Cincinnati Reds: The Curious Case of Billy Hamilton

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

What has been the major problem for the Cincinnati Reds over the last eight years? They have not addressed lead off or acquiring table setters. The one year, 2013, they found someone capable of getting on base with Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds broke scoring records and Joey Votto even set the all-time Reds record for times (316) on base.

So why can’t a team find a long term answer after all these years? One reason is that true lead-off hitters and table setters are very difficult to find. There just aren’t many Marquis Grissom‘s laying around these days. Dee Gordon moved last off-season and had a break out year for the Marlins, but even before last year, he was no proven commodity.

That brings us to one Billy Hamilton. Lead-off hitter or extreme pinch-runner? After slashing .280/.351/.377 through six seasons in the minors, 2014 seemed like it was a natural fit for Billy to replace Choo. Early in the season, it looked like Rookie of the Year honors were coming. Billy Billy Billy hit .285/.319/.423 with 38 steals over the first half of 2014 and it looked like the Reds had finally found their long term lead-off hitter. We aren’t just talking speed demon here, over that first half Billy had 19 doubles, 6 triples, and 5 home runs. Were we going to see 40 doubles, 10 triples, 10 homers, and 75 steals? The sky was the limit.

Then the second half came and Billy slashed .200/.254/.257 with 18 steals. It was like night and day. Not only was the hitting off, the extra-base pop was non-existent; 6 doubles, 2 triples, and a single home run was all Billy Ball could produce. He finished the year hitting .250 with a .292 OBP. Now you can see how frustrating this has to be for all parties concerned. Billy Hamilton has a unique set of tantalizing skills.

Everyone hoped 2015 would bring an entire season of Billy’s SPEED to play in as many games as possible. Almost from day one, it was just not happening. OBP’s of .278 and .247 in April and May set the stage for a rocky sophomore season. Season-ending shoulder surgery in September shortened Billy’s season, finishing .226/.274/.289 with 57 steals over 114 games.

Now here we are in spring training 2016. Shoulder soreness has limited Billy’s action so far, but the results aren’t that promising. Even though it’s only through 6 games and 17 at-Bats, Billy is hitting .176 with a .176 OBP.

The Reds have options here. They don’t have to force a round peg into a square hole anymore if they choose wisely. Rule 5 player Jake Cave has arguably been the most exciting player in camp. He’s been the main lead-off hitter and hasn’t disappointed, hitting .278/.333/.389 with 10 hits and 3 walks. A Cave/Suarez 1-2 punch in front of Votto: let your imagination run with all the run-scoring possibilities.

So what to do with Hamilton? I offer the best solution and have a dandy example of how Billy Ball could be used to win games. Let’s look at Kansas City’s Jarrod Dyson. The last few years the Royals have used Dyson as a late-inning, elite pinch runner dynamo to either tie the game or take a lead. Dyson hit .269/.324/.327 with 36 steals in 2014 and .250/.311/.380 with 26 steals in 2015. Often used as a silver bullet once another hitter got on base in the late innings, Dyson has been strategically used over the last three or four years as an assassin runner of sorts.

Guess what? We already know Billy is deadly in this role. In 2013, Dusty Baker used Billy as a silver bullet late in games as a super pinch-runner. All Billy did was swipe 13 bases and score 9 runs in 13 games. Ready for more? As a weaponized pinch-runner, Billy swiped 7 bases and scored 5 runs! That was only a 13-game sample, so you can see how strategically using Dyson has helped the Royals over the last 2 years and how using Billy Hamilton in the same way could be huge for this Reds team.

I’m not saying Billy will forever be a fourth Outfielder and pinch-runner extraordinaire, but for this team playing competitive baseball in 2016, this may be the best strategy to not only win games, but develop Hamilton as a player. It worked like a charm over 13 games in 2013. What could this strategy look like over 200 ABs and 162 games in 2016?