Take a moment to imagine a ballplayer who's a pest at the plate, a magnet in center field and an unstoppable force on the basepaths.
The guy you just imagined is Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton. Or the player he's becoming, anyway.
Coming into 2014, we knew Hamilton was fast. Maybe even the fastest baseball player ever. Knowing that, there was little question he could make the grade on the basepaths and in the field. Speed goes far in those two arenas.
But then there was the thing we didn't know: whether the switch-hitting 23-year-old would even be able to hit his weight (160 pounds) in the big leagues.
Hamilton hit .368 in 2013, but that was over just 22 plate appearances and after he slashed just .256/.308/.343 at Triple-A. And according to Baseball America, ESPN's Keith Law (subscription required) and Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required), Hamilton's bat really was that much of a question mark.
Hamilton is the fastest player I've ever seen on a baseball field, but his baseball skills can still play raw, especially at the plate. ... Hamilton's bat is likely a better fit for down-the-lineup, and despite the elite run, the 23-year-old might fail to live up to the lofty ceiling created by his lofty speed.
Thus were there doubts when the Reds tabbed Hamilton to replace Shin-Soo Choo both in the leadoff spot and in center field in his rookie season. If his bat was as advertised, he'd be looking at a career as a pinch runner and/or defensive replacement rather than as an everyday player.
And early on, Hamilton's bat did look as advertised. He wore the golden sombrero against St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright on Opening Day, and he was just 2-for-22 after seven games.
Flash forward to the present day, however, and things look a little different.
Hamilton is hitting a solid .282 with a .717 OPS, which is a tick above the league-average OPS. Look past his 2-for-22 start, however, and he's a .299 hitter with a .756 OPS over 68 games. And he's only getting better (via FanGraphs):
The roots of Hamilton's particularly impressive June surge aren't hard to find.
His decreased strikeout rate has meant more balls in play, and he entered Saturday batting .354 on balls in play this month. Hamilton's power surge, meanwhile, can be partially traced to a monthly fly-ball rate near 40 percent. When fly balls aren't caught, they're liable to turn into extra-base hits.
And that goes double for Hamilton. Pun absolutely intended.
Beyond the stats lies another explanation for Hamilton's surge: There's a comfort factor that wasn't there before.
"I'm very comfortable now," he recently told MLB.com's Phil Rogers. "Early in the season, the first few games, I felt like I wasn't a big leaguer. I was just here to be here. Now I feel like I'm supposed to be here."
Paul Daugherty of The Cincinnati Enquirer tried to dig even deeper, asking Hamilton what's changed since Opening Day. Hamilton reiterated that he's more comfortable, but Daugherty added that the speedster "alluded to 'adjustments.'"
Something like that can be code-talk for "Go look at the video." And when I did, I noticed something.
Though Hamilton's a switch-hitter, he's batted lefty in the majority of his 2014 plate appearances (216 of 295). The majority of his production has come there too, as he's a .300 hitter batting lefty.
And this is where an adjustment seems to have taken place.
Consider the stance Hamilton was using against Wainwright back on Opening Day:
That's a really wide-open stance, and it didn't exactly work. In striking out four times, Hamilton had all sorts of issues with his timing. As he'd probably be the first to agree, it was ugly.
Not helping matters is that such a wide-open stance wasn't exactly routine for Hamilton. Check out how it compares to the stance he was using during September last year:
Hamilton's stance last fall was much more closed. While he only got so many plate appearances, that he hit .368 using that stance is a pretty good indication that it didn't need to be changed.
What happened between the end of 2013 and Opening Day? I'm not sure. But what I do know is that Hamilton has closed his stance as 2014 has moved along.
Here's a look:
Hamilton's not all the way back to the stance he had last September. But he has gotten a lot closer to that stance and has certainly benefited from it.
And it's apparent that Hamilton's adjustment hasn't helped him against just one pitch type. Brooks Baseball can vouch that it's helped him against everything:
This is not to suggest Hamilton doesn't need to evolve even further as a hitter, mind you.
Beyond his June production likely being a bit too good to be true, he needs to work on his hitting from the right side and his overall plate discipline. He's only a .233 hitter against lefties, and he should be walking a lot more often than 4.4 percent of the time.
What Hamilton has made clear, though, is that his hit tool isn't all that doomed after all. There's clearly some talent there, and he's shown he can make adjustments to tap into it. We shouldn't take that for granted, as not all young hitters are able to adjust when dealt a reality check.
So scratch that once-possible future as a pinch runner/defensive replacement. The question now is not whether Hamilton can be an everyday player, but how good of an everyday player he can be.
Short answer: maybe even better than the one he already is.
Let's venture to use wins above replacement as a measuring stick. If we do that, we find FanGraphs has Hamilton's WAR at 2.9, which puts him 10th among outfielders and fifth among center fielders.
Given how Hamilton's hitting is right around league average, maybe this makes you skeptical. But you have to remember this guy's main source of value isn't his bat. It's his legs.
And those have lived up to the hype.
By virtue of his 34 stolen bases and other good baserunning plays, FanGraphs has Hamilton's baserunning value at 4.7 runs above average. That's good for fourth in MLB. This would be the statistical way of saying something we expected to be saying: Yup, Hamilton's baserunning is a huge asset.
Then there's his defense. He rates as easily the best defensive center fielder in baseball, and that's believable for two reasons:
- Hamilton is first among center fielders in ultimate zone rating and tied for first in defensive runs saved.
- He certainly passes the eye test.
The arm Hamilton used to need at shortstop has proved to be a weapon in center field, and goodness knows his speed allows him to cover quite a bit of ground.
If we take Hamilton's first-half WAR of 2.9 and project it out over the second half, we get a WAR of just under 6.0. By FanGraphs' typical guidelines, that's a WAR of a star-level player.
And remember, this is assuming that Hamilton's hitting only stays right around league average. Even if he never gets better than he's been, he can still be a star. As mind-boggling as that may be, well, that's Hamilton's speed for you. It's a source of value as powerful as any in the game today.
The scary thought is how good Hamilton can be with an above-average bat.
Since that's what he's been packing in June, we actually have a solid idea. With above-average offense added to his baserunning and defense, FanGraphs has Hamilton's June WAR at 1.6. Over a full season, a good-hitting, good-running, good-fielding Hamilton could thus be worth easily more than 6.0 WAR.
Yup. His ceiling is not that of a mere star-level player. It's that of a superstar-level player.
At the least, what Hamilton has done with his offensive surge is show that there's more to him than just his speed. In showing he can hit, he's shown he belongs and that he can more than earn his keep.
And then there's the even higher potential that Hamilton has shown this month. If that ends up being no mere tease, he's a player we're going to be talking about for a long time.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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