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Billy Hamilton loves the shift

The Reds center fielder has found an unorthodox new weapon.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Of course Billy Hamilton would love the shift. Everything is backwards when we talk about the Reds' center fielder. Hamilton is the most gifted baserunner of his generation and so is able to do things that make no logical sense for anyone else.

You know the rap on Hamilton: He’s so gifted with his glove and legs that he will always provide value for his team. His hitting is so poor, however, that he’s still limiting the kinds of chances to do more damage on the basepaths. He hits too many fly balls, and he hits way too much weak contact to survive. It’s a maddening situation.

August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs recently observed that Hamilton was now hitting more ground balls and getting them through defenders. He’s dropped his average launch angle a full degree, the only player on the planet where that’s a massive offensive improvement. If there’s anyone in baseball who can do damage to a squibber that leaks through, it’s Hamilton.

There’s another crazy wrinkle to all of this. Hamilton is exploiting the shift. Teams are shifting him 33 percent of the time, about the same as last year. Hamilton is also pulling the ball when shifted at about the same rate as last year, too. The big difference? He’s hitting way more grounders. His ground ball shift rate is up to 51.2 percent, a full 5 percent increase from 2015. His line drive rate into the shift has also spiked nearly 5 percent.

Hamilton is challenging the shift, and it’s working. Not only is it working, but Hamilton seems to like it. He’s carrying only a 49 wRC+ when teams don’t shift him. He reverts to his usual Bad Billy persona, hitting weak fly balls to all fields for guys to scoop up and keep him off the bases. When the shift is on, however, he smacks the ball with more authority. He’s got a 142 wRC+ when teams shift him, compared to last year’s 65 mark. Hamilton is turning the shift into a weapon.

So what happens when Hamilton beats the shift? The same thing that happens when Hamilton ever gets on base: He steals. And he’s been doing it a lot lately. Hamilton has stolen 15 bases on 16 attempts since July 5th. Let me repeat that: Billy Hamilton has stolen 15 bases on 16 attempts in the last three weeks. He’s had three three-steal games in that period. He put on a suicide squeeze against the Giants the other night and was safe at first. Enjoy that for just a minute.

His BsR per 600 plate appearances this season is 12.4. His BRR per 600 plate appearances this season is 12.6. Those rates put every other player in baseball in Hamilton’s rearview mirror. Once you’ve let Hamilton on first, you’ve already lost.

Hamilton is 25 years old. He’s probably never going to hit for league-average production. His 5.9 percent career walk rate and .291 career on-base percentage speak to that reality. But he plays premium defense at a premium position while being a generational talent on the basepaths. Thanks to his new shift-beating wizardry, Hamilton is once again a legitimate threat. He didn’t need a big hitting weapon; he just needed enough of one to beat the world. You cannot stop Billy Hamilton. You can hope only to contain him.

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Evan Davis is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.

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