Billy Hamilton has speed to burn, but that’s the only qualification he has to hit leadoff for the Reds.
Over four full major league seasons, Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has 230 stolen bases on 282 attempts. That speed has helped him be an elite defensive outfielder, and return 7.2 WAR (Baseball Reference) since 2014.
With unrivaled speed, Hamilton should lead all of baseball in stolen bases. But a career on-base percentage below .300 (.298) and way too many strikeouts (over 20 percent each of the last two seasons) shows he’s not giving himself as many opportunities to run as he should.
Since being thrown out a major league-high 23 times in 2014, Hamilton’s has a stolen base success rate of 85.7 percent (174 for 203). Imagine if he put himself on first base more often (108 walks over the last three seasons-1,547 plate appearances).
Spring training stats have to be kept in context, but Hamilton is hitting just .139 (5-for-36) with seven walks and zero steals on two attempts. Speaking on Monday, Reds manager Bryan Price would not commit to Hamilton as his leadoff man.
"Coming into camp, we’re trying to define where the best place is for him to hit. It’s probably multiple spots in the lineup, based on whether it’s a left- or right-hander starter and who’s in the lineup on any given day,” Price said on Monday."
Out of 633 plate appearances last year, Hamilton had 628 hitting leadoff. Just over 75 percent of his major league plate appearances have come from that spot in the lineup, with a .302 career OBP as a leadoff man.
For Price, it may come down to the other options to replace Hamilton in the leadoff spot. Outfielder Jesse Winker (.375 OBP last season over 47 games) and shortstop Jose Peraza (.313 career OBP and 44 stolen bases over the last two seasons) are the two contenders Price mentioned. That points to a fluid situation, as Price suggested, based on matchups and the rest of the Reds’ lineup on a day-to-day basis.
Hamilton might best suited hitting in the bottom-third of the lineup to start the season, which is the say seventh or eighth with a pitcher hitting ninth. Then he can hone his approach at the plate without the pressure of hitting leadoff.
A simple elevation in his on-base percentage, even to the mark he posted in 2016 (.321), would put a major league-leading stolen base total in play for Hamilton this year. That will be far easier to do hitting leadoff, with more plate appearances, and it’s up to Hamilton to make talk of a bump down the lineup a short-term conversation.