Yesterday, we learned that Billy Hamilton would be out for the rest of the season following surgery on his ailing shoulder. It's a disappointing development for a young player who has been one of baseball's most disappointing young players. The book on Hamilton has always been that he might not hit enough to be valuable in the Major Leagues. With a .242/.287/.330 performance through age 25, it certainly looks like that prediction has come true.
But has it? Is Billy Hamilton a lost cause?
First, I think it's important to note that Hamilton is not actually a bad baseball player. His defense is definitely elite in center field, where he has the speed to chase down damn near anything hit into his area. As we consider his offensive performance, keep in mind that Hamilton doesn't even have to be a league average hitter to be an above-average player for the Reds in 2016.
Also, keep in mind that, while his speed has always been great, his baserunning has actually improved tremendously in 2015. He's stolen 57 bases at an 88 percent clip, including 16 steals of third base without being caught. He's only been picked off once, and he hasn't been thrown out at all while taking an extra base. He's come around to score 44 percent of the time he's been on base, which would lead baseball if he had enough plate appearances. Essentially, Billy Hamilton has perfected baserunning. So again, you need to add that to the overall picture when you assess him as a whole.
That said, we also need view Hamilton's performance at the plate for what it is: Awful. Hamilton has actually been worse in 2015 than he was in 2014, when he was just bad. He hit just .226 this year, with a .274 OBP. For a young man whose biggest offensive asset is his speed and baserunning, he simply isn't making it to first base nearly enough to be productive. That's incredibly troubling, especially since he's past the point where we typically see the most growth in performance.
That said, Hamilton's underlying numbers are actually more encouraging. He walked more often in 2015 than he did in 2014, and he struck out less often. While he could still learn to control the strike zone better, Hamilton is making progress. He also hit just .264 on balls in play, which would be fifth worst in the National League if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
While we can take heart that it would be difficult for Hamilton's BABIP not to rebound slightly, we also have to contend with the fact that, according to Fangraphs, Hamilton's percentage of hard hit balls is 15th worst in the game among players with at least 200 plate appearances. Now, several players found offensive success in 2015 with that kind of profile.
Take Dee Gordon, for instance, who has hit .332/.356/.413 while hitting even fewer balls hard than Hamilton. But Gordon hits almost three and a half grounders for every ball he puts in the air. Jose Iglesias, Norichika Aoki, and Ben Revere similarly have leveraged their speed and ability to generate ground balls to make it to first base while walking roughly at the same rate or worse than Hamilton does. All of them fit a similar offensive profile to Hamilton, and all of them have been solid contributors, or better, to their clubs.
Hamilton, on the other hand, hits just 1.13 grounders for every fly ball, meaning that he simply doesn't have the chance to sneak balls past infielders or beat out short hits. And he clearly doesn't have the power to drive the ball over anybody. So his weak fly balls and line drives are being easily captured while he retreats to his dugout.
The good news is that the story isn't fully written on Hamilton. He needs to revamp his offensive approach dramatically to emphasize hitting grounders, which combined with the regression of his BABIP will hopefully help him to a league-average OBP or so. Even if he falls short, Hamilton can at least be a two or three win player thanks to his incredible skills in the field and on the bases, even if most fans won't realize it.
Indeed, the list of players who have had a lower OPS+ than Hamilton through age 25 is instructive, as we think about whether there's still time for him to rebound and become the dynamic player we all hoped we were getting when he debuted two years ago, as well as on the importance of having patience with players who have his unique skill set: