Baseball’s Most Electrifying Player Is Not Who You Think

Billy Hamilton might not be the best player in baseball (by far), but he keeps America's most boring sport actually exciting. 
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Billy Hamilton might not be the best player in baseball (by far), but he keeps America's most boring sport actually exciting. 
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Billy Hamilton is a six-foot, 160-pound Gumby with a goatee. He’s a below average hitter with below average on base skills and below average power, playing for a below average team in a below average city. Not exactly the kind of player who gets slapped with lofty labels like “most exciting player in baseball.” And yet here I am, elevating the Reds centerfielder above better players with more complete games, thanks to one solitary skill that’s so above average it turns every play he’s involved with into a look-up-from-your-phone-and-pay-attention-to-the-game moment. That skill is his speed.

First, a note on those other, less refined parts of his game. Hamilton is still young, so all those knocks against him could change, particularly his on base percentage, which peaked in the minors at .413 in 82 games at high A ball. That was in 2012 and the numbers have trended downward since, but if Hamilton can figure out how to keep the ball on the ground and walk more, we’d all be better off. Because when this guy is on base, he’s a terror.

His speed creates tension that can only be released by his breaking for second, which he inevitably does. It’s not really relevant whether he makes it not, because that race to the bag, between a skinny 24-year-old and a white, leather ball, is a thrilling 1.11 seconds. And even when he’s not running, the anticipation affects everyone. Pitchers get jittery. Catchers get antsy. Managers get bad ideas. That’s how you end up with bizarre balks and pitchouts that the pitcher forgets to pitch out. Even when the manager calls the pitchout at the right time and the pitcher delivers the ball in the right place and the catcher throws down to second, just as he’s supposed to, Hamilton’s speed can still foil their efforts.

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Then there’s the defense. If you watch Hamilton play centerfield, you’d never guess he came up a shortstop. His speed allows him to cover an ungodly amount of ground and, according to UZR (ultimate zone rating), Hamilton was the best centerfielder in all of baseball last year. It’s not just the stats that say so. Hamilton’s outfield play passes the eye test too and the play in the GIF below shows that better than any. Watch Hamilton make a diving catch in right field, as Jay Bruce stares into the sun. That’s not right center or even right, right center. This is right field. For good measure, Hamilton fires the ball back to first to double off Jon Jay.

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Anyone who wants to argue that Hamilton doesn’t deserve this ultimately meaningless title I’ve bestowed upon him could point to his hitting numbers and make a pretty good case. Simply put, Hamilton isn’t a very good hitter. He hits too many fly balls, strikes out too much, and doesn’t walk enough. Reversing all three of those trends would go a long way toward allowing him to use that speed more. The most important improvement he could make though, is keeping the ball on the ground. The more balls Hamilton hits on the ground, the more chances he has to use his blazing speed. Someone who runs like that should not had a .305 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). More grounders would mean more errors by infielders rushing throws, more stand up triples pulled down the right field line and more singles that are somehow turned into doubles.

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No one would argue that Billy Hamilton is the best player in baseball, or anything close to it. But when it comes to pure excitement, I’ll take Hamilton tagging up on a fly ball caught by the second basemen over a moon shot any day.

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Photos by Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images