Coming off a season in which he set a new record for most stolen bases in a single season, Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton was assigned to Triple-A Louisville where he is learning a new position and looking to continue his march toward Major League superstardom.
Hamilton has always been a speed demon and that was never more evident than last season. Splitting time between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola, Hamilton smashed Vince Coleman‘s old mark by swiping 155 bags in 132 games played. But it wasn’t just his speed that got Hamilton ranked as highly as he was on the pre-season top prospect lists (we had him at number 24).
Hamilton posted a stellar .311/.410/.420 line last season, which represented a marked improvement in terms of on-base ability, which will obviously be a huge key for a player with such elite speed. At 160 pounds, Hamilton’s power will come almost entirely in terms of doubles and triples; he has just seven professional home runs.
So far in 2013, however, things haven’t gone nearly as smoothly.
Hamilton stole his 15th base of the season during Louisville’s 6-2 home victory over Lehigh Valley on Monday and doubled in four at-bats. That base hit raised Hamilton’s average to a lowly .205 on the season and his on base percentage coming into the game was a paltry .280. Obviously, that’s not getting the job done.
Looking deeper, however, there are reasons to think that Hamilton’s slow start isn’t likely a case of a guy overmatched by a more advanced level of pitching. In all likelihood, in fact, it’s probably a case of a lot of bad luck more than anything else.
Hamilton has always been a guy who collects his fair share of strikeouts which, for someone with his speed, isn’t ideal. You might be able to stomach a high strikeout rate from a guy who’ll bash 30 homers in a season, but the rabbits like Hamilton need to put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense as often as possible. That said, his strikeout rates were a bit high last season at 18.7 percent, but that number was significantly lower than the 21.8 percent of 2011 and his strikeouts have decreased again this season. In the meantime, his walk rate has been very solid at nearly 10 percent for the season, so it would appear, understanding the limitations of a sample of less than 100 plate appearances, that Hamilton’s approach has continued to improve as he has matured.
The biggest difference in the success that Hamilton had last season versus the struggles of the early 2013 campaign may be a simple as finding the holes when he does make contact. Like many faster players, Hamilton is a guy who will typically have a higher-than-average batting average on balls in play. In 2012, Hamilton enjoyed a BABIP of better than .380. Meanwhile, this season his BABIP has languished at a mere .250; well below what an average hitter would expect and about 100 points below where Hamilton should expect to be.
Hamilton may be a guy who made a name for himself based on pure speed last year, but he also showed very real progress in terms of his approach at the plate and correcting contact issues that had previously plagued him. Thus far in 2013 the results haven’t been there, but the approach has remained strong. Given continued health, Hamilton’s luck will turn and his numbers will rebound.