledger, the Reds offense managed seven hits and two walks but left all those baserunners stranded. Which kinda happens when you whiff 14 times. But hey, we’ll get em’ tomorrow, right? More interesting to this blogger was the lineup card turned in by Bryan Price and announced on the teams Twitter stream… Billy Hamilton batting 8th?
Leadoff Man Wanted; Must Get On Base, Wheels Optional
If it feels like the Reds have been flailing about for a leadoff hitter since Pete Rose left town, well you aren’t far off. Other than the brief glorious summer of 2013 when Shin-Soo Choo delivered a .426 OBP atop the batting order, recent Reds managers have had what can be best described as misguided neglect for the leadoff spot. Dusty Baker, in particular, seemed to have an aversion to putting runners on base ahead of his sluggers. Whether it was professional out machine Willy Taveras, pet project from his days in Chicago Corey Patterson, or the walk allergic fan fave Brandon Phillips, Dusty wanted his leadoff hitter to be a fast guy, preferably a center fielder or middle infielder who can steal bases and score from first on a single. If he were still managing the Reds there’s no way he would have submitted a lineup without the fastest man alive at the top.
Throwing Away His Shot?
Billy Hamilton burst onto Sportscenter well before his late 2013 cup of coffee. in 2011 he stole 103 bases in the minors and followed that up with a record-smashing 155 thefts in 2013, more than any player ever at any level of baseball. Wobbly cell phone footage of a vaguely human-shaped blur zooming around the basepaths was shared on social media by Reds fans drooling with anticipation. In his first full season sporting the wishbone C, Billy came in second in the ROY voting and flashed some serious leather in his new position of center field.
Sure, he did lead the league in times caught stealing. He also struck out 117 times on the way to a .250/.292/.355 slash line. The numbers can’t quite do the man justice. Google Billy Hamilton highlights and feast your eyes on acts of baserunning and fielding unprecedented in this great game. He’s probably the fastest player I’ve ever seen, both in the field or on the basepaths.
Too bad you can’t steal first base.
Billy Hamilton simply cannot hit or get on base well enough to turn those wheels into an offensive asset at the top of the order. His career stats after 2184 major league plate appearances are .247/.297/.335. In an era where the average fastball velocity is closing in on 92 mph, Billy Hamilton simply cannot hit the ball hard enough to scare major league pitchers or fielders. Pitchers can just feed him strikes and fielders can play in unafraid of balls going over their head. This slugging deficit feeds his on-base percentage deficit creating a death spiral, both of which conspire to neutralize his most valuable offensive asset. Even with his speed bunting for singles is a low percentage play. He’s an out machine and outs are a team’s most precious resource.
Enter the Winker
Jesse Winker, the Reds #4 prospect looks set to get most of the leadoff work as the long half of a left field platoon with slugger Adam Duvall. It looks like Scott Schebler will back up in center and leadoff. Neither player fits the Dusty Baker model of fleet out maker. Winker is especially exciting to this Reds fan. In 47 games last year, Jesse (needs a nickname) Winker slashed .298/.375/.529, building on a minor league career that promised the kind of professional hitter we haven’t had in left since the other Hamilton (Joey) was in town. Combined with Eugenio Suarez batting second, this Reds team might finally be poised to put something in front of Joey Votto other than empty basepaths with two outs. For some perspective, using Baseball References Split Finder I can drill down and discover that Joey Votto is a .347/.445/.591 hitter with a man on first and less than 2 outs, the second most fearsome since 2006. Unfortunately, he’s only 31st on that list with 1215 plate appearances qualifying in his career. If Joey Votto is up with less than two outs and nowhere to put him he’s the scariest thing since peak Bonds. Making that happen as many times as possible can have an outsized impact on an offense like the Reds.
Billy Hamilton is still an incredible player. He’s one of the best center fielders in the game. He saves so many runs with his glove that even in this strikeout and homer saturated run environment his glove carries his bat. Dropping him to the bottom of the order reduces the number of outs he sucks up, which extends games. Plus hitting the pitcher 8th creates some nifty strategic options, the kind of marginal runs created that teams like the Reds can’t scoff at. It’s an interesting and bold move by Price. Let’s hope it pays off.
“From our Haus to Yours”