Billy Hamilton feels like a leadoff hitter. His speed is legendary, he flashed a strong walk rate in the minors at times, and it seems like he should be given every chance to steal a base, considering that's what he does best.
That being said, Hamilton probably shouldn't be penciled in at the top of a lineup. "The Book" says that a lead-off hitter should be one of the best hitters in a lineup, and Hamilton's 79 wRC+ last season indicates he's not one of the better hitters on any MLB team.
This was a concern going into 2014, and the Reds center fielder did nothing to silence the critics last year at the plate. He did show impressive ability in the field and on the bases, which lead to a solid WAR of 3.5, but his .250/.292/.355 line was unimpressive.
Despite his limitations, the team continue to slot him as the leadoff man; as a result, he joined a very exclusive club, and not in a good way. Since 2002, when FanGraphs began featuring batting order splits, there are 147 hitters who have accumulated at least 500 plate appearances in the #1 hole.
Only five of them have managed an On-Base Percentage below .300:
One thing worth taking note of here is that none of these players lasted long in the role of leadoff man. If Hamilton were to spend another year leading off for the Reds and produces a comparable line he would come close to leading this group in plate appearances, something that wouldn't reflect well on manager Bryan Price.
Most of the names on this list are easy-ish to understand, even if they have likely been misused.
Endy Chavez: Fast journeyman/professional hole-plugger led off for the 2003 Montreal Expos and then lasted long enough to accumulate leadoff appearances here and there for countless other teams with poor judgement.
Corey Patterson: Dusty Baker, with a side of incredible potential that made people want to give him every chance to succeed.
Aaron Miles: Primary lead-off guy for an awful 2004 Colorado Rockies team. Mysteriously scraped together more plate appearances in the #1 hole later on despite being both a bad on-base guy and an awful base stealer.
Darin Erstad: Was actually a really good lead-off hitter before sharp decline following arbitrary 2002 cutoff.
So, where does Hamilton fit in? As I mentioned before, he feels like a top-of-the-lineup guy. He just shouldn't be, not yet at least.
In theory, he could improve enough to justify leading off, but it seems unlikely to happen soon. Steamer is projecting a .245/.297/.342 line for 2015, so he's unlikely to leave this group in the immediate future unless he gets some BABIP love.
Hamilton should really hit eighth or ninth, given what's he's likely to produce at the plate. He should be a name on this list like Chavez or Miles, who hit leadoff full time once and then got the odd start there for the rest of his career.
However, it seems that the Reds see Hamilton as the guy who sets the table for their team. If he continues to play this role and performs similarly, he could be the only long-term sub .300 OBP lead-off guy in recent memory.
At this rate, Billy Hamilton is on his way to leading an exclusive club, but he's isn't doomed to that fate. Either improvement on his part or Cincinnati getting wise could save him.
Unfortunately, neither of those things are even close to sure bets.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.