What Billy Hamilton Batting Leadoff Means for the Reds Offense
Replacing an All-star leadoff man
Before the 2013 season, the Reds traded for Shin-Soo Choo when he had one year left on his contract. Choo played centerfield and batted leadoff for the 2013 Reds, while notching an impressive .423 on base percentage. Choo stole 20 bases in 31 attempts, which shows some decent base running skills for a leadoff man. Now that Choo has moved on, the Reds have a void to fill at the top of their order and a defensive need in centerfield. Right now it appears that Reds top prospect Billy Hamilton will get the first chance at the centerfield job, and he will also bat leadoff for the Reds to start the season. Replacing an all-star level leadoff man is never easy, so analysis of Billy Hamilton will show how he measures up to Choo and how the Reds will fare with him batting at the top of their order.
On Base Skills For Billy Hamilton
In 2012, Billy Hamilton probably had his best season in the minor leagues as a leadoff man. At two different levels, he walked at 12.8% rate at high A, then walked at a 16.9% rate at Double-A. Both of these walk percentage numbers are really solid for a leadoff man who is playing at an age appropriate level for his development. However, the season before and the season following, were more of what Billy Hamilton's walk percentages had been throughout his minor league career. In 2011 at A ball, Billy Hamilton posted an 8.5% walk rate, which is average to below average for a typical leadoff man. In 2013 at the uppermost level of the minor leagues, Billy Hamilton posted a walk rate of 6.9%. This number was below average for the typical leadoff man, and an indicator that leadoff may not be the ideal spot for him in the lineup. In the major leagues the quality of pitching only increases, so low walk rates in the minor leagues would be an indicator that life in the big leagues may be tough for Billy Hamilton.
The other factor that goes into on base percentage, is the hit tool that allows a batter to hit for a certain range of batting averages, based on talent level. For players like Billy Hamilton, batting average does not always properly reflect the talent it takes to square up a baseball and show the bat control to use the whole field. Hamilton has a plus speed tool, so often he is able to collect infield hits that would not be hits for the typical batter. This in turn can skew his batting average to make it appear as if he has more hitting talent than he actually possesses. In 2010 in rookie ball and in his best minor league season in 2012, marked the only times in Hamilton's minor league career that he was able to post a batting average above .300. A closer look at these numbers show that Billy Hamilton does not really have a great hit tool, and his batting average has been boosted by infield hits. So far this spring, teams are defending Hamilton in such a way, that his infield hits will be limited in the big leagues. However, with these defensive alignments, ground balls that would normally be outs can find holes through pulled in infields. Hamilton's speed definitely changes the way that defenses play him, but it remains to be seen if it will translate into production in the hit total category.
Hamilton as a baserunner
Nearly every time Billy Hamilton reaches base, he is going to try to steal second base and maybe even third. Twice in his minor league career, Hamilton stole more than 100 bases in a single season, and in 13 games in the big leagues last season, he stole 13 bases. In 2011, Hamilton stole 103 bases in 123 attempts in A ball. In 2012, he had 155 total stolen bases between high A and double-A but he was also caught 37 times. These numbers would suggest that Billy Hamilton is the best base stealing leadoff man in the game of baseball, even if there is some drop-off when having to deal with major league pitchers and catchers. This dynamic aspect to his game, makes him a nightmare for opposing teams when he reaches base. For this reason, his impact is comparable to Choo's impact, even though the on base skills are nowhere near what the Reds were getting from Choo last season.
While the differences between Choo and Hamilton are many, the Reds are still going to ask Hamilton to replace him this season. Hamilton will impact the Reds offense in a similar way that a homerun hitter with a high strikeout rate might impact an offense. When Hamilton gets on base, he is probably going to have at least one successful steal, and if he gets on base with less than two outs, he will probably end up scoring a run. Hamilton's lack of advanced on base skills will hurt the Reds in at bats where he is not getting on base though. Major League teams will scout him thoroughly and make getting on base very tough for him. Without advanced hitting skills, Hamilton likely will not drive in many runs, so most of his value to the team, will be in his ability to score runs. Hamilton has impact speed, but since he can't steal first base and stealing home does not happen very often, his impact may be limited at times.