Billy Hamilton and the Limits of Talent

May 26, 2015
  
Last week the Cincinnati Reds dropped struggling centerfielder Billy Hamilton from the leadoff spot in their batting order. Hamilton, whose batting average was hovering right around the Mendoza line, moved to the 8th spot in the batting order.
 
The Reds have played eight games since Hamilton was dropped in the batting order. They’ve lost all of them.
 
*             *             *
 
 
There are two skills about Billy Hamilton that set him apart from the crowd. Those skills are:
 
1.       He is faster than anyone else, and
2.       He is a better hitter than anyone who isn’t in the major leagues.
 
Those are generalizations, of course. Hamilton would lose a 100-yard dash to most Olympic athletes, and I’m sure there’s a few guys stuck in the minors who could out-hit Hamilton if given the chance. But the two points are generally true. Put Hamilton on your slow-pitch softball team, and he’ll be the best hitter on your team. He’s also be the fastest guy in your zip code.
 
 We could look at these skills on a percentile scale. Hamilton, as a hitter, is probably in the 99th percentile, meaning that if you took 100 random people, Hamilton would be a better hitter than 99 of them. As a runner, Hamilton is in the 99.9th percentile: he’d beat 999 out of 1000 to the tape.
 
What is interesting is the degree that that second skill has shaped Hamilton’s career.
 
Let’s look back on what Hamilton looked like as a 20-year old in Rookie Ball. Here’s his triple-slash line:
 
.318/.383/.456
 
This is not a bad line. Jason Kipnis, another middle infielder drafted three spots after Hamilton, posted a similar line in Single-A that year:
 
.300/.387/.478
 
Sure, that was Single-A instead of Rookie-level, so Kipnis should get some extra credit for that. But it’s worth noting that Jason Kipnis was three-and-a-half years older than Hamilton when he put up that line. (Note: Jason Kipnis is still three-and-a-half years older than Hamilton, because his off-season experiments with relativity and near-light-speed travel didn’t pan out.)
 
What the Indians did with Kipnis was move up to A+, and then Double-A, and then Triple-A, and then the majors. This is what most teams do with second-round picks who have success in the low minors: they move them up until they stop having success.
 
Here’s what the Reds did:
 
They asked Hamilton to learn how to hit left-handed.
 
*             *             *
 
 
I want to segue, briefly, into the topic of exceptionalism. 
 
I’ve never been exceptional. That isn’t a pessimistic statement, just the truth. There’s no sphere in which my abilities have ever held me significantly above my peers, no moment where I’ve felt markedly betterthan anyone else.
 
Take writing. I love writing, and I’ve spent a significant chunk of my life trying to be a better writer. Writing is what I do for a living: it’s what I spend most of my working hours doing. When I have to fill out a form that asks my profession, I put down ‘writer.’ Sometimes I capitalize it.
 
That said, I’ve never been great at writing. I’ve never believed that I was a singularly talented writer. I certainly wasn’t the best writer in my high school, or anywhere close to being the best writer. I wasn’t the best writer at my college, and I wasn’t the best writer when I did an MFA years later. I have a PhD now: I’m a ‘doctor’ of writing, whatever the hell that means. I still don’t think I’m much good at it.
 
This is true in just about every sphere of my interest, and it holds true in every job I’ve had. I love sports, but I’m only a fair athlete: I don’t think I’ve ever been the best player on any field I’ve set foot on. I’ve worked a lot of different jobs, from line cook to addiction counselor to college teacher, and while I’ve done every job competently, I’ve never been the best guy punching the clock. I’ve always been in the middle.
 
This isn’t an attempt at false modesty: I’m pointing this out to make a larger point.
 
What I’ve come to realize is that this middle-ness, for lack of a better word, has been extraordinarily useful in giving me a degree of autonomy in my life. Because I’m not greatat anything in particular, I’ve been free to pursue the things that are the most interesting to me, without anyone fretting too much about what I might be giving up. I’ve been able to live something close to the life I want to live, without any nagging concerns about whether it’s the right life. I’ve never felt gifted, so I’ve never had to worry about squandering a gift.
 
*             *             *
 
 
Which brings us back to Billy Hamilton.
 
If you read ten articles about Billy Hamilton this year, every single one of them will mention bunting. Every one of them will say a) that Hamilton should bunt, and b) that Hamilton actually hasn’t had very much luck bunting.
 
The second point is true: Hamilton has been almost shockingly unsuccessful at bunting for base hits. Whereas speedsters like Dee Gordon and Jose Altuve have a reasonably good batting average when bunting, Hamilton’s been terrible. He’s attempted to bunt 14 times this year, and has two hits for his efforts.
 
You see the trap, right?
 
Billy Hamilton is super-fast, so it stands to logic that he should bunt. But he doesn’t actually get many hits on his bunt attempts, so what are you going to do?
 
If you’re the Reds, you drop him in the order, and tell him to keep bunting. And you keep your fingers crossed that he can figure out one little dimension of the game, so that he doesn’t waste his big-and-shiny ability to run around the bases faster than anyone else.
 
*             *             *
 
 
To my mind, the most fascinating thing about Hamilton is the way in which his one singular talent has influenced the entirety of his career. His career has not been allowed its natural arc because his team has tried to utilize his One Great Skill as much as possible.
 
To the Reds credit, one of these efforts actually worked. The Reds moved Hamilton to centerfield, imagining that his speed and agility would translate to a Gold-Glove caliber defender. This is exactly what happened: if Juan Lagares wasn’t in the NL, Hamilton would be a strong candidate to collect defensive hardware.
 
But the other decision hasn’t worked. In asking Hamilton to learn to hit left-handed, the Reds were hoping that Hamilton would take advantage of the shorter distance to first base. He hasn’t, and I don’t think he will. I think the Reds damaged Hamilton’s chances of being a competent major-league hitter by asking him to switch to the left side.
 
His platoon splits aren’t demonstrably different. From his natural (right) side, Hamilton has a career batting line of .262/.289/.396. This isn’t good, but it’s a little better than his batting line as a left-hander: .239/.288/.336. Hamilton walks a little bit more as a left-handed hitter, but he gets more hits (and shows more power) from the right side.
 
This matches the eyeball test. I’ve watched a lot of Hamilton’s at-bats, and he looks more comfortable from the right side. He seems to read pitches better, and he doesn’t seem as focused on working the count.
 
As a left-handed hitter, Hamilton’s approach seems more patient: while I can’t find the exact splits, it seems like he takes a lot of first-pitch strikes from the left-side, and ends up behind in the count. I don’t know that this quite works for him….I think Hamilton isn’t a naturally patient hitter, and I don’t know that he’s improved by trying to be patient.
 
A lot of this is speculation: I have no idea, for instance, what the internal conversation are within the Reds organization, and I don’t know much about how the decision to have Hamilton switch-hit was made. It is entirely possible that Hamilton asked to make these changes, and I don’t want to imply that the Reds have strong-armed Hamilton.
 
I also don’t fault the Reds organization for asking Hamilton to switch-hit. I only mention this decision because it illustrate the problem of talent: if you are exceptionally skilled at one thing, anyone who has any say on your life will steer you towards making the most of that skill. If you score an 800 on the math SAT’s, your parents are going to leave that application for MIT next to your cereal bowl every morning. If you’ve mastered Liszt’s Eroica, your piano teacher will set up that interview at Julliard. And if you’re a three-sport athlete who can get down the line in under 3.7 seconds, the team that drafts you is going to do everything they can to cash in on that ability.
 
*             *             *
 
 
While we’re on the subject of exceptionalism, it’s worth mentioning that the Reds are blessed with two exceptional players. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention Joey Votto for a moment.
 
Joey Votto’s singular talent is that he never pops up baseballs. In a major league career spanning 4200 plate appearances, Votto has exactly fourteen infield pop ups.
 
He is also an on-base machine: Votto led the NL in on-base percentage four consecutive seasons, and he has the highest lifetime mark (.416) of any active player. He is an exceptional at getting on base as Hamilton is when he’s on the bases.
 
And the Reds don’t exactly know what to do with Votto, either.

At the start of the season, they had Votto hitting second, right behind Hamilton. This has a satisfying logic: if you have the fastest guy in baseball batting leadoff, it’s a good idea to follow up with a guy who has tremendous plate discipline, and can take a few pitches.
 
Votto stated in multiple interviews that he was happy about this: he cited Hamilton’s presence on the bases as offering him ‘protection’: pitchers had to come to the plate quickly, and they had to throw fastballs.
 
Intellectually, this seemed like a great solution. One of the troubles with Hamilton in 2014 was that he tried to steal early in the count, figuring that he had to get to second before the next batter was too deep in the count. Votto is the rare hitter comfortable in deep counts.
 
And Votto liked hitting behind Hamilton. This isn’t talked about enough, but a lot of batters don’t like hitting behind a speedster. Dwayne Murphy hated hitting behind Rickey Henderson, because he hated having to watch good pitches go past so Rickey could be Rickey. The Reds didn’t have this problem: their best hitter wanted to hit behind their speedster, and viewed it as an advantage.
 
Here’s Votto’s triple-slash line for the 82 plate appearance where he was hitting 2nd behind Hamilton:
 
.328/.451/.657, 1.108 OPS
 
The Reds, deciding to cash in on Votto’s resurgence, dropped him to the #3 spot in the order. Here’s what Votto did in his next 82 plate appearances:
 
.243/.317/.324, 641 OPS
 
These are small sample sizes, but they at least suggest that Votto enjoyed hitting behind Hamilton more than he enjoys hitting behind some combination of Cozart, Marlon Byrd and Brandon Phillips.
 
*             *             *
 
 
You remember bullpen-by-committee, right? Left without an obvious closer one year, the Red Sox decided to use relievers according to what the game dictated, instead of picking a true ‘closer.’ The results were a disaster.
 
The lesson of that experiment, in my opinion, is that teams tend to underrate the importance of routine. The bullpen-by-committee didn’t work because no one knew their role: when the bullpen phone rang, they didn’t ever know if it was ringing for them.
 
I think the same thing applies to the Reds this year. They’re not a great team, but they’re not horrible, either. Through the first fifteen games of the season they were 8-7, which is about where you’d expect them to be.
 
Just my opinion, but I think the Reds, as a team, started to spin out when they moved Votto from second to third in the order. It destabilized the rest of the offense: someone had to come and fill in for Votto in the #2 slot, and Frazier was suddenly hitting fourth. Mesoraco was out, and Cozart was hitting….things started to shift.
 
The team didn’t really spin out: they went 10-8 over their next eighteen games, putting across about the same number of runs as they had when Votto was hitting second. The team didn’t sputter out, but Votto did decline.
 
When the Reds moved Hamilton to eighth, I expected the move would backfire. I knew that the guys they were replacing Hamilton with (first Cozart, now Phillips) wouldn’t be significantly better at getting on base, and I knew they wouldn’t be as effective as Hamilton on the bases. I did not realize how much it would affect the offense.
 
Going back to last season, here’s how the Reds offense has performed in three lineups:
 
Lineup
Games
 Runs
RPG
W-L
BH2, then Votto
31
137
4.42
16-15
BH2…Votto
49
202
4.12
26-23
Votto..Hamilton
8
21
2.63
0-8
 
The first row is how the Reds have fared with Hamilton and Votto hitting 1-2. The second row is how the Reds have done with Hamilton leading off, and Votto further down the order. The last line is the currently skidding Reds, where Hamilton is hitting 8th or 9th.
 
*             *             *
 
 
I don’t usually write columns that end with me telling a major league front office what to do, but I’ll make an exception here. I think the Reds should go back to what was working at the start of the year and stick to it. Tell Hamilton that he’s back in the leadoff spot, because as dreadful as his on-base percentage is, he more than makes up for it when he’s actually on the bases.
 
And maybe think about letting him have a few at-bats against righties as a right-handed batter. The 0.1 second advantage that Hamilton gets by being closer to first base probably isn’t that useful, and it’d be nice to see if he can turn into a hitter from one side of the plate.
 
Finally, tell Votto that he’s going back to the #2 slot in the lineup, where he can look forward to a steady diet of fastballs from nervous pitchers.
 
Or continue shuffling the batting order like deck chairs on the Titanic, because that seems to be where the Reds are heading right now.  
 
David Fleming is a writer living in New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (19 Comments, most recent shown first)

mradican
I guess I don't know whether or not I am to take this article seriously. Hamilton is a better hitter than anyone not in the Major Leagues? I would guess that there are a few hundred players in the minors that are better hitters than Hamilton.
8:50 AM Jun 2nd
 
sdbunting
Thought the comments about exceptionalism WERE very Jamesian, a la the Historical Abstract. Reminded me of his thoughts on athlete siblings, and how the most "talented" or "gifted" naturally often wound up seeming like kind of a bust because s/he didn't have to try as hard as we B-pluses have to.
8:13 AM May 31st
 
OldBackstop
...pfftt...I think the least sabremetric book I've ever read was Popular Crime. I'm glad as hell as that isn't a standard for publication on the site. Greatly enjoy Dave's writing style.
6:57 AM May 29th
 
hotstatrat
Apologies for chiming in late with these notes . . .

Perhaps, what the Reds need is a little patience with their new order. Give them another week or so to get used to it - and, perhaps, sell it's merits to them better.

Having a base stealer batting in front of your best hitters has never made sense to me UNLESS you best hitter is a singles hitting machine such which Votto is to some degree. My logic is: why waste a basestealer in front of the guys who are most likely going to walk or hit a home run rendering the steal useless and the caught steal a disaster? Why not put him in front of the singles hitters and get some RBIs out of them.

Finally, Dave, I do enjoy your writing. Your cheerfulness comes through and your points are clear. However, this was about the least sabermetric baseball piece I've read on the web in memory. Not that it is a requirement, but, yeah, as another reader pointed out, much ado was made from crumbs of correlations. I love Bill James because he is a wonderful writer AND he cuts away frivelous speculation with serious analysis.


8:52 PM May 28th
 
MarisFan61
Casey Stengel, as quoted in NY Times, 5/12/60, explaining why he was putting Mantle in the #2 spot: ".....he's been....getting more walks than any of my other players. Check me on that. So it occurred to me that it would be a good thing to have Mickey up there where he might get on base a lot and be knocked in by some of my other fellows who are hitting good, too, and thereby get us some of the runs which we so sorely need."
3:27 AM May 28th
 
Brock Hanke
A few people I know who are REALLY into the Negro Leagues have said that Cool Papa Bell was robbed of his real career by a manager who made him switch-hit. Righty, Bell had power and hit for big averages. Lefty, he was much worse, and had little power; far too big a drop to make up with any amount of base stealing and bunt singles. Considering how good his career was with this disadvantage, it's scary to think what he'd have been like if he'd just hit righty all the time. It also gives you an idea of just how far back this idea goes.
2:49 AM May 28th
 
MarisFan61
On Reader Posts recently we were looking a little bit at the batting orders of the Mantle-Maris Yanks, and noticed that in 1960, Stengel put Mantle 2nd in the order a fair amount. I don't know what he had in mind (especially since he did some other unusual things, like batting Mantle 6th a few times when he hadn't been going well) but I guessed it was basically because of what you're saying about Votto: the guys hitting ahead of Mick in the order weren't getting on very much either. I thought it was also because Mick wasn't getting pitched to with men on base when he was in the middle of the order, but, same basic idea.
10:37 PM May 27th
 
the_slasher14
Here's the thing about Joey Votto: the rap on him was that he didn't drive in enough runs, OBP be damned. Finally, they managed to realize what everyone else had come to realize -- OBP has VALUE -- and they batted him second where his OBP set up the guys coming up behind him. But like junkies trying to kick the habit, they couldn't walk past the pusher for long. I mean, he's our best hitter -- we've GOT to bat him third so he can drive in runs. Of course, without the guys batting first and second getting on base, that's kind of hard to do. Somewhere in southern Ohio, there's a laboratory where the Reds are hard at work trying to find a way to clone Votto so they can bat him behind himself.
3:25 PM May 27th
 
Hal10000
Ah, the Maury Wills effect. In the Historical Abstract, Bill talked about how Wills' learning to hit left-handed wound up ruining the careers of many players. Managers became convinced that they should be teaching speedy right-handers to left-handers, often to the destruction of their hitting ability. Seems nothing changes.
12:52 PM May 27th
 
sansho1
I think if you step back a bit from the issue of bullpen-by-committee and view it from an employee management perspective, the idea of relying on at least somewhat defined roles has some surface validity. It strikes me as probably difficult to make a by-committee approach stick when the employees in question 1) are aware of what the typical roles are and how they're assigned, 2) are conditioned by this awareness to view the committee approach as temporary, and 3) believe that their own success or failure WILL EVENTUALLY determine their role.
11:55 AM May 27th
 
mrbryan
Your comment about the bullpen by committee mistakes anecdote for evidence. It is flawed on several levels. First, it generalizes from the specific, assuming that because it happened once, it will always happen. Second, it mistakes correlation for causation. The Red Sox had a bullpen by committee, and the bullpen was not successful. There is no evidence that the first caused the second to happen, just the the two things happened at the same time. This can be shown to be fallacious in two ways. First, there have been many bullpens by closer which fail, and they do not show that bullpens by closer are unsuccessful. Second, there have been bullpens by committee which have succeeded (see the Baltimore Orioles of 1969-1974).
10:51 AM May 27th
 
chuck
There IS a Liszt Eroica- one of his Transcendental Etudes:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1eW__aiOZw
10:00 AM May 27th
 
archieleach
One step to becoming a good writer: If you refer to something outside your area of expertise, be sure the reference is correct. Otherwise, you will run into wise guys like ME. Who will point out that Beethoven wrote Eroica. Not Liszt. Good job with the rest of it.
9:23 AM May 27th
 
Brock Hanke
I have three comments. One, I've worked all my life as a writer, too. You are very very good.

Two, I've thought for years that if you have a super-stealer in your lineup, the best spot in the order is #2. The reasoning goes like this: If the super stealer gets on leadoff, what does he know about the inning? He knows that the pitcher could not get the leadoff man out. That's an indicator to play for a big inning, not steal bases. But if he gets on batting second, he'll know if there is already another hitter that the pitcher could not get out, and he will know where that hitter is. If the other hitter went out, now you have an indicator for trying to get one run out of the inning, so green light. But if the leadoff man is on at all, you should really be playing for a big inning, and if he's on second, you can't run at all. So your talent is funneled into those situations where stealing bases has the most value; the innings where there is already one out.

Last comment: The phrase "bullpen by committee" was, IIRC, created to describe the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, at least until September, when they installed Todd Worrell as their closer. Whitey Herzog was obsessive about having one super closer. This may have cost him in the World Series Game 6. When Dane Iorg came to the plate, Worrell should have left the mound. Iorg was only in the Majors because he could cream righty fastballs, and that's all Worrell had. Meanwhile, in the bullpen, was Rickey Horton, master of lefty slop, and the Royals had already used their best righty pinch-hitter. Iorg would have been about a .150 hitter against Horton, but he was about a .450 hitter against Worrell's type of pitcher.
8:18 AM May 27th
 
evanecurb
Marisfan:

Your points are well taken. In the general population of countries that play baseball, the 255 current position players who have starting jobs in the major leagues, are 255 divided by 700 million, or something like that. If you add in AAA players, reserves, prospects, and former players, and use people in those countries who actually play baseball, the odds are much shorter, but 1 in 1,000 is still much closer than 1 in 100.

But Dave's point is not a mathematical one. If I read his piece correctly, his speed, relative to others, is ten times more exceptional than his hitting ability. I can accept that.

I remember talking to a guidance counselor before my junior year in high school. We were asked to evaluate our abilities in terms of percentages. I had listed myself in the top 1% in athletic ability. He said "so you think your'e a real jock, eh?" I responded no, that I had been the only 16 year old sophomore who had earned a starting position on the varsity the previous year. Since there were about 200 boys in our class, that put me in the top 1%. I had done the math.
Hearing this, he suggested that I switch from Algebra 4 (Trig) and switch to Pre-Calculus.

I should have listened to him.
7:39 AM May 27th
 
MarisFan61
Correction: In my comment about Hamilton, I understated the percentiles of outstanding-ness by a factor of 3 to 4.
I said there were about 450 males in the school; actually it was 450 in my class/year. It was about 1500 all together. The guys that I said were in the top whole percentile were more like the top 0.3 of a percentile.....etc.
2:45 AM May 27th
 
MarisFan61
Regarding this:

You remember bullpen-by-committee, right? Left without an obvious closer one year, the Red Sox decided to use relievers according to what the game dictated, instead of picking a true ‘closer.’ The results were a disaster.
The lesson of that experiment, in my opinion, is that teams tend to underrate the importance of routine.


I don't know if they do. I think we see examples all the time where they seem to go against what analysis would seem to demonstrate, for the sake of "routine." A current example (I think) is how the Yankees are dealing with Ellsbury's absence.

They have Brett Gardner in LF. As we all know, he has had some of the best defensive metrics of any outfielder of recent years. Maybe he's lost a little but he's still excellent, and some people think he should be the center fielder, period. If it were even just for a few games that Ellsbury was going to be out, it could easily be felt that the clear move is to put Gardner in CF, and put whomever in LF. But Ellsbury is out for much more than a few games -- and the Yanks still aren't doing that. They're leaving Gardner in left. At first they put Chris Young in CF, then they brought up a guy named Slade Heathcott for CF; those two guys seem to be sharing the position, while Gardner stays in LF.

I'm guessing it's all for the sake of "routine" -- don't mess with Gardner, and replace the injured guy in some other way.

We sometimes see the same thing when a pretty good hitter with a pretty good spot in the batting order is out for a couple of games -- and the replacement guy, who isn't a pretty good hitter, just gets plugged into the same spot in the order. I don't think it's laziness by the manager; I assume it's to leave everyone else in their same roles.
11:29 PM May 26th
 
MarisFan61
I'm just going to focus on a small and tangential thing (as I often do) :-) .....it's way off any of the main subjects here, but it's about how outstanding one has to be, in order to be a major league player. I'm focusing on it because, like most things in these articles that I focus on, it's something that I tripped over.

You wrote:

Hamilton, as a hitter, is probably in the 99th percentile, meaning that if you took 100 random people, Hamilton would be a better hitter than 99 of them.

The reason I tripped over it is that I think the "probably" means that you are way underestimating how good of a hitter someone needs to be to get to the major leagues, and therefore how good a hitter Hamilton is. Sure, his stats look terrible, but.....how many high school stars would be able to do nearly as well? I think few. Maybe I'm overestimating how good ML hitters are, but I think it's an easy bet that Hamilton is in the top tenth of a percentile as a hitter, and an absolutely slam-dunk that he's in the top whole percentile; that's not close to needing a "probably."

Let me put it this way. As a kid, I was a 'pretty good' player, probably safely at the 80th percentile as a hitter, or a little higher. My high school didn't have a particularly great team -- and I wasn't within a mile of even thinking of making the team. There were about 450 males in the school. I was probably in the top 100 as a hitter (whooppee). :-) But making the team, or even being in the running for it, was a whole different level. And then of course there were differentiations between starters and guys who were just on the roster, and likewise between the starters-in-general and the stars. Conveniently there were about 4 hitters who were "real good" -- I say 'conveniently' because that means they were the top 1 percentile. Two of them were better than the other two; they were the top half of a percentile. Neither one of them was good enough to even make the minor leagues. And we can take it further down the line: Few of the hitters who are good enough to make the minor leagues would be good enough to ever put up a major league line like Hamilton's .212/.256/.321. I'm comfortable saying he's probably about 1 in 1000 as a hitter -- and that may still be understating it.

The reason I get so much into this (and I do, a lot) is that I think it's of value to appreciate people for what they are, and, even as highly as pro athletes are regarded, I think we tend to underestimate how outstanding their abilities are. I think the way Michael Jordan's baseball stab was regarded was another example. He was widely seen as being terrible; I thought that while he didn't come close to being major league material, it was incredibly impressive what he was able to do. The guy was 31, he hadn't played serious baseball in a decade and a half -- and he was able to hit .202 in AA. Go ahead, laugh :-) ......but I say that's enormously impressive, and that it marked him also as probably a 1-in-1000 guy as a hitter.
11:10 PM May 26th
 
evanecurb
Dr. Fleming:

You are a good writer. You're the best New Zealand based writer on this site. Seriously, though, I enjoy your stuff.

Interesting piece. Based solely on what you've said here, I'd say the Reds should let Votto lead off, hit Hamilton ninth, and I'd stop Hamilton from switch hitting.

Switch hitting is very difficult. Most of us are either naturally right handed or left handed. I don't see how anyone can be as good a hitter from their unnatural side as they are from their natural side.

Getting a Ph.D. is dificult, too. Congratulations.
10:11 PM May 26th
 
 
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