Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Prospect Watch: Billy Hamilton

If anyone in my readership follows my Twitter (@timnicodemus) or knows me personally, they know that I love me some Billy Hamilton. He is single-handedly (is that a word?) bringing back 'small-ball' through decent defense and amazing speed. As a part of the Reds organization, he is being groomed for a starting job on a very good team. After the jump, I will look at his past performance, current season, and future prospects. Can a speedy, light-hitting player make the Show? 

I went onto Baseball-Reference to see a more detailed stat outlay. After looking at the wrong Billy Hamilton (the one who played in the late 1800s) I found that B-Ref considers him the #48 prospect in the Minors. He was recently promoted to AA after two seasons of Rookie ball and one of A ball. In 2012, he has quickly risen from starting in A+ ball to his current team in Pensacola. Considering he is only 21, it is safe to say his career trajectory appears to be heading toward the Majors.

The a primary question to be asked is: how fast is Hamilton? Every scout, fan, and man-crush (read: me) raves about his speed. Consider this: in 335 minor league games, he has 274 stolen bases. Early on in Double-A, he hit an inside-the-park HR by circling the bases in 13.8 seconds. Watch the attached video. A slightly bad throw into 2nd causes them to have no chance to throw home. Wow. T0 compare, notable speedster Pete Bourjos was clocked at 14.02.  The record set in 1932 is 13.3 seconds. Simply put, Hamilton can fly. If not literally (and I cannot disprove that), definitely in every metaphorical sense. That being said, not every fast player can steal. Stealing and being able to advance around the bases requires timing, good eyes and a solid sense of the field and fielder position. While research is still being done to determine the impact a player has on being able to go 1st-3rd or 1st-Home, the steals can be readily quantified. I already mentioned his 274 career steals, but the pace in which he is getting them is absurd. After two short seasons in Rookie ball (112 games and 62 steals), he played 135 games in Dayton (Single-A) where he amassed 103 steals. Then, in 2012 he has gone nearly historic. In only 82 games in A+ ball he swiped 104(!!!) bases. Already in his early AA career he has played 6 games and 5 steals. Wow. Again.

Ok, you say, so he runs almost every time he gets on base. But as we know from Run Expectancy tables, stealing can often lead to a decrease in run potential due to getting thrown out. Does Hamilton hurt his team by stealing so much? Consider the following: in a total of 335 games and 1522 plate appearances he has gotten on 35.7% of the time, which is respectable but not great. He has stolen 274 bases and been  thrown out 54 times. This leads to a success rate of 83.5%. Rickey Henderson, the Man of Steal, only had a success rate of 80.7% in 9 seasons in the Minors. Considering Henderson only had 284 steals in those 616 games, it is safe to say that Billy Hamilton is  freaking fast and willing to run whenever and wherever. I am not saying that Hamilton will top Henderson's record, but compared to the stolen base king in the Minors, Billy fairs well. And in case you are wondering, in 25 seasons in the Majors, Henderson had a stolen base rate of 80.8%. That might just be a slight justification for the belief that Hamilton could continue his torrid pace as he advances.

To play in the Majors, however, you have to have more than just wheels. His career slash is 0.288/0.357/0.392. This is by no means impressive, but assuming his BB% increases as it has over his time in A+ and AA levels, and he works on a better batting eye to reduce his K rate (currently 20.3%) he should be able to increase his OBP and give himself more chances to advance on hit-and-runs and/or steals. Many prospect mavens (research Kevin Goldstein or Marc Hulet if you want to know more) say that the Reds would be wise to initially use him as a pinch runner in a playoff push to maximize the utility of his speed and limit his exposure to Major league pitching. While this is not a glowing endorsement like we give to Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, a 21 year old could do much, much worse than starting his potentially lengthy career as a run-creating speed demon. The reasoning is that the hitting will come along, but his speed should  be maximized as he reaches the prime of his life.

Alex and I recently discussed Billy Hamilton and struggled to find good comparisons. Oddly, the other Billy Hamilton was quite fast but played in the outfield. Likewise, Juan Pierre is a light hitting, fast runner but plays in the outfield (and does so quite poorly, whereas Hamilton is a decent shortstop). Starlin Castro, Jose Reyes or Hanley Ramirez? All three are fast but all Reyes and Hanley have both shown tremendous power. Castro does not posses the other-worldly speed. While I want to know- in the comments section of course- if you have found any 'comparables' for Billy Hamilton, I know for me personally that is one reason I like watching this kid so much. Simply put, we have not seen a player quite like this, at least in the past 20 years if not ever. It is almost impossible to predict how his legs will fair against big league catchers and age but his upside is still quite high, especially if he improves his plate discipline. An increase in power or OBP will most assuredly see him a starting role with the Reds, but watch for the blur of a jersey speeding around the base paths in September if the Reds feel the need for speed in a playoff push.

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