Billy Hamilton; The Problem Of Speed

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Jul 21, 2013; Scranton, PA, USA; Louisville Bats center fielder Billy Hamilton (6) beats the throw to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders catcher JR Murphy (3) to score during the first inning at PNC Field. The Bats defeated the RailRiders 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Fords, Chevrolets, Adrian Peterson, Optimum WiFi – Americans worship speed. Nascar is a 3 billion dollar industry, Jose Reyes was routinely named “The Most Exciting Player In Baseball” in his heyday as the fastest player in the game, and Usain Bolt’s 100 meter dash was the most watched event of the Olympics, Mo Farah’s 10,000 meter run coming up second. But when it comes to prospects like Billy Hamilton, speed can be deceiving.

Hamilton, 22, burst into the national spotlight last season when he stole an American professional baseball record with 155 Stolen Bases, prompting MLB.com, Baseball America, and this site to all rank him as one of the top 25 prospects in baseball. A center fielder and shortstop, Hamilton conjured up images of a young Jose Reyes, of Ichiro in his prime.

The problem, however, was that Hamilton’s immense speed covered up problems that neither Ichiro nor Reyes had – a complete lack of power and scary strikeout rate. In his age 21 season, Hamilton managed only two home runs through 605 minor league at bats. By contrast, Jose Reyes hit five home runs through half the amount of at bats in his age 20 season while playing in the majors., and Ichiro hit a surprising 25 home runs when he was a 21 year old playing in the Japan League (comparable to AAA).

When showcasing that little power, the only way to maintain a high batting average and quality production is to post a low strikeout rate and put the ball in play as often as possible. Billy Hamilton, to say the least, did the opposite of that, striking out 113 times in 2012, well more than Ichiro or Reyes ever have, in any league. The only reason he was able to maintain an impressive .311 batting average was an incredibly high, and unsustainable babip (batting average on balls in play). The theory, among analysts and front offices, is that speedsters can maintain high Babips because they are more likely to beat out ground balls than their slow footed comrades. But, as our good friends at Fangraphs have pointed out , the numbers indicate that while speed improves babip, it  doesn’t improve it enough to salvage the negative impact of those strikeouts.

That babip, as it was destined to, came down to earth this season at AAA and Hamilton’s stock plummeted with his batting average. Now hitting .256, the young centerfielder is in danger of not receiving a september call up, a near guarantee before the year. His power has increased modestly – 6 home runs – and the strikeouts have gone down a bit – 102 – but there will have to be major improvements or the value he brings on the basepaths will always be eclipsed by his negative impact at the plate.

According to the fangraphs wSB stat, which records the number of runs a player gives to his team through stolen bases, an elite base stealer only supplies his team with about ten extra runs through steals. To put that into perspective, the game’s best hitter can add up to 40 runs to his top team. Billy Hamilton can be one of the game’s most dynamic players if he ever learns to make contact and get on base, but until he does, he’s not even an elite prospect.