Prospect Helium Watch – Billy Hamilton – @b_ham_3
The fastest player in the California League, if not all of professional baseball, is Cincinnati Reds shortstop Billy Hamilton.
Hamilton’s speed has long been viewed as both his calling card and his biggest assets. While attending Taylorsville High School in Taylorsville, Mississippi (also the hometown of Chicago Bears’ quarterback Jason Campbell), Hamilton signed a letter of intent to play baseball and football (as a wide receiver) at Mississippi State University Bulldogs. While at Taylorsville High School, Hamilton also starred on the basketball team, averaging 35 points per game. While his hitting approach was considered raw, Hamilton’s elite speed, bat speed, and athleticism earned considerable praise. Watch Hamilton hit and throw here:
After taking Arizona State right-handed pitcher Mike Leake with their first round pick (#8), the Reds took Southern California right-hander Brad Boxberger in the supplemental first round (#43), the Reds took Hamilton with the 57th overall pick. Shortly after the draft, Hamilton was asked if he was planning to attend MSU or sign with the Reds, and he replied: “I think I’m going [with] baseball. I really don’t know yet, but I’m pretty sure I am, though. I’d rather start my whole career off now rather than later.” Hamilton continued, saying that baseball was his first love and he was anxious to grab hold of the opportunity to play professional baseball.
Hamilton signed and was assigned to the Rookie Level GCL Reds of the Gulf Coast League and immediately struggled in his first experience in professional baseball, hitting a putrid 205/235/277, striking out 47 times in 43 games. One area where Hamilton had success was in stealing 14 bases despite only getting on base 45 times, showcasing his world-class speed. After the season, Hamilton was viewed as little more than a speedster with impressible tools and tremendous upside who was far from actualization. Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein ranked Hamilton the #10 prospect in the Reds’ system, commenting that Hamilton is “far more of an athlete than a baseball player at this point” and Hamilton had “little feel for the strike zone,” as was evidenced by his high strike out total. Baseball America ranked Hamilton the #11 prospect, echoing many similar comments to Goldstein’s.
In 2010, Hamilton was held back in extended spring training for extra instruction before being assigned to the Rookie Level Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League, where the improvement was stark. In 69 games, Hamilton put up a 318/383/456 line with 13 doubles, 10 triples, and two home runs. More amazingly, Hamilton stole 48 bases in 57 attempts and struck out 56 times, or approximately three every five games. While in Billings, Hamilton played 13 games at shortstop and 55 games at second base, fueling speculation that the Reds did not view Hamilton as a shortstop in the long-term. After the season, the accolades began rolling in. Baseball America ranked Hamilton the #2 prospect in the Reds’ system, behind only Cuban fireballer Aroldis Champman, along with naming Hamilton the “Fastest Baserunner” and “Best Athlete,” and projecting him as the starting second baseman for the 2014 Reds. BP’s Kevin Goldstein ranked Hamilton the #3 prospect in the Reds’ system, behind Chapman and Devin Mesoraco, stating that “[i]f one could give a grade higher than 80 for speed, Hamilton would certainly earn it. He is arguably the fastest prospect in the game, with the kind of blinding speed that turns any ground ball to the left side into an adventure. He’s already a potent basestealer who swiped 48 bags in just 69 games and was safe on 29 of his last 30 attempts.” Goldstein questioned Hamilton’s ability to stay at shortstop, but commented that his value as a second baseman who bats leadoff was incredible. Goldstein ranked Hamilton the #46 prospect in all of baseball, comparable to Baseball America, who ranked Hamilton #50.
Around now is when I became aware of Billy Hamilton, from episode 19 of Up and In: The Baseball Prospectus Podcast, where Goldstein and Jason Parks each picked three prospects that they felt would have breakout seasons in 2011. While there were other players picked that were more universally renowned (Goldstein would later pick Bryce Harper) and Parks joked (maybe not as much of a joke) that he “wanted to pick all Royals.” After Parks picked Yankees’ catcher Gary Sanchez, Goldstein picked Hamilton as his “speed guy,” though Parks did not select that way. Goldstein stated that the issues with Hamilton were that he was from a small town in Mississippi and was very thin and not a classic athletic frame. Calling Hamilton “raw like sushi,” Goldstein discussed Hamilton’s issues in his first season in professional baseball and the work done by the Reds to make Hamilton into a better player, specifically pitch recognition, making contact, and using his speed to get on base. Projecting Hamilton as the type of guy who would hit .300, draw some walks, hit tons of triples, and steal 60 bases, Goldstein extolled his virtues while cautioning that Hamilton may never develop enough strength to become a good enough hitter to use his speed.
Assigned to the Full Season A Dayton Dragons of the Midwest League for 2011, Hamilton caused a buzz, hitting 278/340/360 with a mind-boggling 103 steals in 123 attempts. Hamilton’s season is more amazing when broken down by month or by half.
By Half (approximate – April through June and July through September):
The differences are stark: Hamilton hit 228/284/315 in the first half and 333/396/410 in the second half. While his isolated power was never impressive (and many of his doubles and triples were a direct product of his crazy speed), Hamilton’s batting average spiked in the second half as he showed improved plate discipline and improved contact rates. This can be shown by his improvement in SO/PA rate by month and half:
Hamilton’s strike out rate was higher for the first three months of the season than for any of the final three months, which coincided with his increased batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and nearly any other simple metric used to measure performance. Amazingly, Hamilton’s rates in July and September were lower than his overall rate, and his August rate was only slightly above his season average, truly splitting Hamilton’s seasons into two separate halves.
Unlike many young players appearing in their first grueling full season of professional baseball, Hamilton did not decrease his stolen base rate (0.75 SB/game in the first half and 0.77 SB/game in the second half) as the season wore on, even spiking in rate in September as he went all out in an attempt to steal 100 bases, stealing eight in his final four games.
After the season, the prospect prognosticators took note, as Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus ranked Hamilton the #22 prospect in baseball and the #1 prospect in the Reds organization, saying that Hamilton “has been known to go from first to third on singles to left field, has scored from second on sacrifice flies, and is a threat to steal both second and third whenever he reaches base.” Baseball America agreed, ranking Hamilton the #48 prospect in baseball and #2 prospect in the Reds organization (behind Devin Mesoraco). Baseball America further named Hamilton the “Fastest Baserunner” in the Cincinnati Reds’ system and the Midwest League, along with the “Best Athlete” in the Reds’ system, and the “Best Baserunner” in the Midwest League, all in 2011.
Entering 2012, there was a lot of focus as to how well Hamilton would be in the High A California League. While the California League is one of the most hitter-friendly leagues, if not the most hitter-friendly league, many hitters often abandon their approach in search of the long ball, causing many hitters to increase power numbers while increasing strikeout totals. Hamilton started the year by blasting a home run in his second plate appearance for the Bakersfield Blaze in the season opener. Through his first two months of the season, Hamilton put up a robust 319/395/448 line with an astonishing 57 stolen bases in 69 attempts. Despite only the single home run hit in the first game, Hamilton’s slugging percentage has been fueled by ten doubles and seven triples. Flying around the bases, Hamilton has been lighting up the California League while decreasing his strikeout rate (.8 per game for the season, down from 1 per game in 2011) while increasing his walk rate (.5 per game, up from .39 per game).
In responding to a question about Hamilton turning into Joey Gathright (basically an athlete with great speed who never put it all together despite being able to jump over a car), Goldstein responded, “He’s way better than Gathright, and faster. Almost zero chance to stay at SS, and I think they should move him to CF today.” Moving Hamilton to centerfield has been a common refrain, with Ben Badler of Baseball America stating “I think the Reds will try to keep him [at shortstop], but when you have the fastest player in all of baseball, I’d just put him in center field and let his speed take over.” Matthew Eddy of Baseball America echoed similar sentiments but for a slightly different reason, stating that Hamilton is “facing a likely shift to center field if he plays his way off shortstop.”
But how fast is Billy Hamilton?
From Baseball America’s Jim Callis:
From the ever-entertaining duo at Productive Outs:
From Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein:
Of course, if you don’t believe them, check out a few amazing facts unearthed by Baseball Prospectus’ Sam Miller:
- Pitchers have committed three balks while Billy Hamilton was on base.
- Billy Hamilton has scored from third when the catcher threw to first to complete another batter’s strikeout.
- And Billy Hamilton scored the walk-off run on April 20 on a sacrifice fly. To the second baseman.
Of course, what’s most amazing is that it appears that Billy Hamilton has no nickname. I have seen a few referring to him as “Sliding Billy” in reference to Hall of Famer Billy Hamilton, but he played more than 100 years ago (though he was also a great base stealer – stealing 100 four times and 914, good for third all time, for his career) in an entirely different era. Hamilton needs his own nickname and I think this is as good as a situation as any to come up with one.
I’m going to propose a few, please feel free to vote for one or tweet at me and I will add your suggestion to the list.
Until next time, follow me @HypeProspect.