Billy Hamilton: What Price Will You Pay for Speed?

Justin K. Aller

The Reds center fielder might single handedly win you the stolen base category, but at what cost?

Billy Hamilton might be the most prolific base stealer in the majors, but does that mean he deserves a spot on your fantasy team? Or perhaps a better question: Is he someone worth expending an early draft pick on?

For all the attention Hamilton’s base-stealing prowess receives, the Reds center fielder will help his fantasy owners in more than just that one category. Even with his recent inability to consistently reach base (.308 OBP in Triple-A last season), hitting in front of Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce (and, unfortunately, Zack Cozart) certainly has its merits, meaning Hamilton will score plenty of runs as well. That’s especially true if Votto can come up with the MVP-type numbers that I expect he’ll produce.

Alas, Hamilton’s primary value comes in those two counting stats, and not much else. He won’t contribute in the power department (career-high six home runs in 2013, 13 total homers in 2258 minor league plate appearances), and his batting average is questionable at best.

Actually, questionable is exactly what it is—perplexing, even; the center fielder’s batting average has fluctuated wildly over the past few seasons. He batted .311 (with a .410 OBP) between Single- and Double-A in 2012, then dropped to .256 (.308 OBP) in Triple-A in 2013. Finally, in 19 big league at bats in that same season, he hit .368.

Those are some wild swings, but don’t be fooled. Hamilton won’t give you a high batting average this season, which means you should draft accordingly. You’ll need other high-average players to offset Hamilton’s low average, unless you’re willing to sacrifice that category altogether.

According to ZiPS, Hamilton will bat .264 in 2014 (with 68 steals), but that’s something that will only happen if the Reds outfielder can decrease his strikeout rate, something that’s always plagued him a bit. Granted, his K% in Triple-A last season was a respectable 18.6 percent, right around average. But for a leadoff hitter, that’s still far too high, especially for someone who relies on his speed to reach base. You can bet that the Reds center fielder beats out more infield grounders than the average big leaguer, thanks to his sub-four time to the bag, which means the more balls he puts in play, the better.

Yes, Hamilton will produce a low batting average, but just how bad will it be? While it won't be pretty, some of the projections for Hamilton's batting average are simply unfair. Oliver, for example, has him at .233—that’s simply too low. For one, he hasn’t come close to that number since his minor league debut in 2009. But there’s also reason to believe Hamilton can compensate for his shortcomings at the plate this season, a reason that goes beyond the numbers. On a non-statistical note, Hamilton has worked with retired speedster (and Reds Double-A manager) Delino DeShields this offseason in an effort to hone his ability as a leadoff hitter. One of the results of the training has been an increased emphasis on bunting, which could point to several more hits this season, and a subsequent batting average leap. You might scoff at this notion, but to put it in perspective, six additional hits (a very legitimate possibility for a good bunter) in a 600 at bat season constitutes a 10-point leap in average. That could be the difference between hitting .250 and .260 on the season.

According to NFBC mock data, Hamilton’s ADP is currently 72.35, 73rd in the majors. That means he’ll cost you around a fifth to seventh round pick, depending on the number of teams in your league. He’s also being drafted just behind Josh Donaldson and Yadier Molina and just in front of Jason Heyward and Josh Hamilton. Those are pretty well-established names to be associated with someone who has just 22 big league plate appearances under his belt.

In short, the Reds outfielder won’t be available in the later rounds of the draft; you’ll have to invest quite a bit in someone who has an extremely small sample size of stats in the majors to work with. A .255 average, 85 runs and 75 steals are all legitimate possibilities for Hamilton in 2014, but the latter two counting stats are contingent upon the Reds center fielder reaching base at a better rate than he did in 2013 (.308 OBP in the minors). Hamilton has shown good discipline at the plate in the past, including a 16.9 BB% at Double-A in 2012. If he can avoid returning to his 6.9 BB% from Triple-A, even without posting an astronomical total like in 2012, that high run total isn’t out of the question.

Even so, the aforementioned fantasy totals are likely near his upside (for now). A more realistic outlook is in the .245-75 runs-60 steals ballpark, which is still decent production. The bottom line: If you’re willing to sacrifice average (and HRs and RBI) for the sake of runs and steals, Hamilton is your guy. It’s up to you whether you want to make that decision.

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

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