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Billy Hamilton: The need for speed

As a speed guy, how often does Billy Hamilton use his speed tools? More often than just about anyone else.

When he gets on base there's a very good chance this will happen
When he gets on base there's a very good chance this will happen
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

I wrote some time back about my early Rookie of the Year picks, and at that time, I was totally underwhelmed by the choices in the National League. I've come around to thinking it will most likely be Billy Hamilton. He generated significant discussion upon his September call-up last year -- he stole 155 bases between two minor league stops in 2012 (and was thrown out 37 times) and stole another 75 in 2013 prior to his call-up. The Reds used him in an interesting fashion, seven times as a pinch runner with only three starts in thirteen games. Center field was his to lose upon entering 2014, with the primary question being whether he'd be able to hit enough to fully utilize his speed.

He's kept up the running, second in the NL in steals and first in caught stealing (all data through Thursday's games). This chart shows how often he tries to steal an available base and compares him to other players (min 200 PA):

Player Team SBO SB CS Pct
Billy Hamilton Reds 120 44 18 51.7%
Dee Gordon Dodgers 180 54 13 37.2%
Jarrod Dyson Royals 97 26 4 30.9%
Eric Young Mets 105 27 4 29.5%
Rajai Davis Tigers 124 27 8 28.2%
Jonathan Villar Astros 66 14 4 27.3%
Kolten Wong Cardinals 73 17 2 26.0%
Anthony Gose Blue Jays 72 14 4 25.0%
Carlos Gomez Brewers 145 27 9 24.8%
Leonys Martin Rangers 130 20 9 22.3%
Ben Revere Phillies 168 33 4 22.0%
Jacoby Ellsbury Yankees 167 31 5 21.6%
Starling Marte Pirates 144 23 8 21.5%
Carl Crawford Dodgers 86 15 3 20.9%
Craig Gentry Athletics 91 18 1 20.9%
James Jones Mariners 102 20 1 20.6%
B.J. Upton Braves 123 18 7 20.3%
Jose Altuve Astros 258 46 6 20.2%

SBO=stolen base opportunities (i.e., next base is open)

A gulf of 14 percentage points between first and second suggests performance at a rate unlike other players. Hamilton's theft rate is historic -- since the advent of reliable stolen base statistics in the 1950s, very few players have attempted to steal in over 50 percent of their opportunities, and those who did, don't exactly set the heart a-thumpin', players like Vince Coleman, Omar Moreno and Miguel Dilone.

Stealing isn't the problem, getting on base is. In the modern era players typically have a spread of around 60-70 points between their batting averages and on-base percentage -- Hamilton's is a meager 34 points. Speed guys especially need to learn how to work counts and get on base, because speed is fairly useless when plopped back on the bench after striking out. Speed guys also have a tendency to bunt -- here's how Hamilton rates in terms of percentage of plate attempts in which a bunt is attempted (min 200 PA):

Player Tm PA Patot Bnt%
Billy Hamilton Reds 45 465 9.7
Anthony Gose Blue Jays 17 205 8.3
Jarrod Dyson Royals 18 222 8.1
Brandon Guyer Rays 16 208 7.7
Dee Gordon Dodgers 34 503 6.8
Danny Espinosa Nationals 20 317 6.3
Peter Bourjos Cardinals 14 227 6.2
James Jones Mariners 18 307 5.9
Leonys Martin Rangers 24 427 5.6
Emilio Bonifacio 2 Tms 18 336 5.4
Danny Santana Twins 13 253 5.1
Eric Young Mets 13 259 5.0

Hamilton is batting .342 in his bunt attempts, slightly above the league average. In percentage terms there are players near him, but in absolute terms, no one really approaches him in bunt attempts other than Dee Gordon.

There are other areas in which speed guys can excel, such as reaching on errors, advancing on outs and taking extra bases. Here's how Hamilton rates:

Player Team Good Bad Pct
Dee Gordon Dodgers 98 21 82.4%
Jose Altuve Astros 87 15 85.3%
Billy Hamilton Reds 83 29 74.1%
Ben Revere Phillies 81 11 88.0%
Jose Reyes Blue Jays 81 13 86.2%
Brian Dozier Twins 77 19 80.2%
Elvis Andrus Rangers 77 21 78.6%
Denard Span Nationals 71 11 86.6%
Starling Marte Pirates 69 23 75.0%
Rajai Davis Tigers 68 14 82.9%

Good events -- stolen bases, reaching on error, advancing on an out and taking an extra base on a hit

Bad events -- caught stealing, pick off, being thrown out on bases

As run scoring becomes more difficult, is baseball poised to enter a new Golden Age of base stealing with Billy Hamilton as the herald crying in the wilderness? Not so fast -- this graph shows the percent of times teams have attempted to steal bases since 1950: Sbo_2

Stolen base attempts are decreasing, and a brief reminder of the Tom Tango Run Expectancy Matrix explains why. The second table clearly shows the increased chance of scoring a run when stealing second with 0 outs (about 20 points) is outweighed by the decreased chance if the runner is thrown out (around 25 points), and of course the odds the runner will score drop to zero. The cost of the out exceeds the value of the extra base and that is no secret since The Book has been out since 2006. Extra bases are important, but outs even more so.

So what does this portend for Hamilton's future -- is he a one-trick pony or the start of something new? It's probably not the latter. When (and it simply has to be when) he improves his on-base percentage to around .350, he'll be a potent weapon, particularly in a lineup with power in other positions. Hamilton has shown all the tools necessary once he  gets on base -- now he needs to improve his ability get there.

All data from Baseball-Reference. Any errors in amalgamating and processing it is the author's.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.