Only seven players in the Majors have over 20 stolen bases thus far as the first half of the Major League Season comes to a close (as of July 14th). Right in the mix is Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, who is tied for the fourth-most stolen bases in Major League baseball with 22, along with the Washington Nationals’ Trea Turner and the Seattle Mariners’ Dee Gordon (who led the Majors last season in stolen bases with 60 with the Miami Marlins). Hamilton, who finished with 59 stolen bases, second-most in the Major Leagues, a year ago, trails only Ender Inciarte of the Atlanta Braves (23), as well as the Washington Nationals’ Michael Taylor, and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Starling Marte, who both have 24.
Despite him being in the mix as the league’s stolen base king in 2018, it has been an inconsistent year for the Reds’ speedy outfielder. Projected to take a step forward as a player this year (Yahoo! projected his overall ranking at 59 going into the season), Hamilton got off to a painful start. In his first 26 games and 100 plate appearances to begin the year in March and April, Hamilton hit only .172, with only four total extra-base hits, and he struck out a whopping 33 times. While there were some promising signs (he walked 13 times and he stole five bases in five attempts), it was safe to say that Hamilton, much like the Reds team as a whole, had failed to live up to expectations to start off 2018.
After a slow beginning to the year as a whole organization, the Reds fired manager Bryan Price after a 3-15 start to the year, and a 279-387 record overall (the Reds never had a winning record under Price since he took over in 2014). Furthermore, Reds GM Nick Krall promoted Jim Riggleman, who formerly managed the Washington Nationals. Under Riggleman, the Reds have turned it around, as they are 39-37 under him as of July 14th, and rate as one of the best offensive teams in baseball, as they rank 7th in the Majors in team WAR, a stark difference from their 42-52 record and 5th place standing currently in the NL Central (though to be frank, the Central may be the best division in the National League).
Hamilton has also turned it around after the managerial change, though it may not look like it at first when you see his .233 average and .636 OPS to go along with only three home runs, 19 RBI, and 51 runs scored. If you judge him over the past month though, there hasn’t been a more dynamic player in the Majors than Hamilton. In the last 30 days, Hamilton not only leads the league in stolen bases (17), but he is also hitting .337 with a .825 OPS to go along with a home run, 5 RBI and 20 runs scored in 83 AB. Furthermore, the 27-year-old outfielder has also made a habit of making spectacular plays like the one below against the Cardinals on July 13th.
So what has been the cause of Hamilton’s turnaround? And can he sustain this offensive onslaught in the second half? Or is he due to regress, and be the low average, low OPS fantasy option that has frustrated fantasy owners over the past few years?
Here are a couple of reasons for optimism:
Riggleman batting Hamilton 9th
It’s very tempting for managers to look at a guy of Hamilton’s speed and think automatically “leadoff” hitter. So far this year, Hamilton never really took to the role, as he only hit .167 with a .546 OPS and BB/K ratio of 0.29 in 12 games and 41 plate appearances in the leadoff spot this year. Since Price was fired though, Riggleman made the decision to bat him 9th (meaning the pitcher would bat in front of him), a strategy fellow NL Central managers such as the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle and Cubs’ Joe Maddon have employed with their teams. The move has paid off somewhat, as Hamilton is batting .244 with a .651 OPS and a BB/K ratio of 0.42 in 72 games and 274 plate appearances in the bottom of the order. Getting to see a pitcher go through eight hitters beforehand, and being relieved of having to “jump start” the offense from the leadoff spot has seemed to have a positive effect on Hamilton, and Riggleman’s unorthodox strategy has paid off for the Reds’ offense (and Hamilton personally) thus far.
Hamilton is developing his eye at the plate
Hamilton’s walk rate this year is 10.2 percent, which is 3.2 percent higher than last season and would be the highest walk rate of his career if the season ended today. Some might say “he’s more patient” at the plate, but that probably would be misleading. Hamilton’s swing percentage of 46.8 percent his highest percentage since his call-up in 2013 (where it was 50 percent), and his contact rate (77 percent) is lower while his swinging strike percentage (10.7 percent) is higher as well. That being said, he has swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (29.5 compared to 29.9 percent) compared to last year, and he is knowing what counts are his strong suit. He is batting .450 when swinging on the first pitch, and .350 when the count even, showing that he is taking advantage of opportunities when he is aggressive, and laying off when counts are not in his favor (as evidenced by the higher walk rate). It has resulted in an increase in strikeouts (25.7 percent), but it’s obvious that Hamilton has honed is hitting a bit as he has matured as a Major League player.
He’s hitting the ball harder
The negative of Hamilton’s approach? The strikeouts. The positive? Walks and getting on base. Both we have talked about in the previous section. However, another positive byproduct of Hamilton’s refined approach at the plate is that he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before.
If you check out batted ball information via Fangraphs, his line drive percentage sits at 25.8 percent and his fly ball percentage sits at 34.8 percent, both major increases from the previous two years. Furthermore, his groundball percentage is at 39.4 percent, the lowest of his Major League career thus far. And though his medium hit percentage is down to 50 percent (from 59 percent in previous years), his hard-hit ball percentage is 23.8 percent, a career high and nearly a seven percent increase from last year, thus resulting in an HR/FB ratio of 4.3 percent, another career high.
Hamilton is not going to confuse people with Mike Trout anytime soon. But he is hitting the ball harder at the plate in 2018, and that should be promising enough for fantasy owners who are skeptical of his latest hot streak.
What’s the verdict on Hamilton?
A lot of fantasy owners have been patient on Hamilton, as evidenced by him being owned in 77 percent of Yahoo! leagues. However, it finally looks like Hamilton is starting to make owners’ patience a wise decision. He’s hitting the ball harder, he’s getting on base more, and more importantly, he’s stealing bases at his usual, high-end clip. And he’s been more judicious on the basepaths, as he is getting caught less, as his 84 percent success rate is an improvement from his 81 percent rate a season ago.
ZiPS projects Hamilton to steal 22 more stolen bases for the remainder of the year, but it’s plausible that Hamilton may touch the 50 or more mark by the end of this season as well, as long as he stays healthy. He has improved under Riggleman, and Riggleman’s openness to let him run wild on the basepaths, and bat him in the order in an unconventional way has done wonders for Hamilton in terms of bouncing back after a slow start. It’s hard to imagine Hamilton benefitting fantasy teams beyond stolen bases in a major way for the remainder of the year (and perhaps in the future as well). That being said, Hamilton’s speed and stolen base ability are so good and rare that it may not matter as long as fantasy owners have the right combination of power and high-average hitting elsewhere in their lineup to make up for Hamilton’s deficiencies.