Billy Hamilton is one of the most intriguing prospects in baseball. In a game where home runs are king, Hamilton’s speed still excites the imagination in a Pete ‘Wheelie’ Wheeler way. Drafted in the second round in 2009, Hamilton stole our hearts. Then he stole 103 bases in 2011; and then a minor league record 155 last season. Yet his speed isn’t enough to keep him from being a controversial prospect. Often placed in the 20s or 30s on top-100 lists, the Cincinnati Reds prospect still has his doubters.
Let’s start with what we know about Hamilton: His speed is unparalleled in baseball. I clocked him at 3.6 and 3.7 from the right side a few times, and a tick or two below that from the left side. He’s absurdly fast. When he’s on the bases, he’s constantly moving, taking mini-steps toward the next base. This gives him a sort of walking lead while also distracting the pitcher. Pitchers are obviously aware of him, but he still stole two bases against left-handers without a throw and distracted Wirfin Obispo enough to get him to balk. Hamilton’s speed is a true weapon.
But how is Hamilton’s conversion to center field is going? The idea behind the move was presumably to allow his speed to play on defense by running balls down in the gaps while avoiding his not-so-graceful actions in the infield. From what I’ve seen, this is playing out perfectly for the Reds. He has crazy range in the outfield, and he has at least an average arm. Hamilton looks natural and confident in center field, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he posted a crazy UZR or DRS year down the road.
The major concern about Hamilton wasn’t his speed — and most people thought he would adapt to center field. The concern was about his bat. Hamilton is a switch-hitter, but he has a better swing from one side of the plate than the other. And that stronger side is, unfortunately, on the right. Hamilton has a natural, smooth swing from the right side with a decent amount of pop. There’s little load, and he drops the barrel down the ball with solid contact.
The swing from the left side doesn’t look as natural. It’s a prototypical slap-hitter swing in which Hamilton drags the bat through the zone through a flat plane. From the right side, there’s more wrist snap and the potential for at least some loft and backspin. From the left side, though, he’s basically looking to hit the other way and run. That’s not a terrible idea with his speed, but when he gets to the major league, the fear is pitchers will overpower him to the point it won’t matter. Better defenses will convert more of those grounders into outs.
And Triple-A pitchers and defenses have been doing that this season. Hamilton’s strikeout rate hasn’t increased, but his walk rate is definitely down from last season. When I saw him, he wasn’t taking pitches or working the count. He’s 6 feet tall and he weighs roughly 160 pounds, so power isn’t his game. It would help him to be able to draw walks at the next level, but if pitchers are able to come after him without worrying about Hamilton doing any damage, his hit tool isn’t enough to keep a high batting average that will push his OBP up as well.
But how much does Hamilton really have to hit if he’s awesome on the bases and in the field? If you give Hamilton the 2012 fielding and baserunning numbers of Michael Bourn — 23.3, 6.1 — and the 2012 offensive numbers of Jordan Schafer — .211/.297/.294 — you get about a 1-win player. If you give him Mike Trout’s baserunning production — 12 BsR — and a few more runs on defense, you might scrape a 2-win player together. That’s fine, considering Schafer was below replacement-level last season, but it also assumes the elite production from the other parts of Hamilton’s game. And even then it only nets you an everyday regular who should probably hit sixth or seventh to utilize his speed.
Can Hamilton top Schafer’s .266 wOBA and 64 wRC+ and become a star-level center fielder? It’s possible if his Triple-A performance is simply a blip, instead of a sign that his change in levels is finally starting to be a problematic. We don’t know the answer to that question, but I haven’t been impressed by Hamilton’s hitting ability or his approach so far. I imagine it’s the reason the Reds haven’t called him up even with a hole in the outfield and Shin-Soo Choo’s -27.2 UZR/150 so far this season. If that situation doesn’t scream to the Reds that Hamilton should be promoted, there’s probably something causing that hesitation.