Waiting in the Wings: Billy Hamilton

USA TODAY Sports

What's changed since our last look at the dynamic speedster?

I last wrote a review of Cincinnati Reds' prospect Billy Hamilton on June 12, 2013. Over the past year though, many of the changes I discussed have taken place and we've come to know a bit more about Billy Hamilton the prospect. I'm still going to borrow heavily from my report last year, and then discussed what's changed. It might seem a bit #slack filled, and that's a fair criticism, but it seems silly to reinvent the wheel here.

It was a rough introduction to professional ball for Hamilton, as he OPS'd under 600 in his Rookie ball debut in 2009, striking out over 25% of the time. He showed marked improvement in his second attempt at Rookie ball, posting a .318/.383/.456 slash line in over 300 plate appearances. He also slashed his strikeout to 17.7% and showed an improved walk rate, going from 6.2% to 8.9%. He also nearly doubled his ISO rate to a still paltry .138, underscoring that power is not, and will not be a part of his game. 2011 showed some regression in his rate stats despite the gaudy steal totals, though his 103 were more than double his previous career high of 48 stolen bases. His strikeout rate jumped back over the 20% mark (21.8%), while his walk rate held steady (slight decline to 8.5%) and his ISO dipped to a meager .082. His full season slash line came out to .278/.340/.360 though that included a dreadful .195 average through May that he managed to pull up with a .316 average from that point forward. 2012 has been another giant step forward Hamilton at the plate. He's posting a career low strikeout rate, under 17% and has shown dramatic improvement in his walk rate, up to 12.5%, easily a career high. He's also out to set records on the basepaths, with 71 stolen bases this year and we're not even halfway done yet. He's stolen 71 bases in under 300 plate appearances. This pace is unfathomable, and while he went through a slight lull earlier in the season, he's been on a tear recently. Hamilton is not purely a volume thief either, as he has succeeded in 83% of his attempts.

Since writing that, we know that Hamilton did indeed set records with his legs, swiping 155 stolen bases on the season. He also received a bump up to Double-A where he was not quite as good, but still solid. Hamilton began 2013 at the Triple-A level and got off to a brutal start before recovering a bit in May. Unfortunately June has brought more struggles for Hamilton as we've seen his OPS drop under 600 after briefly rising above that mark in May. The switch hitting Hamilton has struggled on both sides of the plate, though to date has hit about 75 points higher (in OPS) from the left side. More concerning than general ineffectiveness at the plate, which can be explained through bad luck or a timing mechanism or something is that Hamilton has regressed in his approach. We've seen his walk rate fall from 13% in Hi-A and 17% in Double-A last year to just over 7% thus far in Triple-A. While his walk rate has plummeted, his strikeout has remained high, sitting at 19% right now. While that is an acceptable rate for hitters with some semblance of power, Hamilton doesn't qualify. It's going to be a tough road to hoe if Hamilton continues to strike out this much, and walk/hit this little. Through all his difficulties, Hamilton has continued to run; stealing 48 bases in 57 attempts (84%). His speed is an absolute gamechanger, but getting on base only 30% of the time isn't going to make it worthwhile.

Speed is the only part of Hamilton's package that is close to full development, and that's not being fair to the phrase "full development." Hamilton is a freak of an athlete with off the charts speed, as easy of an 80 as you'll see in the game. He's the fastest player in the minors and will be the fastest player in the majors the second he receives his callup. He is by no means a complete package however, severely lacking in power, and has a ways to go with his hit tool. He should be able to sustain relatively decent averages even if he doesn't develop with the bat through a high number infield hits. He'll never boast any power but can obviously stretch some singles into doubles and doubles into triples. He will make his living wreaking havoc on the basepaths, something he should be able to do quite effectively. To put it simply, he is the most exciting player in the minor leagues, and quite possibly the majors as well. He gives meaning to the phrase "breathtaking speed."

From a hitting perspective, much remains the same in regards to Hamilton's tools, so I'm tempted to not update that information really. The speed is the still the best in the majors, and he's still incredibly exciting to watch. He has bat speed and his hands work well, so it's not as if there's no power potential (though even at peak it would be below average). The big issue, as his plummeting walk rate would indicate, is that he has a tendency to expand the zone. The other big shift comes on the defensive end, where Hamilton has made the shift to centerfield and is primed to replace Shin-Soo Choo there in 2014. Hamilton's freakish speed allows him to cover extensive ground in the field and while his arm isn't special, it's good enough to be league average. He's still developing his sense for reads and routes, but repetition should help those in time.

I concluded my last write up with:

If you're in the market for speed, Hamilton IS the market. If the price is too high for your tastes now, it might be worth waiting for a Double-A promotion, to see if he'll struggle with the bat and trying to buy low. ... Hamilton might not be a star quality player in terms of WAR or any measure like that, but if he gets on base, you won't want to leave the room. Pass on him at your own risk.

I am a little more concerned about Hamilton's ability to get the most out of his speed than I was at this time last year, but I think the advice still holds true. If you believe, buy now while the bat is down. If he can figure it out and even get on base in the 33% range, we're looking at a monster fantasy player in terms of stolen bases. In the interest of honesty, I recently traded Hamilton straight up for Hanley Ramirez in a 20-team dynasty where I'm attempting to make a run. I think I made a good deal there and wouldn't advise giving up that much value for Hamilton going forward. I still don't think it's a risky acquisition though. He's going to get a chance to play, and as long as he's not Dee Gordon, he'll win you stolen bases. He's worth more in roto leagues than head-to-head but worth owning in either. Catch him while you still can.

Source Material
Baseball Prospectus
Baseball Reference
FanGraphs

You can follow me on Twitter at @cdgoldstein
You can find more of my work at The Dynasty Guru and MLB Draft Insider

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