What to make of Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton?


In 2013 Billy Hamilton was the consensus as the Cincinnati Reds’ No. 1 prospect. Three years later and disappointment, underachievement, and last place have fans wondering if he should still be in the team’s future.

Billy Hamilton was a prized second round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in the 2009 draft. After selecting near-sure-thing in college arm Mike Leake with the eighth pick of the draft, the Reds gambled on a high-upside middle infielder with one alarmingly devastating tool: His speed.

Taken two picks ahead of now MVP candidate Nolan Arenado, Billy Hamilton isn’t Arenado, but his speed with evident early. In his first full minor league season Hamilton stole 103 bases — caught just 20 times — and hit a respectable .278 as a 20-year-old in A-ball. He took strides again in 2012 when he stole 155 bases, hit .311 and walked an encouraging 86 times.

Nearly every prominent prospect-ranking site had Hamilton as Cincinnati’s undoubted No. 1 prospect entering the 2013 season as he transitioned to a full-time role in center field. Baseball America rated him ahead of power-arm Robert Stephenson and also proclaimed him the team’s fastest baserunner and best athlete. Baseball Prospectus, too, rated him No. 1, described his overall future potential as that of an “all-star player,” and alluded to him being the “scariest baserunner of the modern era.” John Sickels of SB Nation had Hamilton No. 1, gave him an A- grade and added this:

"“His speed is nothing short of incredible and he knows how to use it, with fearlessness and aggression. I think he’ll be a decent enough hitter for it to matter, and he fits better in the outfield than at shortstop.”"

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Hamilton was thought to be the next dynamic lead-off hitter in baseball with Rickey Henderson-like speed and developing outfield defense in center field. Instead, his offense regressed.

In the Arizona Fall League following the 2012 season he hit .234 before hitting .256 with just 38 walks in the 2013 season. Hamilton did steal 75 bases on 90 attempts in 123 Triple-A games, but that was discouraging following his 155-steal season a year earlier. Despite the regression, Hamilton did enough to earn a late-season promotion to Cincinnati for a 13-game trial run. He impressed with a .368 average and 13 steals on 14 attempts at just 22 years old.

2014 was a bit tougher. Despite a runner-up finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting to Jacob DeGrom, Hamilton’s slash line dropped to .250/.292/.355, he walked 34 times to 117 strikeouts and was caught stealing a Major League-leading 23 times.

The struggles hit an all-time low last season when his future role with the Reds was legitimately questioned. While Hamilton did take a step forward, he took two steps back. His plate discipline — vital for a lead-off hitter — improved as he walked 29 times to just 75 strikeouts. He also stole 57 bases in 65 attempts. But he also used his uncanny speed to run in the opposite direction as he watched his slash line fall to a putrid .226/.274/.289 totaling just 15 extra-base hits across 114 games.

Enter 2016.

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An obvious year of rebuild, suffering and dismay, hope has been hard to come by. The bullpen remains atrocious, stars haven’t played like stars, slumps are aplenty and the Reds are last in the NL Central. But has Billy Hamilton grown into a starting centerfielder with a long-term future in Cincinnati?

In the midst of his third full season Hamilton currently has his best career slash line of .258/.300/.376. His 19-of-23 on stolen base attempts is a slight regression, but an arm good enough to keep runners honest and improved routes to the ball have Hamilton among the game’s best defensive centerfielders.

Among all such qualified players Hamilton is tied for second with nine Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) with Lorenzo Cain and Randal Grichuk and trails only Kevin Pillar (11). His UZR (4.8) and Defensive WAR (5.6) both rank fourth among centerfielders behind Pillar, Cain and Leonys Martin. And Hamilton’s range has become so good that, according to FanGraph’s Inside Edge Fielding metrics, in the eight chances Hamilton has had to complete a Remote play (plays with just a likelihood of 1-10 percent), Hamilton has converted six of them for outs — 75 percent. Only six other centerfielders have converted just one … and that’s just it, each of them have converted only one.

According to FanGraph’s ARM rating for centerfielders, Hamilton also ranks tied for fourth with Yoenis Cespedes with a 1.4 rating. The duo trails Martin (3.0), Carlos Gomez (2.7) and Mike Trout (1.9).

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Hamilton may not be the game-changing lead-off hitter with unanswerable speed that many thought he could be, but in the midst of a Gold Glove-worthy campaign and offense that is no longer a liability — albeit better suited for the bottom of the order for now — he most certainly belongs in the Cincinnati Reds’ future with other talented bats closing in on their own promotions to Cincinnati. Hamilton once thought of as a game-changing player is changing the game is ways that many weren’t sure he could.