June 15, 2015
The Buyer's Guide
It’s an old adage in baseball that speed-centric players should keep the ball on the ground to best access the inherent advantage that speed provides a hitter. Plus-plus speed puts extreme pressure on the infield defense to quicken their fielding motions and their internal clocks, forcing miscues and free bases. Moreover, speed-centric players typically lack usable game power, so it’s a better strategy to put the baseball on the ground—either to find a hole or to leg-out an infield single—rather than hit a harmless flyball that completely negates the speed advantage.
Of course, such strategies do not always make sense. Carlos Gomez grew up in the Mets and Twins farm systems, where his coaches preached a groundball-heavy approach in an attempt to utilize his blazing speed. It seemed to make sense for Gomez, too, as he never hit more than seven home runs in a season. He didn’t offer enough power to make a non-ground-ball approach make sense.
There is the fact that Carlos Gomez is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, though. And the fact that the focus on hitting the baseball on the ground wasn’t working. As Howard Medgal wrote in 2013:
"You know, I'd been trying this for five years," Gomez said. "And it's not working. Put the ball in play, hitting ground balls for running, bunt, hitting the ball the other way, all the people wanted me to hit the ball on the ground." You could almost hear the echoes of his coaches as he relayed their advice. "And we made the decision, me and Dale [Sveum, then-Brewers hitting coach], that no, you're strong, we want you to drive the ball, hit the home run. So in September, after I come back from that injury, to my collarbone, I hit the ball good. I drove it."
Since the beginning of 2012, Gomez has hit .277/.334/.479 with an 119 OPS+ and 71 home runs. The speed hasn’t left his game—he has still stolen 117 bases in that timeframe—but the decision to give him the freedom to swing freely has tapped into a previously un-accessed facet of his potential.
Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds is not 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Instead, the diminutive speedster is listed at six-feet, zero-inches and only weighs 160 pounds. Power does not drive his value at the plate. Rather, Hamilton’s value is driven by his batting average and his speed. Because he doesn’t walk much, he must hit for a respectable batting average to be worth putting in the lineup everyday. The defense is great, but there are limits. Hamilton owns a 54 OPS+. Coming into Sunday, June 14th, only Chase Utley had a lower OPS (.553) than Hamilton (.557) this year.
The Cincinnati Speedster needs to hit the baseball on the ground.
Billy Hamilton, on average, went in the fourth round of fantasy drafts in 2015. He’s the rare player who can carry a single category, whether in roto or head-to-head leagues. No player has more stolen bases than Hamilton (26), and as long as he remains in the everyday lineup for the Reds, he should finish the season atop the league in that category.
Unfortunately, that playing-time caveat is more than just an idle worry. Prior to games on Sunday, June 14, Hamilton was hitting .217/.258/.300 with three homers, 29 runs, and 17 RBI. His low batting average stems, in part, from a .246 BABIP, which seems utterly inconceivable given his blazing speed. History shows that BABIP to be far below his career norms, so that should bounce back nicely and keep the average away from the Mendoza Line.
The problem, though, is that his BABIP is not solely tied to bad luck or random variance. While he has cut his strikeout rate by four percentage points from last year, his BABIP struggles remain tied to poor contact and a poor approach at the plate.
Driving the baseball in the air is always desirable; however, not all big-league players can drive the ball with authority. Some lack the ability to be a true power threat, and those players must have a carrying tool elsewhere because that deficiency is normally a death sentence. Obviously, Billy Hamilton has his electric speed to compensate for the lack of power. He just doesn’t use it well.
Players who do not hit for power and have incredible speed should keep the baseball on the ground. Below, I have compared Hamilton to four light-hitting speedsters. Note the extreme disparity in ground-ball rates between Hamilton and the other four.
The ground-ball rates of the bottom quartet dwarf Hamilton’s. Even Denard Span, who is perhaps not accurately portrayed as a light-hitting speedster, has a higher ground-ball rate and understands how to best utilize his speed. If Hamilton is supposed to be Revere or Gordon or Pierre with better ability on the basepaths, his process at the plate is broken.
Of course, one could also look at the above chart and note that Hamilton still has the highest number of stolen bases per 600 plate appearances, and I also mentioned that he leads the league in steals this year. Thus, could one say Hamilton doesn’t need to get on base as much to be a true stolen-base threat? In fantasy baseball, sure. For the real-life Reds, though, his on-base rate matters. The number of times he reaches base matters. The raw number of stolen bases remains palatable for fantasy owners, but the functionality of those stolen bases for the Reds becomes questionable.
To further illustrate why Hamilton must focus on a ground-ball approach and maximize the benefit of his speed, it’s readily apparent that he’s not hitting the baseball hard. Of 276 players who have had at least 50 batted balls tracked for velocity, Hamilton has the fourth-lowest average. When he makes contact and puts it in play, it’s only traveling 82.15 mph—and according to Daren Willman, the league’s batting average for baseballs hit slower than 85 mph is just .226 this year. So, perhaps Hamilton’s .246 BABIP isn’t completely off base.
Still, there’s too much track record and too much speed to think Billy Hamilton will sustain a .246 BABIP in 2015, even if he’s hitting the majority of his batted balls into the air. I would bet it climbs to a reasonable level. The problem, though, is that Hamilton still only hits around .250 with an on-base percentage under .300. For fantasy owners, this would represent more stolen-base opportunities, but it may not be good enough to keep Hamilton in the everyday lineup, which is the biggest concern for the rest of the 2015 season and into future seasons.
Billy Hamilton should take the advice of Philadelphia’s Freddy Galvis. The Phillies asked him to tweak his mechanics in order to better allow him to avoid fly balls. Galvis hasn’t actually accomplished this very well, as he has a near-40-percent fly-ball rate in May and June; however, his banner month of April was accompanied by the lowest fly-ball rate of his career (30.9 percent).
Really, Hamilton should be looking to take Galvis’s swing advice and implement it like Nori Aoki of the San Francisco Giants. He owns a career-low 16.2 percent fly-ball rate in 2015 and is hitting .326/.395/.403. His swing and approach is tailored to a speedster’s game, even if Aoki is not as fast as he used to be. Such an approach would benefit Hamilton tremendously—as would Aoki’s plate discipline and pitch recognition, obviously.
BUYER’S ADVICE: SELL
This is a difficult decision, because Billy Hamilton can single-handedly carry a fantasy category. Despite severe on-base issues, he continues to lead Major League Baseball in steals. He hurts the HR, RBI, and average categories, but it’s admittedly difficult to cut the cord on a player who allows a fantasy owner to allocate other resources toward power and average and not worry about stolen bases. Still, Hamilton’s real-life offensive value has been so poor in 2015 that his long-term playing time is a massive concern. Defense can only carry him so far. He may be relegated to a Jarrod Dyson-type role—while still sneakily valuable late in fantasy drafts, that’s not someone in which fantasy owners should invest heavily.
Hamilton is only 24 years old and does conceivably have plenty of development time remaining in his career. The Reds are also not likely to be in contention and have the luxury to cope with his offensive struggles without sacrificing a within-reach playoff berth. These are reasons to hold Hamilton; however, this is a guy who hit .256/.308/.343 in 547 Triple-A plate appearances and has had huge question marks regarding his bat since day one. These offensive struggles have not been unexpected by many, and there’s little to suggest that he’s fundamentally improving his core skills. I, for one, am not expecting development to occur just because he’s young and he has time for it to happen.
Since I’m not confident the level of offensive performance will ever rise much above his 2014-2015 numbers, it is not a guarantee that he receives everyday at-bats in the foreseeable future. If I were a Hamilton owner in a fantasy league, I’d be shopping hard to see if someone else is willing to sell his or her soul for stolen bases, because the fantasy value is still present. That narrow value just comes with a lot of overall pain, and that isn’t my cup o’ tea.