Just two days ago, Cincinnati Reds general manager Walt Jocketty announced that Billy Hamilton would be the team’s starting center fielder for the 2014 season. This announcement came not long after the Texas Rangers inked former Reds center fielder Shin-Soo Choo to a seven year, $130 million deal.

Though this announcement could be viewed as a cause for concern in the eyes of some fans, all are excited at the prospects of Hamilton—or at least his potential—atop the Reds lineup card. 

The 23-year-old has speed that matches, and probably bests, that of all-time greats like Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman and Lou Brock. Additionally, after moving to center field to start the 2013 season, Hamilton has caught on quickly and possesses some of the best positional speed of any player in the game.

This is not to say that Hamilton is without flaw though, and we’ll explore those as well.

This article aims to familiarize fans with Hamilton, exposing both his flaws and talents in an attempt to arrive at some realistic predictions for the young phenom’s first season in the show.


Scouting Report

Hamilton’s game is centered largely around his legendary speed. The Mississippi native has played just 515 career games between the minors and big leagues but has logged an incredible 408 stolen bases.

Hamilton’s not just a runner though. For a young prospect, Hamilton has incredible base-stealing skills that reach far beyond his speed. Hamilton is adept at reading pitchers and has a lightning-quick first step, allowing him to convert on an incredible number of his attempts.

Consider Hamilton’s stolen base totals and percentages over each of the last five seasons.

Though each season’s percentage is impressive in its own right, the best stolen-base percentage of Hamilton’s career came last season.

Last year, Hamilton played most of his season—123 out of 136 games—at Triple-A Louisville where he tallied a success rate of 83.3 percent. Hamilton then played the remaining 13 games with the Reds, where he managed a 92.9 percent success rate with just one caught stealing to 13 successes.

Hamilton can steal bases on anybody.

Hamilton stole four bases in the video above, two each off Yadier Molina and A.J. Ellis. In 2013, Molina and Ellis logged caught stealing percentages of 43 and 44 percent respectively—both significantly higher than the 28 percent league average.

If Hamilton’s call-up last season was indicative of anything, it’s that he’ll be able to steal bases at a highly efficient rate. Though his on-base skills are lacking at this juncture, when presented the opportunity, Hamilton will swipe bags far more often than he’s caught trying.

True of most players whose primary asset is speed, Hamilton is a light hitter. The 23-year-old offers little in the way of power and relies heavily on his speed to log extra-base hits.

In an intriguing article comparing the young speedster to former Cardinals star Vince Coleman, B/R’s own resident prospect expert, Mike Rosenbaum, called Hamilton, “the fastest player in baseball. Possibly ever.”

In his year-end top 100 prospects piece, Rosenbaum had this to say of Hamilton

Fastest player I’ve ever seen on a baseball field; best home-to-first time I’ve ever recorded or heard of; everyone in the park knows he’s running, and Hamilton still swipes bags with ease; legitimate top-of-the-order potential at maturity; secondary skills are raw and will require ongoing refinement.

Incredibly, it’s not until you put numbers to Hamilton’s speed that you can truly appreciate it.

In his 2012 scouting report of Hamilton, former big league scout Bernie Pleskoff stated that, at the Arizona Fall League’s Rising Stars Game, he clocked Hamilton at 3.50 seconds while going home to first from the left side. In the same article, Pleskoff stated that Hamilton once clocked himself at 3.30 seconds—possibly an embellishment, but somehow believable.

In short, Hamilton’s speed is the stuff of legend, and should he reach his potential at the plate, he could very well re-write the record books.

Those are Hamilton’s strengths. Given the chance to use them regularly, he’ll provide elite-level speed, average on-base skills and above-average defense in center. Additionally, the Mississippi native brings with him the possibility of Major League Baseball’s first 100 stolen base season since 1987.

Hamilton’s flaws at the plate are evident though, and they could severely limit his ability to recognize his vast potential in the 2014 season.

In the same top 100 prospect article referenced earlier, Rosenbaum had this to say of Hamilton’s abilities at the plate.

Struggled to put ball in play this year consistently compared to 2012 season; always puts pressure on opposing defense; feet never stop moving on the baseball field, especially on the basepaths. Development of hit tool and approach regressed this season; struggles to make consistent contact; some extra-base power from left side thanks to more leveraged swing.

In short, Mike’s assessment is spot on. Hamilton’s 2013 season saw a reduction in his bat-on-ball skills, as well as his on-base skills—both of which will be desperately needed in 2014. You can see what Mike is talking about, even in this 2012 video from Bullpen Banter. 

Hamilton’s swing from the right side is somewhat long, and he tends to lunge at breaking balls and pitches slightly out of the zone. You may also notice that Hamilton’s right-handed swing possesses almost zero leverage, leading one to believe that he’ll hit for very little power from that side of the plate.

Additionally, while bunting, Hamilton has a tendency to drop the barrel of the bat to unfavorable angles, producing either foul balls or popped-up bunt attempts.

Making solid, well-timed contact will be key for Hamilton, as he’ll only be driving the ball over an outfielder’s head on rare occasions. If Hamilton is able to improve his eye for off-speed pitches and ability to make strong contact with the ball, we’ll see an above-average number of inside-the-park home runs, as well as a large number of doubles and triples throughout his career.

All in all, Hamilton’s current skill set presents us with a bit of a mixed bag. His abilities at the plate are slightly behind where they should be given his current status as the team’s starting center fielder and leadoff hitter.

However, Hamilton’s defensive contributions and ability to wreak havoc on the basepaths make him a strong candidate to take home NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.


Replacing Shin-Soo Choo

Nobody’s going to sugarcoat this as an easy task, as Hamilton has some rather large shoes to fill in 2014.

Last season, in his only one as a Red, Choo had a monster year. The 31-year-old appeared in 154 games, totaling a .285/.423/.462 slash line with 21 home runs, 34 doubles, 54 RBI, 107 runs scored and 20 stolen bases.

Hamilton, conversely, played his entire season at Triple-A Louisville, working to a .256/.308/.343 slash line with six home runs, 18 doubles, four triples, 41 RBI, 75 runs scored and 75 stolen bases.

To put it quite simply, Hamilton does not equal Choo. Choo is capable of getting on base at a .400-plus clip and, in addition, provides an outstanding combination of power and speed, as evidenced by his .462 slugging percentage and 20 stolen bases.

Even if Hamilton were to perform to the best of his current abilities, he won’t rival Choo‘s incredible on-base percentage. In fact, at this juncture, he won’t even come close, and that’s where the problem sets in.

Hamilton’s current skill set is indicative of a player capable of posting, at best, a .XXX on-base percentage in 2014. Realistically though, that number will probably be closer to the .XXX-.XXX range.

As far as power production is concerned, forget about it. Hamilton won’t approach 10 home runs in 2014, let alone the 21 Choo posted last season.

Luckily, the Reds don’t need him to.

Choo produced a total of 56 extra-base hits in 2013, compared to Hamilton’s 30. Where Hamilton can close that gap in a hurry though is on the basepaths. Hamilton may produce significantly fewer extra-base hits than Choo did, but the guy is practically a walking double.

If he gets on base, there’s a strong possibility he’ll occupy the next base by the end of a given at-bat.


Rookie Season Predictions

Right now, Hamilton is a flawed player. Luckily for the Reds, and for Hamilton, he’s a flawed player with record-breaking potential.

Given Hamilton’s current ability level, over a projected 610 plate appearances and 545 at-bats, it’s reasonable to expect a slash line somewhere in the realm of .239/.302/.313.

Based on the predicted slash line, Hamilton should reach base roughly 184 times in the 2014 season.

If we take away the times he has a triple or a home run, then Hamilton would have 162 opportunities to steal a base. Because of his status as a relatively unproven rookie, it’s likely that Hamilton’s attempts will be slightly scaled back in 2014—let’s say he attempts to steal every 2.5 times he reaches a base shy of third.

Given his success rate over the course of his career—one that should hold true given his speed and awareness—we’d arrive at a stolen base total of 53.

Projecting Hamilton’s career extra-base hit percentages over a full season gives us a look at why scouts are concerned about his strength at the plate. While adjusting for some decrease due to the jump to the MLB level, based on career percentages, we can expect a total of 18 doubles, nine triples and three home runs.

All in all, Hamilton’s 2014 stat line should look something like this.

Though he may fall short of these projections, he may also exceed them. Either way, Hamilton is on the short list of NL ROTY candidates in 2014 and could make the Reds offense tough to deal with should the likes of Brandon Phillips, Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier rebound.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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