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Billy Hamilton is one of the best players that is also a bad hitter

It’s very rare in this modern era to see one skill—baserunning—keeping a player solely afloat.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a banal observation: if Billy Hamilton wasn’t fast, then he wouldn’t be a major league player. That sounds kind of... obvious, but when you really think about, it’s actually a pretty remarkable feat. When you consider his 9.1 fWAR since 2014 compared to both his wRC+ of 70...

...with his hard hit rate of just 19%...

...it’s fascinating to think that the red dot in both of those graphs are Hamilton. He’s pretty much the worst hitter to be in the ~10 WAR ranking there, other than maybe Dee Gordon.

And when you look at his exit velocity this season, it gets even more astonishing. Of those with more than 100 batted ball events, here’s how Hamilton ranks in the following categories this season:

  • Average Exit Velocity: Last (79.3 mph)
  • Max Exit Velocity: Second to last (101.9 mph)
  • Number of balls hit 95+ mph: Last (17)
  • Number of barrels: Tied for second to last (1)
  • Barrels per PA: Tied for second to last (0.3%)

The only other players to come close to his numbers are Travis Jankowski, Dee Gordon, JD Shuck, and Delino Deshields.

Since 2014, Hamilton has generated 47.5 BsR (FanGraphs’ baserunning runs), the most of any player in the stretch by over ten runs. Which also means, funnily enough, that Hamilton is one of the most valuable base runners in the post-World War II baseball era.

In fact, on a per-game basis, he is the most valuable base runner since World War II:

This actually implies two interesting ideas, one which was floated in Baseball Prospectus by Zach Crizer, and another by Travis Sawchik in FanGraphs.

The first is that, actually, speed does not imply that Hamilton will be good at bunting, because he isn’t:

“Since 2000, 103 players have bunted in 50 or more at-bats (read: non-sacrifices). Hamilton’s .347 batting average on bunts ranks 96th. Baseball as a whole has hit between .390 to .405 on bunts in each season of the 2010s.”

His idea is that for Hamilton to succeed, he would need to hit the ball to the third base side significantly more often, where batting average jumps by nearly 100 points when the positioning is right. It doesn’t even have to be placed perfectly, but bunting to the left side would a) get him on base and b) naturally, boost his wRC+.

The second idea has to do with him hitting less often, which in Hamilton’s own words, “the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my life.” Here’s how it would work:

“If the Reds were to replace the first non-Votto, non-pitcher to reach base, I explained, Hamilton would enter most games by the second inning. The strategy would eliminate roughly 20% of his plate appearances (and the times he reached base in those PAs, as well), but he would start on base an 140 additional times as a pinch-runner — that is, once per game extrapolated over the share of games in which he played last season. Using that quick math, the net gain for his 2017 campaign would have been 100 extra appearances as a baserunner over the course of the season. So, instead of being on base 192 times, as he was in 2017, Hamilton would have been on base 292 times.”

Now, according to that math, let’s square that with his highest base run total. If he has been worth about 13 runs above average per season, his on-base rate would jump 52% (!), meaning he would be worth something like 19.5 BsR per season, instead.

There’s an argument to made that this is merely offsetting value of the lost roster spot, but it’s possible that if a creative manager were to harness Hamilton’s unique, powerful skill, you could diminish the effects of his hit tool that is, frankly, not a major league one.

This could all be moot if the Reds rebuild and Nick Senzel overshadows Hamilton as his speed and defense decline, but he’s such an interesting case study for a largely one or two-dimensional player, where his feet are the only things keeping him on the major league field. There are a lot of ways to provide value on the diamond, and he will continue to have his niche.