by Steve Mancuso

Requiem for a phenom

Billy Hamilton stole second off Yadi Molina on the first pitch. And he stole our hearts. 

Hamilton had entered the game in the 7th inning to pinch run for Ryan Ludwick. Todd Frazier drove in Hamilton for the game’s only score. Chris Heisey took Ludwick’s place in left field. Homer Bailey, for the second time in a week, shut out the Cardinals for 7+ innings. Aroldis Chapman struck out the heart of the St. Louis order, several times registering 103 mph on the radar gun.

With that bang-bang moment, Billy Hamilton burst into our consciousness, if not Dusty Baker’s everyday lineup. Hamilton’s major league debut that humid September Cincinnati night came a handful of days before his 23rd birthday.

During that memorable final month of the 2013 season, Baker used Hamilton as a pinch runner and defensive replacement for Shin-Soo Choo. The young centerfielder played in 13 games, attempting 14 stolen bases, succeeding in all but one. Hamilton hit .368 and walked twice in his 22 plate appearances. He was 7-for-14 in the three games he started. He was fast.

None of us suspected it at the time. How could we? We were watching peak Billy Hamilton.

Amazing is a worn-out adjective. But not in Hamilton’s case. He did amaze us. He did astonish us. Every Reds fan has easy recall of a favorite feat of Billy Hamilton’s feet. Most of all, the wonder boy entertained us. Hamilton became an in-the-flesh Flash in our small universe of Reds superheroes.

Meanwhile, he slid into our ready hearts.

Billy Hamilton was a phenom in the true sense of the word: a person of outstanding talent and great promise. In those early, heady days, Reds fans believed Hamilton was transcendent, a player who would revolutionize the sport of baseball. We spoke in delirious, otherworldly terms. We abandoned appropriate skepticism. 

In addition to producing marvel, the likable Billy Hamilton became a point of pride for us. Hamilton’s legs joined Chapman’s arm and Joey Votto’s batting eye as qualities we Reds fans could brag on. They made us feel we were still part of the major league highlight reel.

Photo: David Jablonski/WHIO

Hamilton’s stolen bases meant more than just the Reds being 90 feet closer to scoring a run. They were a larger validation of our team.

The Reds speedy centerfielder also offered sweet respite from the exhaustion and drudgery of losing. It’s the same reason we became addicted to watching opponents flail at Chapman’s triple-digit fastball. Hamilton’s historic base running and acrobatic catches triggered jolts of fan adrenaline. We needed the thrill to stomach seasons that otherwise dragged and dragged.

Billy Hamilton’s exploits transformed our sports world. It was just for an instant, but those moments were glorious. Our hearts raced. The victory music in our heads throbbed. We granted ourselves permission to feel confidence in the Reds. The distant and implausible notion of success became real and present for a split second.

Billy Hamilton was intoxicating. When we watched Billy, we looked to score more ways than one and sometimes both paid off. We ordered another round.

Ah, but that stubborn aftertaste. We loved the euphoria, but the morning after we ached for it to stick around. We wanted Hamilton to run and hit and catch every night. We yearned for Billy Hamilton to be a superstar, not a shooting star.

It turned out he wasn’t.

Our thirsty imagination had outstripped the facts on the ground. Those flush sensations we felt watching Billy Hamilton were thrilling but the hopes were false. Hamilton’s speed was a powerful narcotic that blinded us to his broader flaws as a player.

Our collective frenzy was understandable, if unjustified. We desperately wanted our idealized Billy Hamilton to make sense in our heads as it did in our hearts.

But buzz and brain didn’t connect. As fast as Billy Hamilton runs, he couldn’t keep up with our breakneck expectations.

Photo (also headline photo): USA Today Sports Images

Billy Hamilton is now the better part of five seasons and 2400 plate appearances into his major league career. This September, he turns 28. His electrifying debut feels a lifetime ago in the Upside Down.

The gap between our ideal and reality is measured. If you dare look, you’ll find Billy Hamilton at the bottom of the list of major league players in important offensive indicators – hard-hit balls, exit velocity, run creation, expected hitting. Out of 169 major league players with at least 200 plate appearances, Hamilton has the lowest xwOBA at .240. Player #166 is at .270.

Over his career, Hamilton has slap-hit .243/.297/.329. His contribution to scoring runs (wRC+) has been 30 percent below league average. His Win Probability Added (WPA) has been negative every year except 2013. We’re not talking about a single bad month by a 24-year-old rookie.

The odds are against Hamilton getting better. Aging curves slope downward for a reason. In fact, Hamilton’s performance this year has been well below his career average. He’s not stealing bases. Since May 1, Hamilton has swiped just five to go with three times caught stealing. He’s seemed mortal in centerfield. When Hamilton bats in key situations, it feels surprising when he hits the ball in play.

Can we say Billy Hamilton’s game has improved since 2013? Does he hit more line drives and fewer fly balls? Does he bunt better? Does he swing less often at bad pitches? Nope. Every spring we’ve been handed breathless reporting of a new mentor and point of emphasis for Hamilton — all ineffective.

Was Billy transcendent? Eric Davis stole 80 bases in 1986 while hitting 27 home runs. Rickey Henderson stole 100+ bases three times and at age 39 swiped 66. Henderson also maintained a .401 on-base percentage over 24 seasons. Hamilton has earned 7.7 bWAR. Henderson earned 111 bWAR.

Our outsized hopes have been unfair to Billy Hamilton. But no more so than his treatment by the same front office that signed cautionary tale Willy Taveras to a 2-year contract. They installed a raw player as the Reds centerfielder and leadoff hitter in 2014 with no competition and wouldn’t take a serious second look. They didn’t hesitate giving Hamilton 1700 plate appearances at the top of the order. 

Reds officials still enable our misplaced faith. Through indifferent force of habit, the team’s broadcasters express ongoing wonderment over every non-routine play Hamilton makes in the outfield. The latest manager still mumbles about “havoc” Hamilton creates on the base paths. They point to the faintest signs that Hamilton is getting it together, as if evidence of progress must be believed to be seen.

Photo: David Kohl

It’s time to move beyond Billy the phenom.

We’ve spent nearly five years patiently lowering the standard of acceptability for Billy Hamilton. If he could just be league average on offense … forget power, if he could only get on base … no, if he could simply manage a league-average on-base percentage … hold on, if he could raise his OPB to a mere .300 … just wait and see what happens when he gives up switch-hitting … why, he’d be the league MVP, you know.

We’ve laid a big stack of hope on Billy Hamilton. We’ve mistakenly declared permanent improvement based on a few good months, a couple solid weeks, back-to-back nice days or, lately, decent at bats. Hamilton’s career has turned more corners than a beat cop.

It’s time to give centerfield to Scott Schebler for the rest of the season and evaluate how his overall game plays there. Shin-Soo Choo proved Olympic sprinter speed isn’t a necessary quality for a Reds centerfielder to provide value. Choo nearly earned more WAR in his one season with the Reds than Hamilton has in a career.

It’s time to play Jesse Winker every night. For the third outfield spot, a case can be made for Scooter Gennett, Adam Duvall, Nick Senzel or Jose Peraza. Any of those make more sense than playing Hamilton every night.

Given the flat free agent market, the Reds were unlikely to get enough in return for Hamilton in a trade last winter to satisfy the owner. But the front office should be able to trade Hamilton in the next few weeks if they don’t ask for much. No contending team will give Hamilton’s bat a full-time gig. But Billy could help a deep veteran squad, like the 2013 Reds, by reprising his first major league role. 

If the Reds can’t find a trade partner, they should understand what that means and release Hamilton at the end of the season. He’s due a third year of arbitration and already makes $4.6 million. If Schebler can’t hack it in center, the Reds can build the bridge to Taylor Trammell or a major trade acquisition by signing a cheap free agent for 2019.

It’s time to move on from Billy Hamilton. It won’t be a sudden good-bye, nor should it be. In a sense, the Reds have already buried him. You can’t get lower than batting after the pitcher. But Hamilton will continue to take the field in a Cincinnati uniform for a while. He’ll still make wonderful plays, get big hits, maybe even string together a couple good games.

And like that bag he pilfered five years ago off the Cardinals’ villainous catcher, Billy Hamilton will steal our hearts again, for another phenomenal moment.

Photo: Charles LeClaire/USA Today

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.