Aaron Hicks and being patient with the slow-developing prospect

Aaron Hicks of the New York Yankees is having an interesting season offensively. A former top prospect in the Minnesota Twins system, Hicks is ranked 122nd overall in Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues, as he has hit 17 home runs, scored 51 runs, driven in 47 RBI, and has an OPS of .851. The only blemish on Hicks’ resume is his .256 batting average, but when you take into consideration his sound plate discipline (he has a 13.6 percent walk rate and a 0.69 BB/K ratio), fantasy owners can live with the low average as long as they make it up in other areas on their team (similar to the Pirates’ Gregory Polanco, who is now mashing more than ever, but still has a low average).

What makes Hicks’ season so interesting is that he’s gone under the radar with not only fantasy owners (he’s only owned in 59 percent of leagues) but also in his own organization. After the 2015 season ended, the Twins, to make room for top prospect Byron Buxton, traded Hicks straight up for John Ryan Murphy, a catching prospect in the Yankees’ system. Hicks struggled initially in pinstripes in 2016, as he only hit .217 with a .617 OPS in 361 plate appearances and 121 games. Hicks’ underwhelming campaign in 2016 made room for Aaron Judge to come onto the scene in 2017, as Judge, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury all played 100 plus games in the outfield.

However, despite modest expectations going into 2017, Hicks played the best baseball of his career. Despite struggling with an oblique injury, Hicks hit 15 home runs, drove in 52 RBI, scored 54 runs, had 10 stolen bases, hit .266 and posted an OPS of .847. Unfortunately, he only finished 302nd overall in Yahoo! leagues, mostly due to the fact he only played 88 games and had 301 plate appearances overall in 2017.


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Despite the excellent season, it seemed like Hicks was going to struggle to find a role in 2018, once again. Ellsbury, Judge, and Gardner returned, as well as Clint Frazier, who was rated the 39th best prospect in baseball going into 2017 by Baseball America. And to make things tougher for Hicks, the Yankees also signed Giancarlo Stanton to a massive contract, and it was expected that Stanton would regularly patrol left, while Gardner and Judge, would patrol center, and right, respectively. Hicks seemed to be a fourth outfielder, perhaps an occasional DH player going into 2018.

However, Ellsbury got injured in Spring Training and hasn’t played since. Frazier has struggled with injuries as well, and now Judge has been put on the shelf for three weeks due to a wrist injury? As for Hicks? Well, he continues to mash, his season comparable to 2017 (his 123 wRC+ is only 4 points below his 2017 wRC+), but with more games under his belt (he’s going to pass the games played and plate appearances from all of 2017 in just a matter of days). While Judge and Stanton have stolen all the headlines for Yankees outfielders, Hicks may be the most underrated offensive star in pinstripes in 2018.

If there’s a lesson to be learned about Hicks, it’s the understanding of how some prospects take more time to develop. Hicks was a first-round pick of the Twins in 2008 and was rated as the top prospect in the Twins system in 2009 and 2010 by Baseball America. Hicks profiled very much like Buxton: good speed on the base paths along with good athleticism and a strong hit tool. However, things just never worked out in Minnesota, as he had a .225 average, .655 OPS, and 20 home runs in 247 games overall with the Twins over three seasons. Since coming to New York, Hicks has a .243 average, .759 OPS, and 39 home runs in 294 games.  Hicks’ home run stroke is what has developed the most, as Hicks’ HR/FB ratio has been 15.8 percent and 17.6 percent the past two seasons, respectively. The highest percentage Hicks posted in Minnesota was 11.1 percent, which came in 2015 (his last year in Minnesota).

Now, one can credit Hicks’ move to the lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium as a probable reason for his breakout, and you would have a case if you just judged him from last season, as he hit 12 out of his 15 home runs at Yankee Stadium in 2017. But in 2018, Hicks has been just as effective on the road as he has been back in the Bronx, as he has 9 home runs at home this year, and 8 on the road, a much evener distribution. Furthermore, one could argue that he’s been a better hitter on the road than at home, as he has a higher average (.270 to .241) and OPS (.866 to .834) away from Yankee Stadium in 2018. So, while initially, some people could credit Hicks’ development as a hitter to the “House that Ruth Built” (i.e. the short left field porch), 2018 has shown that Hicks is a strong overall hitter and not just a product of a ballpark.


At 29 years old, development came slowly for Hicks, whom many Twins fans felt was a bust in Minnesota, as he never lived up to those top prospect expectations while in the Twins system. Eventually, it came to Twins management having to decide between Buxton and Hicks, and they made the decision to go all-in on Buxton (understandable, though that strategy has had mixed results). That being said, Hicks is a prime example that some prospects develop slowly. Yes, there are the Mike Trouts and Aaron Judges who come out gangbusters when they reach the MLB level, but a lot of prospects sometimes take a few seasons at the MLB level to develop and then find success. Charlie Blackmon, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and even to an extent Yankee teammate Didi Gregorius, took a few seasons before they currently found success as Major Leaguers. Consider Hicks another example of such a success story.

And not only is Hicks a success story for the Yankees, but it should also give hope to fans of teams who have prospects that haven’t necessarily hit their “stride” just yet. Some people have already given up on Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Billy Hamilton, to name a few. After all, they were top prospects expected to be perennial All-Stars, and all three listed above have experienced some serious lows this season (Buxton and Sano have seen time in Triple-A). But Sano is only 25, Buxton is 24, and Hamilton is 27. They still have time, and it’s plausible that 2019 may be the season they break out and finally show consistency, much like Hicks.

So, don’t give up on prospects, especially early on in their careers if they are struggling initially at the Major League level. It would be a shame for either a fantasy owner or even a Major League fanbase to miss out on a successful player because they gave up on the prospect too early. Look up north to Minneapolis, as Twins fans are probably kicking themselves in retrospect for parting with Hicks so early, especially considering Murphy is not even in their organization anymore.

 

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What did the Royals gain (and lose) in the Mike Moustakas trade?

The Royals were in the national news on Friday night, and it had nothing to do with their game against the Yankees (it was rained out; they have a doubleheader scheduled for today). Late last night, the Brewers and Royals pulled off a trade, with the Royals posting this on their Twitter:

The trade was expected by Royals fans ever since the season began, really. The Royals expected to sign elsewhere when he became a free agent at the conclusion of the 2017 season along with Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer. However, while Hosmer and Cain signed with the Padres and Brewers, respectively, the market for Moustakas never materialized, and he ended up re-signing with the Royals while in Spring Training for a one-year, $5.5 million deal.

Moose re-signing ended up being a blessing in disguise for both the Royals and Moose. Moose is having another solid year (20 home runs, 107 wRC+), proving that 2017 wasn’t a fluke, and the Royals got to not only keep a fan favorite a little bit longer but also got something in return for his departure. In the end, though it came as a surprise in March, Moose coming back to Kansas City was a win-win for everyone.

So, what did the Royals gain and lose in the deal overall? Let’s take a look.


What the Royals gained in the Moose trade.

The Royals received two prospects in OF Brett Phillips and RHP Jorge Lopez, a pretty good haul considering how close the Royals were to the deadline. To give some context, the Brewers have a pretty deep farm system, as Baseball America ranked them 6th overall in their talent rankings going into 2018


Phillips is the crown jewel of the deal, as he was the 7th rated prospect in the Brewers system and the 80th best prospect in baseball overall by Baseball America going into the 2018 season. Phillips, however, was unable to break into a crowded Brewers outfield (which sports Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich this year), as he has only appeared in 52 games and accumulated 122 plate appearances the past two years in Milwaukee. This year has also been a little slow for Phillips in Triple-A, as Phillips is only posting a slash of .240/.331/.411 with an OPS of .742 and 6 home runs in 299 plate appearances in Colorado Springs. That being said, he has demonstrated success in Colorado Springs before, as he hit 19 home runs and posted an OPS of .944 in 432 plate appearances in 2017.

Patrick Brennan of Royals Farm Report had a pretty good write up on Phillips, and had this to say about the prospect on Twitter:

The other player acquired in the deal is Jorge Lopez, a reliever who has appeared in 10 games this season and has accumulated 19.2 IP and a 2.75 ERA and 1.48 whip this season. Lopez was drafted in the 2nd round in 2011 out of Puerto Rico and originally broke into the Brewers system as a starter. However, he transitioned to the bullpen last year, and so far the results have been mixed. While he has been decent with the big league club, he still struggles with command, as evidenced by 1.15 K/BB ration, and his ERA and WHIP numbers look worse in Triple-A as it was 5.65 and 1.50 respectively in 28.2 IP with Colorado Springs in 2018.

Ironically, much like Goodwin, I wrote a piece featuring Lopez prior to the 2011 MLB Draft. Here’s what I said about Lopez in the post:

“John Sickels has Lopez projected to go at the 49th slot in his latest mock supplemental first round draft. Lopez is a high-ceiling arm, with a nice frame and good stuff according to reports. While Puerto Rican prospects usually don’t have a history of going high in the draft (Luis Atilano was the highest pick from Puerto Rico in the history of the draft, as he went No. 35 in 2003), Lopez seems to be an exception to the rule.

According to a report by Perfect Game USA, Lopez is getting comparisons to Javier Vazquez. He still has a lot of room to develop as a pitcher (he’s six-foot-four inches, and 175 pounds), but already he sports a fastball that goes in the low 90’s and a good spinning curve ball that has gotten good reports from scouts. An excellent athlete (Lopez played volleyball, basketball and ran track in addition to baseball), Lopez used to be a shortstop before he converted to the mound full time.”

The shine of Lopez as a prospect has certainly faded a bit the past couple of seasons, as he was unranked in the Brewers system, a far cry from his days where he rated as the 59th best prospect overall by Baseball America going into 2016. However, Lopez should bring some much-needed depth to the Royals bullpen in the immediate future. It’s definitely possible he could develop into a solid setup man or perhaps a closer in the near future should the Royals part ways with Wily Peralta (also a former Brewers top pitching prospect).


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What did the Royals lose in the deal?

Obviously, the Royals lost Moustakas, which while expected, is still a tough pill to swallow for Royals fans. Moose was one of the first big prospects drafted by Dayton Moore, and from the day he was drafted, it was understood that the Royals’ future success would depend on him. Thankfully, he panned out and became a key cog for the Royals’ success from 2013-2017 along with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer.

In 934 games and 3,735 plate appearances over eight seasons with the Royals, Moose hit 139 home runs and had a career OPS+ of 98. However, Moose really developed and hit his stride as a player in 2015, his first All-Star appearance. If you look at his numbers from 2015-2018, Moustakas hit 87 home runs and had an average OPS+ of 114.3 in the four-year span, and he did this despite missing most 2016 due to a knee injury (he only played in 27 games).

With Moustakas gone, the hole at third will most likely be filled by a rotating door of players, with Hunter Dozier and Rosell Herrera being the most logical options to fill in immediately.  This season, Dozier has an OPS+ of 61, and Herrera has an OPS+ of 77, both far cries from Moose’s 111 OPS+ as a Royal this year. It will be interesting to see how Ned Yost will manage the position and who will emerge as the more regular third baseman of the two. Dozier is a former first-round draft pick who has struggled with the bat since getting injured a year ago, and Herrera was a recent waiver wire pickup who used to be a top prospect in the Rockies system but has a tendency to be too free-swinging and lacks power. Both certainly have potential, but they both have a lot to do to make up for Moose’s production at the hot corner.

However, the biggest loss from the Moose trade definitely comes in the clubhouse, as Moose developed as a more vocal leader during the past four years. Royals MLB.com beat writer Jeff Flanagan shared this tweet today about Moose:

There was a lot of great things to remember about Moose: the diving catch in the stands in Game 3 of the 2014 ALCS, the Moose antlers at games and crossing signs, the resting bitch face he seemed to employ 24/7. However, what made Moose great was that he showed that the Royals could draft good players, develop them, and see them win with the Royals, not some other club. The Royals have had a penchant for drafting and developing guys, only to see them win with their next club. Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran, and Zach Greinke are just a few of the names who performed well with Royals initially, only to find more individual and team success with another club. Moose bucked that trend, and for a little bit, he showed that Dayton Moore wasn’t a complete jackass.

And Moose represented a lot of what Kansas City was about. He probably was the most relatable out of the Royals stars. He isn’t the happy go lucky guy like Salvy. He isn’t an incredible athlete like Cain. He isn’t a hunk like Hosmer. And he isn’t a local Midwest boy like Gordon. Moose is just…Moose, and I know I appreciated him for his no-nonsense, laid back personality.

And he was a Cali guy who embraced Kansas City, much like me. Maybe that’s another reason why I like him so much.

Anyways, Moose will be missed, both on and off the field. At least he will be back in the lineup with another former Royal in Cain. True Royals fans will appreciate seeing something familiar in October should the Brewers hold on and make the playoffs.

Who did the Royals get in Brian Goodwin? (And why did they make this trade?)

The Kansas City Royals should be in “tank mode” (there’s t-shirts and everything). They sit in the bottom of the AL Central, and they are battling with the Baltimore Orioles for the worst record in baseball overall. Already the Orioles are starting to lean in fully to the “tanking” strategy, as evidenced by them trading superstar Manny Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a gaggle of prospects. One would think the Royals would also be “all-in” on such a strategy, eager to follow the lead of the O’s in order to keep pace for the No. 1 draft pick in 2019.

However, it seems like the Royals, both on the field or in the front office won’t go down this season quietly.

Already the Royals are 3-0 in the second half thanks to a weekend series sweep of the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman. And if that wasn’t enough, general manager Dayton Moore made an aggressive move in the wake of Jeurys Familia being traded from the Mets to the Athletics:

The move by the Royals is an interesting play, as it somewhat contradicts the notion that the club is “tanking.” “Tanking” teams are giving up Major League players for Minor League prospects, not the other way around. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at who the Royals received in the trade, who they give up, and why they decided to trade for the 27-year-old outfielder.


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Who did the Royals receive?

Since Jorge Soler went down with a foot injury in June, the Royals outfield has lacked depth and effectiveness. While Alex Gordon has held down the left field position this season, and Jorge Bonifacio has added some stability after returning from suspension, it’s been a bit of a rotating door in center field. Abraham Almonte underwhelmed and eventually was released by the club. Rosell Herrera has flashed some promise from time to time, but it’s clear he’s not a long-term solution. Paulo Orlando is a far cry from what he was a few seasons ago, and Alcides Escobar may offer some athleticism and defense at the position but doesn’t hit well enough to justify him moving into the outfield.

Goodwin, on the other hand, is a pure outfielder who comes in with a lot of accolades over his Minor League career, though his star has faded a bit over the past couple of years. Goodwin is a former first-round pick who was drafted by the Washington Nationals 34th overall in 2011 (the same draft year as Bubba Starling). Immediately, Goodwin was praised for a strong tools set, which included plus-speed, a solid ability to make contact, and a mature batting eye for his age. Going into 2013, Baseball America ranked him as the 70th best prospect overall, and Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com ranked him as the 52nd best prospect overall.

Before, when I was writing on prospects at my Giants-centered Minor League site, Optioned to Fresno, I covered Goodwin leading into the draft. Here’s a snippet on Goodwin from that post written in 2011, where I quote a scouting report on Goodwin:

“He does a lot of little things well, and has four legitimate tools, lacking power as the only tool to make him the always coveted five-tool talent. And despite his lack of power, Goodwin will surprise you with his pop from time to time. Most of his power goes to the gaps, and his 6.5 speed allows him to leg out plenty of extra base hits. His bat is made for contact, as he excels at putting the ball in play and going with pitches to drive the ball up the middle and the other way. He is extremely fast out of the box, and gets down the line to first base as a left-handed hitter as well as anyone, allowing him to be a threat on infield grounders and bunt plays.”

Despite the praise and high expectations, things never went as planned for Goodwin in Washington. First, he was unable to find many opportunities in a crowded outfield that included Bryce Harper, Adam Eaton, Juan Soto, and Michael Taylor. Despite playing professional ball for seven seasons, Goodwin has only 144 games and 401 total plate appearances at the Major League level. With Soto and Eaton entrenched in the long term, and the Nationals most likely making a play for Harper this off-season, it just seemed like Goodwin was bound to be the odd man out in D.C.

Furthermore, while the Nationals’ outfield depth didn’t help, the 27-year-old outfielder didn’t do much to really sway management’s expectations on the field. In the minors, Goodwin has a career .253/.343/.399 slash with a .742 OPS and 53 home runs in 2,399 plate appearances in 565 total games. While those numbers aren’t bad by any means, they don’t “wow” or demonstrate that the Nationals were missing out on a lot. That being said, in Goodwin’s most extended stint in the majors in 2017, he actually impressed, and show glimpses of what he could do with regular playing time.

Filling in for an injured Adam Eaton, Goodwin hit 13 home runs and posted an OPS of .811 in 278 plate appearances in 74 games in 2017. While the average wasn’t great (.251), he made up for it with impressive power, as evidenced by a .498 slugging and .247 ISO last season. It’s easy to see why he was such a heralded prospect in the past when you check out his highlights from 2016 and 2017 in the video below:

Unfortunately, despite the promising extended look last year, Goodwin didn’t get much consistent playing time this year, as he filled in mostly as a pinch hitter with the big league club. He only has appeared in 48 games and has only 79 plate appearances, not much of a sample. And in that small sample, he only hit .200 with a .674 OPS and three home runs.

Goodwin will get a lot of starts and at-bats in the center field position this year, as he will be an upgrade over more free-swinging options such as Herrera, Orlando or even Escobar. The former supplemental-round pick demonstrates a patient approach, as evidenced by a 12.7 percent walk rate this year, and a 36.3 percent swing rate (it was 41 percent last year). To be more effective, he will need to improve his strikeout numbers, as he is striking out in 32.7 percent of his at-bat this year and posted a 24.8 percent K rate a season ago. That being said, considering this club’s problems with free-swinging out of the strike zone, Goodwin’s approach (he has only swung at 22.4 percent of pitches outside the strike zone this year) may be a nice change of pace for this Royals lineup.

Another question will be how Goodwin adapts in the outfield along with Bonifacio and Gordon, who both have their issues defensively. In the outfield, Goodwin was rated as 5.4 runs below average defensively last season in his extended stint, and the fans scouting report from last year wasn’t too glowing either. While Goodwin will have his shot for playing time in the second half, his defense may be the difference in terms of him getting regular playing time, or simply being a fourth outfielder in Kansas City.


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Who did the Royals lose?

The Royals traded relief pitcher Jacob Condra-Bogan, a 32nd round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft who came from Georgia Southern (He was drafted originally by the Toronto Blue Jays). By no means is Condra-Bogan an elite prospect, as he is currently 23-years-old and playing in Lexington (where he is 1.1 years older than the average prospect). But, Condra-Bogan has demonstrated good command in his first full big league season, as evidenced by a 2.08 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, and 39 strikeouts in 26 innings with the Legends.

Condra-Bogan has an interesting backstory, as Maria Torres of the Kansas City star profiled him on June 1st. It’s definitely worth reading if you want to get to know more about the 23-year-old, who bounced around the foster care system growing up. However, while Condra-Bogan definitely is a feel-good player worth rooting for, he didn’t have much of a prospect ceiling as an older, relief-only arm. So it’s not a huge loss overall for the Royals farm system. Nonetheless, Condra-Bogan has his share of fans, as evidenced by the Tweet below:

 


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Why did the Royals make this trade?

I found this Tweet pretty interesting from Down Under Fan (@RoyalDUF), who would have preferred the Royals go with some internal options in Omaha rather than acquiring the Nationals castoff.

In many ways, I empathize with RoyalDUF. The Royals plan ideally should be to rebuild the system by acquiring prospects and finding which players in the system currently are worth keeping and which ones aren’t. That’s not going to happen if players are still playing in Omaha or Northwest Arkansas. Maybe Schwindel or O’Hearn are Four-A players, but the Royals won’t know that unless they get at-bats against MLB players. Acquiring Goodwin definitely impedes that process from happening.

That being said, Goodwin is a low-risk acquisition who has potential to develop with regular playing time in the outfield. After all, he was a former first-round pick, was a highly rated prospect at one point, and has demonstrated that he can produce at the Major League level, as he did last season in Washington. While Condra-Bogan was a nice arm in the system, he was an older prospect in Single-A whose upside was a middle innings relief arm, maybe a setup guy at best. The Royals didn’t have to give up much for Goodwin, so that’s a win for Moore and the Royals organization.

It will be interesting to see too if this is the first of many moves for Moore as we approach the trade deadline. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before Mike Moustakas is gone, and it also seems to be plausible that Whit Merrifield and/or Lucas Duda may be dealt as well (especially Duda, who’s been on a tear in the last couple of games). Thus, the Goodwin trade may be a sign of Moore being proactive, as Goodwin could provide the Royals with some insurance in the lineup once the roster becomes thinner and younger perhaps in the next few weeks.

Is the Reds’ Billy Hamilton Finally Figuring It Out?

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.