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Will Billy Hamilton’s bat ever come around?

The speedster brings value as an elite defender and base runner, but can he improve his on base percentage?

Los Angeles Dodgers v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Billy Hamilton, signed by the Royals during the winter meetings, has found himself an opportunity to play every day after being cut loose by the Reds. Thanks to his defense, he will likely roam the spacious Kansas City outfield as the primary center fielder. The question is, can he add even more value to the team with his bat?

We all know Hamilton can play superior defense to most and has game changing speed on the bases (if he can figure out how to get on base in the first place), but he’s never really hit in the big leagues. According to Fangraphs, his only productive year offensively (I’m using the term productive loosely, here) was 2016, when his fWAR showed him at 0.4 offensive runs above average. That said, his wRC+ that same year was a measly 78, which pretty much negates that number.

2016 was also Hamilton’s only season with an OBP of more than .300 (.321) and he hit .260 that year, which was also a career high. Is there anything the speedster with a career slash line of .245/.298/.333 can do to improve at the plate, or is the 28-year-old destined to disappoint?

Looking into Hamilton’s batted ball statistics for more information, there is one red flag that jumps out, and that’s his infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%) versus his ground ball rate. A player with this kind of speed, and who doesn’t hit the ball especially hard, should put the ball on the ground and use his legs. In 2017, though, his IFFB% jumped from 9.8 to 12.1, and took another giant leap in the wrong direction during 2018, rising all the way to 17.2%.

On the flip side of this spike in weak pop flies, his ground ball rate has dropped from 47.7% in 2016 to 35.2% in 2018. Another statistic of note is his percentage of softly hit balls. From 2014 – 2016, his soft hit percentage varied between 21.8% and 22.6%, while the past two years have seen rates of 25% and 26.8%, respectively.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Hamilton seems to need a slight correction in his approach, and his swing plane, to hit down the ball again. Given these statistics, it seems that Hamilton is swinging up on the ball and making weak contact, which results in infield fly balls. He should be swinging down on the ball, hitting it harder, and using his speed to leg out infield hits, or even better, hitting it through the holes into the outfield.

That being said, if Hamilton keeps putting the ball in the air, he may fare better in spacious Kauffman Stadium. Cincinnati’s smaller park doesn’t lend itself to as many fly balls or bloop hits dropping in for singles, doubles, or—in Hamilton’s case—triples. According to a chart from Business Insider (see below), the average MLB ballpark has 2.49 acres of fair territory. Kauffman stadium has the second largest amount of fair territory (at 0.14 acres above average), while the Great American Ballpark skews in the opposite direction (at 0.08 acres below average). That’s a swing of 0.22 acres of fair territory, and a lot more room for a speedy player to hit one in the gap and run.

Ballpark fair territory
Business Insider

Another more extreme idea would be for Hamilton to drop switch-hitting and bat only from the left side of the plate. For his career, he’s hit .251 as a lefty and just .231 from the right side. He has roughly three times as many at bats as a left-handed hitter, so the .251 is a pretty solid sample size. What we don’t know is how he would fare against southpaws batting from the left, as he’s never done it. We do know batting right handed isn’t working out, though.

Looking at advanced statistics, we can see that Hamilton has a career wRC+ of 74 as a lefty (still well below average), but sports an even worse wRC+ of 60 from the right side. If he could even bring his total career wRC+ of 70 up to 80, for example, that’s still not great, but it’s better. If he can match his 2016 fWAR of 2.9, that would place him in good company by 2018 standards. Ender Inciarte and George Springer each posted a 2.9 fWAR in 2018, while Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Charlie Blackmon were close behind with a 2.8 fWAR.

Regardless of whether he continues as a switch-hitter, which I’m certain he will, if Hamilton can get back to hitting down on the ball, or at least placing the ball into the right spots of a more spacious outfield, he could see improved success at the plate in Kansas City. His athletic ability and defensive prowess should buy him plenty of at bats to give it a shot.