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Just How Good Can Billy Hamilton Be?

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If they didn’t before, everyone knows Billy Hamilton now. The Reds’ shortstop prospect stole his professional baseball record 146th base on Tuesday night for the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos- and stole another bag later in the game to cap off a 4-steal day. Nothing special for Hamilton. He stole “just” one more on Wednesday to give him 148 on the season. Billy Hamilton now leads both the Double-A Southern League and the High-A California League in steals. And by the way, he has only been in the Southern League for 40 games! Everyone else in the top 20 in the SL in steals has played in more than double as many games! We could talk about Hamilton’s stolen base exploits this season for a long time. But at the end of the day, does it really matter? No. Billy Hamilton has not spent his entire life dreaming to be the answer to a minor league baseball trivia question. The Cincinnati Reds did not draft Billy Hamilton so he would lead the minor leagues in stolen bases. How good of a major league baseball player does Billy Hamilton have the ability to be?

Thus far in 2012 between the High-A Bakersfield Blaze and Pensacola, Hamilton has posted a .319/.418/.435 line with 21 doubles, 14 triples, 2 homers, 45 RBI, of course the 148 stolen bases while being caught 34 times, and 101 strikeouts versus 80 walks in 122 games and 560 plate appearances. We know that Hamilton is lightning-fast and we see from his 2012 stats that speed is not his entire game. The biggest thing to look at is his patience. The old baseball adage is “you can’t steal 1st” and Hamilton understands that very well. The thing about Hamilton is that big league pitchers are going to attack him a lot more than High-A and Double-A pitchers. A lot of the pitchers at those levels have great stuff, but the vast majority of those prospects don’t have anywhere near the command of big league pitchers. Pitchers are going to throw strikes to Hamilton because they know that if he walks, you might as well score it a double- if you’re lucky. He might steal third base on the next pitch. Hamilton’s great eye will certainly serve him well moving forward. But is he a good enough hitter to make do even when pitchers are attacking him in the zone at-bat after at-bat?

Hamilton’s .319 batting average and .435 slugging percentage look pretty great. Of course, they come with an insane .399 BAbip, but it would not be unexpected for Hamilton to post a BAbip not too far below that because of his speed. Hamilton, though, isn’t just a groundball hitter. According to Minor League Central, so far this season, 15.6% of Hamilton’s batted balls have been line drives, 44.1% have been groundballs, 27.7% flyballs to the outfield,  7.8% pop-ups, and 1.9% bunts. For some perspective, the averages of the two leagues that Hamilton have played in is 15.0% line drives, 43.6% groundballs, 30.6% outfield flyballs, 7.2% pop-ups, and 1.7% bunts. Hamilton’s batted ball ratios are pretty to the average all-around, with a few more line drives, groundballs, and pop-ups, and way less flyballs to the outfield. Hamilton does have a little pop. A bunch of his doubles may have very well been singles for almost anybody else, but you don’t hit 15 triples without any power. But do you even want him to hit the ball in the air? He’s going to have to. Major league pitchers aren’t going to give Hamilton anything but fastballs in the zone until he proves that he can punish them with extra-base hits and good luck drawing walks if the scouting report is to just pound you with fastballs.

Hamilton is a switch-hitter who’s better from the left side of the plate, but he has been great from both sides in 2012, posting a .322/.430/.432 line as a lefty and a .317/.395/.453 line from his natural right side. Hamilton has more power but also less plate discipline as a right-handed batter and puts more balls into play in the air, which isn’t a good thing. Hamilton shows good bat speed from both sides of the plate with a relatively compact swing. Hamilton is never going to be even a 10-homer threat in the major leagues and you don’t want him to try. He has good plate discipline, but it’s not like he’s waiting for a pitch to drive or anything along those lines. Hamilton has to be able to make contact and put strikes into play, especially on the ground. He has to learn to not elevate anything unless he sees a mistake pitch. And then, Hamilton really has to learn to bunt. When you’re as fast as he is, Hamilton is guaranteed 15 or 20 bunt singles a year if he becomes a halfway-decent bunter.

The risk with Hamilton at the plate is that he loses his discipline as pitchers pound the zone becomes a free-swinger, putting too many balls into play in the air and rendering himself unable to take advantage of his speed as often as he would like. The upside with him is that he stays patient and learns to put the ball in play on the ground when pitchers throw him strikes, becomes a good bunter, and shows the ability to hit the ball on a line when pitchers give him mistakes. True, you can’t steal first base, but Hamilton has the ability to use his speed to complement his patience in order to get on base and from there, he’ll be off to the races. If Hamilton gets on base at a good clip, 100 stolen bases annually in the major leagues is within reach for him, maybe more, and catchers will get nightmares the night before they face him every time. At least one 100-steal season in the major leagues seems like almost a certainty for Hamilton someday. But the Reds are hoping for more than that. They hope that he can develop into a hitter who gets on base at a .400 clip and if he does that, he could be the best leadoff hitter in baseball.

So far, we have only discussed Hamilton’s offense. A big part of his remaining development has to do with his defense. Hamilton has as much range defensively at shortstop as anyone in baseball. But his hands are just decent and his arm is below-average for the position and also inaccurate at times. Hamilton still has a chance to be an above-average defender because of all the balls he gets to, but he needs continued work on his actions and his throwing mechanics and the necessary improvement may never happen. A natural fit for Hamilton could be second base, and Hamilton does have some minor league experience there, but with Brandon Phillips locked up in Cincinnati that won’t be happening, so the next option could be centerfield, where Hamilton’s speed would certainly stand out and his below-average arm wouldn’t be as much of a problem. The problem is that Hamilton has never played there in his career and getting him used to reading flyballs off the bat could take some time. Expect Hamilton to begin taking flyballs in centerfield while continuing to work on his defense at shortstop during the Arizona Fall League and spring training of next season. But wherever Hamilton ends up playing, the Reds will find a way to get him into the big league lineup thanks to his incredible basestealing ability.

Billy Hamilton has a chance to be an excellent big league player someday. His unbelievable speed gives him a chance to steal bases like none of us have seen in a very long time, and with his solid bat speed and ability to get on base, he could be one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. The Reds have themselves a special player in Hamilton, and in a couple years, he could take baseball by storm. Or maybe sooner- Hamilton could serve as a pinch-runner for the Reds in September and give catchers a taste of the horror they will experience when he’s ready to be a full-time player.