One of the bigger names to get called up this September, and one of the most easily predictable, is Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds, who got his call on Friday, reports John Fay of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Hamilton is known for being generally considered the fastest man in all of professional baseball, and last year he used that speed to record a minor league record 155 stolen bases. He went 75-for-90 this year in 123 Triple-A games this season.
While Hamilton's speed is unquestionable, his ability to use that speed is what's still in question. Last year's stolen base record was fueled by his ability to get on base, as he hit .311/.410/.420 between High-A and Double-A. The most impressive thing about Hamilton's breakout 2012 campaign was his increased walk rate which reached double-digits at both stops including 16.9 percent at Double-A. Hamilton fully embraces his role as a leadoff man and small-ball hitter, and did so extremely effectively in 2012.
Triple-A and the 2013 season, however, were something different entirely. Hamilton's struggles this season weren't totally unexpected, and he hit .256 this season. For what it's worth, his .310 BABIP, which is around league average for most players, is also significantly lower than his career norm and low for a player with his speed and ground ball frequency. Of a much bigger concern, however, was the drop in plate discipline, as his walk rate went down to 6.9 percent, approaching the lows from much earlier in his career.
Hamilton's ability to draw walks was never a product of his hitting prowess. As a player with little to no power, and as a known base stealing threat, pitchers are generally more inclined to attach Hamilton and force him to hit his way on. Most of Hamilton's walks are a product of his patience and ability to foul off pitches rather than a pitcher's fear of him as a hitter, something that helps increase the walk totals of power hitters. The plummeting totals for Hamilton are frightening and could signal an inability to recognize advanced breaking pitches and either waste them or let them pass.
Hamilton isn't going to slide into the Reds leadoff spot and catapult them into the playoffs. In fact, he's probably not even going to be in the everyday lineup. The return of Ryan Ludwick leaves little room for Hamilton to play every day, and as someone who's still learning the outfield, he doesn't exactly profile as a defensive replacement either.
Hamilton's best attribute, by far, is his baserunning ability, so his role on this team will be as a pinch runner. For his future, however, it's still too early to rule out him being able to fulfill his future as the team's leadoff hitter. A return to Triple-A is likely necessary for next year in order to further refine his approach. He may never hit a ton, but if he can get his plate discipline back against advanced pitching, he can be an effective player even if he hits .250.
In order to use his speed, however, he has to get on base. For 2013, he'll get on base by pinch-running, and in a playoff atmosphere, he could be a dynamic weapon in the late innings of close game. His speed is dangerous enough that it may even warrant a playoff spot, if Dusty Baker figures out how best to utilize it. Hamilton's disappointing 2013 season, however, means his impact this season will be limited to what he does after someone else gets on base for him.