Billy Hamilton has long been one of the most fun players in baseball. He runs like the wind, a trait that makes him a highlight factory both on the bases and in the outfield. He turns an otherwise harmless dribbler to third into a moment of genuine excitement, and his presence on base strikes terror in the hearts of opposing pitchers. It’s a real shame, then, that he just does not get on base anymore.
Billy Hamilton is having a rough season. It’s not quite Chris Davis-level rough, but where Davis’s weighted on base percentage, per FanGraphs, is a gut-churning .212, Hamilton’s is an only slightly less horrifying .254. Where Davis’s is worst in all of baseball, Hamilton’s is just fourth worst. The guy has never been a high-average hitter, but he’s slashing a miserable .193/.287/.284, all career worst numbers. Something’s got to give, and at the current rate it is likely to be Hamilton’s job as an everyday player.
That is not to say that Hamilton isn’t still a useful guy, here and there. MLB’s Baseball Savant says Hamilton has been good for six outs above average as Cincinnati’s center fielder so far this season, a top-ten figure in all of baseball. He’s still faster than hell, and that speed can still be a game-changing advantage. Check this shit out—all of these highlights are from today’s game, against the Cardinals, and all of them are Billy Hamilton just being a tremendous athlete:
Even this next one is a ridiculous feat of athleticism—he cruises into position to lay out for what would’ve been a fantastic diving grab, winds up slapping the ball away, but has the wherewithal and twitchy speed to pounce on it and fire it home in time to beat Carlos Martinez and save a run.
He’s never not been an entertaining player, and a couple extra bases and some highlight-worthy outfield plays are always welcome, but baseball, more than ever, is about getting on base. The pressure is real. Per an MLB.com report from Mark Sheldon:
“When I come up to bat, you hear things,” Hamilton said on Sunday morning. “You just have to let it get out of your head. That’s the main part about me slumping. It’s not hands, not my stance, I’m just thinking about, ‘Oh man, I have to get a hit here. I’ve got to do this.’”
Hamilton talks about quieting his mind and simplifying his approach, but he’s also got more dramatic solutions in mind. He’s been a switch hitter in the majors, but as Hamilton’s rotten start stretches into summertime, it sounds like maybe it’s time to close the book on that:
“I know if I just did one and really worked at that one side, I’d be a way better hitter than I am,” Hamilton said. “But it’s just something that I really haven’t talked to them about. I feel like if it keeps going the way it’s going, I’m going to have to be a man and tell them that I really want to focus on just one.”
If that sounds like a simple solution, it isn’t. For starters, Hamilton hasn’t faced a left-handed pitcher from the left side of the plate in his major league career. Even more urgently, which side should he pick? As Sheldon points out, Hamilton has been a more productive hitter from the left side, but he’s a natural righty, and Reds interim manager Jim Riggleman identified Hamilton’s swing from the right side as the better one:
“I saw Billy for the first time back in ‘12. It occurred to me, ‘Man, that right-handed swing looks good.’ I had him in ‘13 and kind of felt the same way that maybe that would be the way to go.”
Switch-hitters mostly don’t give up switch-hitting. Baseball is merciless towards lefties who can’t hit lefties, and the proliferation of the shift has made lefties who can’t hit with power against lefties even more disadvantaged. Hamilton is a righty who hits righties pretty well as a lefty, but he is also a righty who has no major league experience batting as a lefty against lefties. When Danny Espinosa—another slick-fielding natural righty switch-hitter whose production from the plate cratered—tried to give up switch-hitting, he went exclusively to the right side, starting in spring training in 2015. Even then the experiment failed and was abandoned before the start of the regular season. Hitting a baseball is hard enough!
As is the case with Chris Davis in Baltimore, Hamilton plays for one of the very worst teams in all of baseball, so the pressure that might otherwise push a struggling veteran to the bench is, in his case, nonexistent. The Reds have the worst record in the National League, they’re already 16.5 games back of the Cubs in the NL Central, they’re the only club in their division with a negative run differential, and there’s absolutely no reason to expect anything to change anytime soon. But baseball is more fun when Billy Hamilton is tearing ass around the bases, and though dropping switch-hitting seems very much like a long-shot solution, it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly make things any worse.