30 players, 30 teams, 30(ish) days – Reds

The Reds have a Billy Hamilton problem. They have many, many problems, actually, but this one is more of a conundrum than a problem. They have four outfielders and only three spots to play them, all with their own set of flaws. Hamilton’s flaw is not a minor one – he cannot hit. In fact, he’s gotten worse this year, hitting just .210/.297/.300 going into Thursday night’s game against the Brewers. But, he’s also the team’s only real center fielder, and is a plus-defender for the position to boot. Can the Reds afford to play him? Can they afford not to play him? How should we value him in our fantasy game?

Let’s start with the offense, he’s not progressing at all. Billy Hamilton is backsliding. Besides the poor slash line, he’s striking out 27.8% of the time, after entering the season with a 20.3% strikeout rate. He’s also popping up more than ever, posting a career-high 19.6% infield fly ball rate. About the only positive offensive metric for Hamilton is a career-high 22.8% hard-hit rate, according to Fangraphs, though even that is counter-balanced by a career-high 26.3% soft-contact rate.

That poor performance at the plate has consequences. He’s batted most often in the ninth spot in the order – with 226 plate appearances there, compared with 41 plate appearances in his former leadoff spot. The negative ramifications of that are obvious – he gets fewer plate appearances overall, and fewer plate appearances with Joey Votto right behind him to knock him in.

Hamilton is also running far less frequently. Thursday night was the Reds’ 81st game – the halfway point of the season – and he stole his 16th base in 19 tries. Stolen bases are down again across the majors, but he’s well off his 57-58 stolen base pace of the past four seasons. That’s the frustrating part – at least in the past, you’d get the running payoff even though you knew he’d actively hurt you in three categories. In 2018, the average baseball game features .49 stolen bases per game, down from last year’s snail-like .52 stolen bases per game. If Hamilton were anywhere near his traditional pace, his impact there would be larger than ever.

Despite all these offensive flaws, the Reds still need to play Hamilton. His defense in center field is just that good. When he is on his defensive game, he makes plays that very few center fielders are capable of making. One might retort that those amazing plays occur less frequently than what justifies his offensive output – and one might be right! But I’d counter that those outstanding plays also frequently have a disproportionate impact on the game. Here are a few examples:

  • On June 10 against the Cardinals, Hamilton had two highlight-reel catches and threw out two runners on the base paths. Without a doubt, it was his signature game.

https://www.mlb.com/video/share/hamiltons-defense-on-display/c-2141341583

  • A week later against the Pirates, Hamilton caught a ball that MLB Statcast gave a 2% chance of any center fielder catching.

https://www.mlb.com/video/share/statcast-hamiltons-wild-catch/c-2166234783

  • And here’s one more from the same week, with Hamilton leaping against the wall in Kansas City to rob a Royal of a hit.

https://www.mlb.com/video/statcast-hamiltons-great-catch/c-2152998683?tid=240568594

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You might ask, do the defensive metrics match the gifs and videos? The short answer is yes. This year, he’s tied with Mike Trout for fourth among MLB center fielders in Fangraphs’ version of defensive WAR. He was third among CF’s last year, 2nd in 2016 and 5th in 2015. He’s always among the leaders.

For a team like the Reds, who are desperately trying to develop young pitchers in a hitter-friendly ballpark, Hamilton’s defense is especially needed. Especially when you look at their alternatives. Jesse Winker is a far better hitter, and appears to be adding power to his resume, but he’s also painfully slow. He can’t currently handle center field, and the combined wisdom of all the speed coaches in the world and perfect alignment in the outfield can’t make him a center fielder. The Reds have used Scott Schebler in center on occasion, but both his arm and range are below average there. Making matters worse, the closest center field prospect is Taylor Trammell in High-A Daytona, and he’s been splitting his time defensively across all three outfield positions.

Hamilton’s ADP in the NFBC 15-team Main Event leagues this year was 79th overall, with the earliest selection being 58th and the latest (in my league, no less) being 120th. I missed him everywhere, and he was one of the few players I had a hot-take about on Twitter this offseason. But that was more of a value discussion rather than a projection of his output – he’s managed to perform even below my meager expectations. I still assumed that he would exceed 50 stolen bases, and that seems like a big stretch now.

And yet … there’s now a buying opportunity on Hamilton in leagues where you can trade. Chances are nobody is giving up on him yet in the NFBC, but in your standard league, he’s still among the best candidates to acquire for a second-half run on the position. It’s highly unlikely that the Reds will straight-up bench Hamilton despite his shortcomings, and it’s unlikely that he’ll continue to run as infrequently as he did over the first half. If you can stomach those shortcomings and desperately need stolen bases, now is the time to strike. Obviously you’re going to have to trade with someone doing well in stolen bases, and offer a different category. But if you can try to get 25 stolen bases for the price of 15, you could have a winning formula.