Just off the hallway that leads from the home clubhouse to the dugout in Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, there is a batting cage to the right, enveloped by netting, and right next to that is a mini-track. It was there that Billy Hamilton prepared for the best work of his career, in his first weeks in the big leagues.
During September 2013, with the Reds contending for a playoff spot, Hamilton would retreat to that area, get a few sprints in and then practice breaking away from an imaginary base. Dusty Baker, the Cincinnati manager at the time, would wait for the right moment in close games to deploy baseball’s best base-running weapon. In each of the first four games where he was used, Hamilton stole a base; in three of those situations, he scored a run. He made six appearances that month in which he did not have a plate appearance, and in three of those six games, the Reds won by one run.
Hamilton has stolen a lot of bases since then, and made a lot of great plays in the outfield, but it could be that it was that first month when he revealed the role in which he would have the most impact -- a situational player who could be a difference maker on a team fighting for a playoff spot in September, or fighting through postseason games in October.
Since that first month, Hamilton has demonstrated that he cannot consistently hit major league pitching -- and given his work ethic and his love for baseball, Lord knows he has tried to make it work. But after 4½ seasons in the big leagues and almost 2,500 plate appearances, Hamilton has a .296 career on-base percentage, with a .190 average and .281 OBP this year, and no team can commit (or should commit) 500 to 600 plate appearances annually to a player who doesn’t hit for much power and doesn’t get on base. Among the 216 players with at least 1,500 plate appearances from 2014 to 2018, Hamilton ranks 216th in wRC+. Dead last.
The Reds have lived with that production problem in the hope that Hamilton would improve as a hitter, in years in which Cincinnati has been rebuilding anyway, with the understanding that he is a really popular player. But as he has accumulated service time and his salary has risen, he is now past the tipping point where his value as a player offsets what he is being paid. He made $2.625 million last year, is making $4.6 million this year, and if the Reds keep him, he’ll be in line for a raise next year. He is a candidate for a non-tender this fall.
And yet Hamilton could be an incredible and dangerous late-season tactical weapon on the right team, playing for the right manager, because of his absolute fearlessness on the bases and his game-changing speed. A lot of teams will promote good baserunners for September and October -- Terrance Gore in the Royals’ American League championship years of 2014 and 2015, for example -- but Hamilton may be the most skilled, instinctual base stealer in the game.
In spite of his struggles to hit, Hamilton has averaged almost 60 steals in each of the last four seasons. For all that he cannot do well at the plate, he can change the course of a game when he’s on base, as he showed that first month of his career. If he was inserted into a tie game in the playoffs or World Series, Hamilton could disrupt everything: the opponent’s infield alignment, the concentration of the pitcher, the catcher’s pitch selections. If the guy on the mound had a slow delivery -- think Dellin Betances -- Hamilton could move from first to third in the span of two pitches.
Because he’s that good of a base stealer; he’s that aggressive. Hamilton was in the minor leagues the first time I spoke with him, right after he had a game in which he swiped eight bases, and I remember asking him about the ball-strike counts in which he broke from first (or second) base, and he answered.
Every time. Because he knew he couldn’t be thrown out. He knew he wasn’t going to be thrown out. And if he happened to be thrown out, that piece of failure had no lasting impact on his baserunning confidence.
Consider his record of stolen bases in the big leagues, and how brazenly and confidently he runs, almost always early in the count. Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information dug this out:
Stolen base attempts on specific ball-strike counts
All other counts: 42
Hamilton also is a high-impact defender in center field, with his fearlessness translating in those moments he pursues drives into the gaps and near the fences. So Hamilton’s perfect role would be to serve as a pinch runner in the right spot and then assume a spot in the outfield for the late innings, to help protect the lead that he created.
But he wouldn’t be an ideal fit for a lot of teams, for a lot of reasons. Hamilton is owed about $1.5 million for the final two months of the season, and there probably are few teams that are willing to take on that kind of salary for a specialist. If the Reds are willing to deal him, they might want something meaningful in return -- and that might turn off would-be suitors. Some National League teams might be reluctant to take him on as a bench player because they typically need those guys to be at least decent pinch hitters. “He might be a really nice luxury item for a big-market team,” one evaluator mentioned.
Three teams that could use Hamilton:
1. The Giants, who typically play a low-scoring style, especially in their home games. Hamilton could run for someone like Buster Posey or Evan Longoria or Brandon Belt late, then double-switch into the game to cover some of the vast spaces in the AT&T outfield.
2. The Mariners, a club with a lot of lumbering everyday players, such as Nelson Cruz, have played (and won) a ton of one-run games early this season. Hamilton could help continue that.
3. The Astros, who have a small handful of candidates who could use a pinch runner, from Brian McCann to Evan Gattis. It’s hard to imagine the Astros taking on Hamilton before the July 31 trade deadline and carrying him on their roster through August, given his offensive issues. But if the Reds hold on to him into late August, he’d be a great addition as part of the expanded September roster, and the roster in October, when teams can carry one or two fewer pitchers.
Whether he will be dealt to another team remains to be seen, but what is absolutely clear is that the Reds should move on from him as they continue to rebuild. Because Hamilton is part of a four-man semi-rotation in the outfield, the Reds are giving him playing time that could be put to better use on other players.
But for some team, for some manager, Hamilton can still be a difference maker, in the biggest games of the year.