Billy Hamilton’s improvement at the plate in 2016 stemmed from an increase in ground ball rate.
Billy Hamilton’s thievery on the base paths has been well-documented throughout his career. The Cincinnati Reds speedster is the only player to swipe 50-plus bags in each of the past three seasons, while the 58 he stole this year were more than what seven different teams were able to muster up.
While the 26-year-old outfielder’s reputation is built on the elite base running skills and defensive prowess that have made him into a serviceable big leaguer, his value also extended to the batter’s box in 2016. Hamilton is still considered a below-average hitter based on wRC+, but he and his .321 on-base percentage took a major step forward in becoming a bona fide leadoff hitter by simply hitting more ground balls than he ever has before.
Take for example the game prior to his season-ending injury back in early September. Hamilton went 3-for-4 at the plate, but the way in which he collected those three hits summed up how he was able to thrive this year: a bunt single, an infield hit, and a perfectly placed ground ball that squeaked past the first and second basemen. That’s exactly what you want to see out of a guy whose average time from home plate to first base on competitive plays is 3.95 seconds, the third best in the league behind Billy Burns and Dee Gordon.
Hamilton has received heavy criticism in the past for squandering away his God-given ability by hitting the ball in the air far too often. After all, he had the 15th highest fly ball rate among all National League hitters the past two years at 37.5 percent. This year, that number plummeted all the way down to 30.5 percent. The reason it dropped so dramatically is that Hamilton lowered his average launch angle a full degree in an attempt to get the ball on the ground and utilize his game-changing speed more frequently.
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When Hamilton made contact in 2016, he hit a ground ball 47.7 percent of the time. While you would like to see that number hovering above 50 percent, it is a five percent increase from the last two years, so at least he showed notable progress in that department. The significance to this change in approach is that no player had a higher batting average on ground balls (.368) than Hamilton did this year.
Those ground balls aren’t just limited to singles, either, as Hamilton is always looking to take an extra base out of the box. Of his 53 hits on grounders, 10 of them went for a double. No one else in the league had more than five. Even if he is content at stopping at first base, he’s more than likely to turn that single into a double or even a triple considering his 88 percent success rate in stolen bases was the most efficient of any base runner this year.
Because he poses such a massive threat on the base paths, an opposing pitcher’s worst nightmare is issuing him a free pass, and yet, despite having seen the seventh-largest percentage of pitches inside the strike zone this year, Hamilton managed to post the highest walk rate (7.8 percent) and number of pitches per plate appearance (3.84) of his career. Perhaps Joey Votto‘s patient approach is rubbing off on his teammate.
Just like the Reds, Hamilton did some rebuilding of his own in 2016, transforming into the type of hitter that his team hoped he would become.