Phillip Ervin will start for the Cincinnati Reds tonight in center field. This will be his first game in the Major Leagues in center. Not that he has a ton of big league experience, he’s only played in 16 innings in the field at the big league level and they’ve all come in the corners.

In the minor leagues, Phillip Ervin has spent time playing mostly center and left field. He only has a little mixture of time in right. From a pure speed standpoint, Ervin is a 60 runner, showing plus speed. Compared to all baseball players, he’s certainly very fast. But, compared to just other center fielders, he’s probably in the bottom third somewhere. You generally aren’t going to find center fielders that aren’t 60 or better runners. The position simply requires speed to play because of the amount of ground that needs to be covered.

As with all positions, offensive value and defensive value need to be considered when wondering about whether someone can play at a spot on the field. Right now the Cincinnati Reds starting center fielder is Billy Hamilton. We seem to know what he can, and what he can’t do. He can play defensive and he can do it better than just about anyone. He can run the bases and he can do that better than just about anyone. What he can’t do is hit. Or get on base.

While it’s not impossible for Billy Hamilton to improve his offense, at this point it does seem to be unlikely. He’s 26-years-old and hasn’t shown any improvemnts. In his first full season he hit .250/.292/.355. Four years later he’s hitting .247/.298/.329. HIs walk rate is a little bit higher. His strikeout rate is also up a little bit. His power is actually down in 2017. And that’s in a year in which everyone is hitting for significantly more power than they have ever done before (the ball is indeed juiced).

Billy Hamilton’s contributions in the field and on the bases are so good that they may indeed make up for his lack off hitting. Not that I’m beholden to WAR (for more than a few reasons), but this season has been the worst output for Hamilton in his career on both sides of the ball. By far. And it’s resulted in his posting of just 0.9 fWAR (fangraphs WAR). The average starting position player is usually 2.0 fWAR. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR has him at just 0.6 WAR. That’s a useful player, but a well below-average starting player.

Phillip Ervin is the guy who seems most likely, at least in the short term, to be a possible answer to being able to improve on the center field position for the Reds. While the team has some very good center field prospects with guys like TJ Frield, Jose Siri, Taylor Trammell, Stuart Fairchild and Miles Gordon – all of those guys are still several years away from reaching the Major Leagues.

For Phillip Ervin, the overall numbers this season at the plate don’t scream that he’s a clear and obvious option to overtake Billy Hamilton. However, his season is weighed down by an absolutely atrocious month of May. If we remove that month from his season, in the other 329 plate appearances between Louisville and Cincinnati he’s hit .287/.363/.460 with 33 walks and 58 strikeouts. He’s also going to provide value on the bases. Clearly he won’t provide the same value there as a guy like Hamilton, but he should provide a good amount of positive value in this aspect.

The two questions for Phillip Ervin are: Can he hit enough to play every day as a center fielder? He’s struggled to hit for an average for the large part of his minor league career, and overall this season he’s struggled there too. But, outside of May, he’s done quite well – as noted above. The other question is: Can he field well enough to play center as the Major League level?

That latter question is one that is a much bigger question for me when it comes to one that the Reds need to know the answer to. In the minors the organization has the Trackman system set up, so they have all kinds of data on Phillip Ervin and what he can hit, can’t hit, how hard he can hit the ball, where he hits the ball – all of that fun stuff we can see the broadcasts spit out via Statcast in the Majors.

What the minor leagues don’t have is the other part of that system that tracks the fielders. That system also falls under the Statcast umbrella in the Majors, but it is a different set up entirely. It’s the one that we get data on about reaction time, route efficiency, distance traveled, catch probability. While I certainly don’t think scouts are missing out on these things by much, this could provide a bit more accuracy to answer the question. Getting that information is only going to be available by letting Phillip Ervin get out in the outfield and actually play.

For the Reds, having that information could be very useful in terms of figuring out whether or not they believe that Phillip Ervin could be a player that should see more time in center field if Billy Hamilton doesn’t start showing some improvements. Will the downgrade in defense be worth it for the overall package swap? Would it be worth it to simply platoon the two players, as Hamilton has struggled mightily from the right side of the plate? There’s no better time than between now and the end of the season to mix Ervin into center field 2-3 times a week and get that information for the front office to evaluate and better inform them as they move forward.

38 Responses

  1. mark l

    Just in general, Hamilton seems like a guy that would perform better only starting 4 days a week. He plays at such a high energy level, I wonder if he is just worn down parts of the year. If they made sure to start him with a fly ball starter and start him in the big ball parks, I think they could maximize his value, IMO. Ervin could start 1 game a week at a corner and 2 in CF. This could maximize his performance as well, keeping him away from rhp with tough sliders and putting him in the field when you need slightly less CF defense. No way to be perfect at that, but it seems like it could be a good platoon for both guys.

  2. Tom

    I’m happy that Ervin is getting a shot in centerfield tonight. It’s absolutely essential for the Reds to start figuring out what Ervin can do. At this point in the season, I’m not sure why the Reds would start Hamilton any more.

    • Doug Gray

      Well, unless Hamilton is hurt, you aren’t just going to sit him every day. That’s not going to go over well with Hamilton, the MLBPA, the Reds other players….

      • MK

        Why would MLBPA get involved since they would be endorsing one of their members over other of their members concerning playing time and lineup make-up.

      • Doug Gray

        Because you are essentially shutting someone down for a non-injury. Someone who has been a starter for the entire year, and the previous three years.

      • Simon Cowell

        yeah I don’t see how the MLBPA gets a say in who starts and in who sits. Especially when you have young talent knocking at the door. Regardless of what can be said about BHams defense you can look at many metrics both old and new school to state facts that he isn’t delivering on the offensive side of his game. Reds need to figure out what future role Ervin and Winker have with the team. Why wouldn’t the MLBPA complain then also about their usage? Both could out perform BHam offensively. Sad to say it but it looks like the writing is one the wall for some bodies to be traded shortly. No room for Bham, Ervin, Winker, Schebler, Duvall. 1 or 2 of these will be going bye bye.

      • Doug Gray

        If you literally take a guy that was good enough to start all year, and the previous several years, then just don’t play him at all for a month with no injury to shut him down for, they will make a big fuss about it. And rightfully so. That’s just not how business is done.

      • Simon Cowell

        64 wRC+ For BHam. I think any other team would see him already riding the pine a few days a week.

      • wes

        I agree with Doug- it may not make news and it’s justifiable on the Reds part to bench him, but the players association needs to investigate all situations like this- it’s their job.

      • Bubba Woo

        Obviously, the Player’s Association would have a problem with it. Sitting a healthy player in September suppresses their stats, hurting their cases in arbitration (And in Hamilton’s case, greatly reducing his chance at a Gold Glove or the Stolen Base title).

        And, as a Reds fan, I’d have a problem with it because nothing in the four years Ervin has been in the system indicates that he’s even close to the player that Hamilton is. Ervin didn’t earn a promotion, he was given one due to injuries. Big difference.

      • MK

        Can you give an example of when the MLPA has ever questioned or stepped in and had the player file a grievance for a player being benched?

      • Doug Gray

        They don’t tend to go public with these kinds of things – but it’s not about a player being benched – which they wouldn’t file for. But, in the scenario presented of “I don’t know why he’d play again this season” and was just shut down/benched for a month straight – they’d step in. And they should.

  3. Bill

    It will be fun to see Ervin get a start, today. Mark makes a great point, it would seem to me that Hamilton would benefit from taking a game or two off per week. Given that so much of his value comes from his legs, it would just make sense to keep them fresh. In addition to Ervin, I would like to see Schebler get some action in CF on those off days.

    Doug, I also think your point about Hamilton’s bat is valid. While he may improve, analytically I don’t think there is data that would indicate improvement is coming. It really begs the question of why the lineup is not shuffled to minimize the negative aspect of his bat. Similarly, it would seem like the Reds would put Suarez’s hot bat up to fourth and drop Duvall’s to sixth. Have you heard any explanations for why the order is not adjusted to best fit daily performance?

    Finally, we could be at a point in 2018 where we have the luxury of stashing Ervin, Blandino, and Turner at Louisville where they could play everyday and stand ready to join the Reds to cover any injury. Alternatively, they could shuttle between the Cincinnati bench and Louisville where they would start to ensure they are sharp when called upon. That’s pretty impressive depth.

    • Doug Gray

      You can’t adjust for daily performance because it’s not predictive in that way. But, there’s enough data to say that Hamilton probably shouldn’t be batting leadoff because he simply doesn’t get on base enough.

      • Simon Cowell

        yup. I think moving forward we’ll be seeing something change with the BHam experiment. He is not delivering offensively and keeping him up at the top of the order doesn’t make sense. If it was me I’d have him batting ninth in the order. I’ve never liked the pitcher being in the the #3 3 hole.
        I would still like to see more on the debate that he shouldn’t be starting every game. Very legit to see his playing time reduced to give others the opportunity to excel.

      • Bill

        By daily performance i mean making a change to the batting order every so often based on trends. Hamilton gets on base well below league average, yet bats first. Duvall and Gennett are on downward trends whereas Suarez and Schebler are on upswings…why not make an adjustment?

        I don’t by the suggestion i’ve read elsewhere that this is a byproduct of managements stubbornness or simply poor strategy. What’s the benefit to maintaining a static lineup?

      • RedsinWashSt

        I agree with Bill. This is what other managers do except on weekly trends. Getting the hot bats together is not what price ever does. It took him a month and a half to get cozart hitting number 2 in lineup finally moving peraza out who was struggling. But this would take some work and he doesn’t want to think about it.

    • wes

      I’m pretty high on Billy. He’s a gamer and I think his bests days are to come and he’s Reds best option to play Center next season. However, he needs to ride a lot of pine along with several other players to round out the season. I doubt we see it but there’s a lot of guys who’s earned a spot. Outside of Votto, Suarez, and Barnhart I think everyone else should have substantial time off to finish season to see what some guys young guys can do on next level. Same with pitchers- Rookie should be getting some starts along with Garrett and maybe Reed if there’s room. Time to see next generation get some action and hopefully loose a few games on the way to secure a top 5 (preferably 3 pick).

  4. Arnold Ziffle

    Nice to see Phillip Ervin get a start. A good game by Ervin tonight might give Billy another off day tomorrow for a day game. A get out of town day game too. Billy can be well rested for Friday evening.
    Just wondering, “the ball is indeed juiced” is this just conjecture? Opinion? Any evidence to support your statement other than opinion? You say it so matter of factly. What facts do you have? Other than twice as many players have hit 20+ HR’s in 2017 than in 2016. Look at how many players had 20+ HR’s in 2014. Almost 3 times as many now. But is the ball really “juiced”? How exactly is a ball “juiced”? Have you compared MLB baseballs from 2017 to say 2013 or 2014 baseballs to make such assertion? Have you tested any baseballs at all? Are the center rubber balls different? Are the center twines in the balls wound tighter? Are the balls stitched differently at the seams? I find it hard to believe that Climate Change isn’t involved somehow.
    Not trying to take you to task, but wondering what facts you had. The MLB Commissioner’s office has assured everybody that the ball isn’t juiced. Not that I believe them, but they are on record. If “the ball is indeed juiced” as you say, on purpose by MLB, the 2017 season will need an asterisk beside it. That will make MLB complicit in two juicing incidents, the juicing of players, and now the balls.

    • Arnold Ziffle

      I guess those were too hard of questions for you to answer.
      Do you really think MLB is deliberately manipulating the baseballs to effect the game? That seems like a scandal in itself if true. Yet, you state it as a fact. I am simply asking in your travels have you heard anything that would amount to this being true? What evidence is out there? I’ve heard many opinions, but have seen scantly any evidence to support it. And MLB vehemently denies it. Are you calling MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred a liar?
      So, I am just asking, what evidence do you have to support your claim the balls are juiced? None? Opinion does not equal a fact.

  5. Tampa Red

    For me, it’s not that Hamilton shouldn’t be in the starting lineup, it’s that he is miscast as a lead off hitter. I think the Reds are a better TEAM with him in CF. They don’t need 2010 Matt Kemp type production from him. Just his career average will be fine if he’s batting 8th or even 9th.

    I’m not at all against giving Ervin a look, but I’m highly skeptical that there is a player that is currently on the Reds 40- man roster that the Reds can stick in CF who is going to make them a better team and produce more wins than they are getting right now with Hamilton. Having said that, I like Ervin a lot and I hope he goes out there and tears it up and proves me wrong.

  6. Brad

    I’d like to see Hamilton used like Cubs use Almora. Get some starts in CF, late defensive or base running replacement. Bat 8th or 9th when in lineup.

  7. Jeff Granger

    If, and I mean if, the Reds have a new starting center fielder in April 2018, can you see keeping Billy around as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement? It’s a stretch, but he’s so good at both of those aspects of the game that he would be worth the roster spot. I’ll hang up and listen to your reply.

    • Doug Gray

      No. But I also think it’s very, very unlikely that if the Reds do decide to go another direction in center that it will be April of 2018.

      • Simon Cowell

        when does his price become expensive or when does he become eligible for free agency? Certainly before Schebler or Ervin is that right?

  8. kevin z

    Like the move even though think should play more,
    only a day off for billy probably.. off topic glad to see Long back for Pensacola

  9. Simon Cowell

    Here’s another question on BHam. Why couldn’t Billy Have equal success at SS that he has in CF? His wuffle bat plays better and would be accepted there, unless of course Suarez is playing there.

    • Doug Gray

      Because you’d lose plenty of defensive value there. Hamilton’s an ELITE center fielder. At shortstop, he’s simply not that kind of guy.

      • Simon Cowell

        but didn’t they say that about him in CF at one time as well?

      • Doug Gray

        No. Pretty much everyone thought that with his speed he’d be very, very good out there. They just thought it would take a little more time than it actually did.

    • Tampa Red

      Why would you move him to SS?? Doing that weakens TWO positions. Billy’s value comes from his legs and his gold glove defense in CF. If you take either of those away, he’s probably not a big league baseball player.

      • Simon Cowell

        Well that is kind of my feeling to begin with. If he can’t hit he is taking up a position that is usually filled by a more offensively contributing player. I don’t think he is an everyday player, but then again, as long as we have 3 or 4 batters hitting over 30 dingers it kind of allows us to play with a weak hitting center fielder…. just not at the top of the order.
        I”m not a huge Price fan but I’m not a hater either. I think Ervin and Winker and going to force the hand on lineup reconstruction though. The more those 2 play and if they contribute it will somewhat start to click with Price that Billy is a liability in the #1 slot

  10. MikeinSoCal

    BHam is not producing at the plate but is a very good CF. It would be nice to try someone else out there but the Reds don’t have anyone. Ervin has not exactly torn up the minor leagues. Do we really expect him to be better at the ML level than at the MiL level?

    • Doug Gray

      As I noted – he’s actually torn it up this year, sans May, if he’s capable of playing center field. If he can go out and go .330 OBP and slug .425, that’s a well above-average hitting center fielder. How much of that comes back in the field, though? That’s a big part of the equation.

  11. Andy

    I know you kind of answered this in a reply above, but couldn’t Hamilton play a similar role to Jarrod Dyson on the Royals in 2014: he got some starts but also was an oft-used late game defensive replacement. There could be some value there especially if his plate appearances against lefties are minimized. Also, is there any chance Billy scraps batting right-handed altogether and just bats lefty against lefties?

    • Bill

      The problem is I believe he is a natural right handed hitter. In previous years, the talk was giving up hitting left handed which he adopted as a professional to better leverage his speed as the left handed batters box is closer to 1B.

  12. alex

    wouldn’t billy’s defense and baserunning be more valuable than anything Ervin can bring? unless a switch turns on and Ervin can magically hit better than he has shown. Ervin has an old of .709 in Louisville and is just avg at everything else. right? not saying he can’t be productive but the hype seems to be to much