Perhaps the biggest question coming into 2014, at least until all of the injuries started piling up, was how will Billy Hamilton perform after being handed the job in center field with the departure of Shin-Soo Choo. Just about everyone knew he would be a strong base runner. Most people knew that he would at least be a solid defender in center. A lot of people though really questioned just how the bat would play.
Here we are on June 20th and Billy Hamilton has posted a 2.3 WAR (Fangraphs version), which is good for second best among position players, trailing just Todd Frazier. Among all center fielders in baseball, Hamilton ranks fifth with that 2.3 WAR trailing just Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones. To this point in the season, Billy Hamilton has been a roaring success. That much is very clear, but let’s look at how and why he has been successful this season.
At the plate, Billy Hamilton is hitting .277/.313/.400 on the season. His average is good, but the on-base percentage is not exactly good. That comes from a low walk rate, as Hamilton is walking in just 5.5% of his plate appearances. His slugging percentage has actually been solid, which is a bit of a surprise given his minor league track record. For a center fielder, his bat has been slightly above-average, but against the league as a whole, it’s been slightly below-average.
Of course, there is more to offensive value than what you do at the plate. What you do once you reach base can also be valuable, and for Billy Hamilton, it has been very valuable. It should come as no surprise that the center fielder leads the Reds in baserunning value according to Fangraphs. He also ranks second in all of baseball in the stat, trailing just Dee Gordon.
Overall his offense has been above-average thanks to his elite baserunning ability and his slightly below-average performance at the plate.
Hamilton made the transition from shortstop to center field in the fall of 2012 in the Arizona Fall League. Then he spent all of 2013 playing the position for the Triple-A Louisville Bats. As a part of my minor league coverage, I watched him play several times per week that season and to say that he took to the position quickly would be an understatement. The last time during the season that he made a mistake that showed off his inexperience was in April of that year. With elite speed he was able to make up for most mistakes he would make when it came to route running, but there weren’t many problems with his routes or his breaks.
Fast forward to today and we can look directly to yesterday to see just how good of a defender Hamilton is and can be. In fact, watch it again, or watch it for the first time if you missed it. It’s very impressive.
Heading back to Fangraphs to look at the defensive value and we can see that Hamilton has a UZR (ultimate zone rating) value of 10.9, which is the fifth best in all of baseball at all positions and the tops in center field. Only two other center fielders in the game have even HALF of that 10.6 value that Hamilton has. Jackie Bradley Jr. has a 6.8 mark and Leonys Martin with a 5.3 mark. What makes it even more impressive is that Hamilton has 483.2 innings in the field, which is significantly less than the guys ranked 2nd through 9th among center fielders.
Diving deeper into his defensive values, he is converting 97.4% of balls hit into his zone into outs. Mike Trout has the second best mark among center fielders at 93.9%. The gap between Hamilton and Trout is the same as the gap between Mike Trout and the guy in 14th place. His range is elite among the elite defenders in the game.
His “ARM” value is at 2.1, which is second among center fielders to just Leonys Martin at an incredible 5.4. Hamilton once again finds himself as an elite guy at the center field position.
Overall his defensive value is the best in the game at his position and among the best in the game at any position on the field.
Right now Billy Hamilton is doing elite level things on the basepaths and on the defensive side of the ball all while more than holding his own at the plate. When we add it all up, you could make an argument to place the Reds center fielder on the National League All-Star team. While it likely won’t happen because players are more often selected for what they do with their bats rather than their entire game, Hamilton has played close to an All-Star level this season.