As I sit here and type this, Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton is hitting .255/.300/.376 on the season. That’s hardly anything to write home about, but it’s also representative of what would be his highest average, highest on-base percentage and his highest slugging percentage of his short career.

Of course, I also sit here and type this after he’s coming off of a big series in Coors Field where he went 7-13 with a walk and three doubles. Prior to that series he had gone 2-19 in the previous two series, so the timing here certainly comes into play as he’s at a high point and writing this article would look quite a bit different if it were written just four days ago. Or would it?

The triple-slash line would certainly look different, that’s for sure. But when discussing if Billy Hamilton is improving at the plate it’s important to look just beyond the numbers on the surface because at times those don’t tell the entire story. Let’s take a look at the numbers beyond what you would typically find in a box score or even on most stat breakdowns.

Generally speaking, the best hitters tend to swing at fewer pitches outside of the strikezone than the rest of baseball. It’s why they tend to be the best hitters – they are swinging at, and generally making contact with pitches that they, and everyone else, hit’s better. Inside of the strikezone, on contact, most hitters are very, very good. What separates them is how often they swing at those pitches instead of ones that aren’t in the zone.

In 2016 Billy Hamilton is swinging at pitches outside of the zone at a career low 21.4% (via Fangraphs). That’s almost Joey Votto territory. Hamilton’s career rate is 28%, so this is a big improvement that he’s showing through two months of the season. He’s also swinging at more pitches inside of the strikezone. On top of that, he’s also making contact inside of the zone more often. On the downside, he’s also making contact at the highest rate of his career outside of the zone.

With all of that data in mind, let’s take a look at what Billy Hamilton does on pitches inside of the zone versus what he’s done on pitches outside of the zone for his career, and be sure to note that this only includes pitches that he’s made contact with and doesn’t include strikeouts. All of this data was gathered from Brooks Baseball and manually tabulated by me to get the numbers below.

Strangely enough, for his career, the Reds center fielder has a higher batting average on balls in play on pitches OUTSIDE of the strikezone than he does inside of the strikezone, .300 versus .284. Of course, if we toss in times where he’s swinging at missing, his average inside of the zone holds nearly a 60 point lead because he’s swinging and missing far more frequently outside of the zone.

How does that stack up for the 2016 season though, where he’s showing better strikezone awareness? It’s pretty much the same. We are dealing with a small sample size in both cases, but he’s at .284 on pitches in the zone and .324 on pitches out of the zone. That goes against the grain of what we know about hitting a baseball. Of course, with his speed, it could simply be that soft/weaker contact works for him better than most players.

One of my new favorite things to keep an eye on is the exit velocity on balls put in play by hitters (or against pitchers if we are looking at them). With the technology in baseball now, it’s giving us so many different things to look at to help us try to understand player performance. You can browse around these guys – WebDesign499 for more information.

Last season Billy Hamilton ranked dead last in the Major Leagues in average exit velocity on balls he made contact with. He was 308th out of 308 players with at least 150 balls put in play. He averaged just 82.5 MPH when he made contact with the baseball. By comparison, Giancarlo Stanton averaged an insane 98.6 MPH (Miguel Cabrera was second with 94.5 MPH). We are still getting to understand and know how to use this data to tell us exactly what is likely to happen, but we do know that, generally speaking, the harder one hits the ball, the more likely it is to go for a hit. The data shows that. Obviously the launch angle of the ball matters some as well – but the harder the ball comes off the bat, the less time a fielder tends to have to get to the baseball and turn it into an out.

Let’s remember that Hamilton had shoulder surgery in 2015, and that shoulder injuries can sometimes be a real problem for hitters coming back from.  So, how are things looking in 2016? Of the 296 players with at least 50 balls in play, Billy Hamilton ranks 291st in average exit velocity at just 82.9 MPH. That’s up ever-so-slightly from where he was in 2015, but still among the lowest in all of baseball. With that in mind, let’s compare the breakdown of things from 2015 to 2016, but also note that the sample size for 2016 is just more than a third of that as we have from 2015. Here’s a quick look at the breakdown of exit velocities for Hamilton in 2015 versus 2016, all from Baseball Savant.

Billy Hamilton exit velocity

Billy Hamilton exit velocity

What sticks out here is the 95+ categories, where Billy Hamilton is certainly performing better. Even in the total area of 90+ MPH we are seeing an uptick in output. For just 90 MPH and higher exit velocities, the Reds outfielder is up to 33% this season from 30% in 2015. That’s a small jump, and as noted, the sample size is much smaller in 2016, but it’s an improvement at this point.

Given all of this data, we can say, that at least as things stand right now, Hamilton is showing improvements in making contact, swinging at better pitches and hitting the ball harder (though the last one is probably directly related to the second one). Those are improvements that are good things for the future if he can continue doing them and should help improve his overall game at the plate.

With that said, there are still some concerns. While the exit velocity is up, he’s still really struggling to hit the ball with any kind of authority. That’s not surprising given his size, and well, his swing. He still really struggles on anything that doesn’t put his bat path on a downward plane as a left handed hitter. When Billy Hamilton swings at a pitch that’s in the bottom third of the zone or lower, he’s hitting .379 when he makes contact in 2016. When he swings at anything that’s higher than that he’s hitting just .225 when he makes contact.

That can be two-fold in explanation. Pitches at the bottom of the zone or lower at probably being hit on the ground more often, and thus go for hits more often, while pitches higher in the zone are being put into the air and go for outs more often, especially for someone who isn’t placing the ball into the seats. At the same time, if you watch the swing of Hamilton from the left side, when he’s swinging on a downward plane, his swing is somewhat smooth and direct. When he has to level his swing out or swing at something up in the zone it gets choppy and unsmooth very quickly.

At the end of the day though, we’ve seen Hamilton show improvements in several categories in 2016. They haven’t all been big ones, but a few little ones here and there can add up. There’s still plenty of work to do, but it appears, at least for now, that things are trending in the right direction for the Reds center fielder.

10 Responses

  1. Tom

    While it would certainly be a big lift to the Reds if Hamilton is somehow figuring things out, I want to see what his stats are at the end of the year first. As you say, Doug, he’s having a nice series in Colorado. I don’t see anything in his past that leads me to believe that Hamilton is ever going to be anything more than a .230 – .240 hitter at the major league level.

  2. Jonathan Linn

    I would love to see Billy succeed as he is a great CF. He would need to hit better than Vince Coleman did in the 80’s to make it work. Tim Raines had a lot more pop and contact skills than Billy probably could ever have.

  3. Krozley

    Do the exit velocity figures take into account bunted balls? BHam is going to be low no matter what, but I’m wondering if it is skewed a little by his higher than normal bunt rate.

    • mollyspad

      I was just going to ask the same question Krozley

    • Doug Gray

      Yes, they do. It’s one of the reasons I broke things down further into the sub categories. Even removing the bunts though, which I have done in the past (though not for his 2016 numbers), it doesn’t move the needle much at all.

  4. sultanofswaff

    Good analysis Doug. If he can keep his OBP north of .300 for good, we’ve resolved one of our lingering problems among the position players. It frees up Peraza for SS, Blandino for 2B, and then you can sorta see the pieces fall into place.

  5. DaveCT

    What about his spray charts, especially from the left side? Seems he is slapping the ball the other way more. And perhaps that explains his high ba on pitches he hit that are out of the zone (?). Thanks.

  6. RFM

    It seems like an ideal hit for Billy is a ground ball placed well enough to elude an infielder while not hit well enough to go right to the outfielder, with such players occasionally resulting in the possibility of a crazy double. Like a bunt (swinging or intended), such a hit just wouldn’t be expected to have a high exit velocity. So I’m just really skeptical about what relevance exit velocity has to Billy’s skill set.

    Even if he put everything together, hit as well as his skills allow, and put together a strong offensive season, he wouldn’t be expected to produce high exit velocities, he’s just not that kinda player.