Hamilton brings unique skills to free agency

Creative use of outfielder's strengths could reap rewards

December 1st, 2018

The Reds non-tendered outfielder on Friday, choosing to part ways with one of baseball's premier baserunners and outfield defenders rather than go through a final year of arbitration.
For all of his obvious talents, it's not terribly difficult to see why this occurred: In five seasons as Cincinnati's starting center fielder, Hamilton's never been able to hit at anything approaching an acceptable level. In 2018, Hamilton hit just .236/.299/.327 with a 68 OPS+ that was the third weakest of any qualified hitter. It's almost exactly the same as the .245/.298/.333 (70 OPS+) he's put up over more than 2,700 plate appearances. It's not good enough. It's why he's been let go.
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It's probably also why he's unlikely to surface as anyone's starter in 2019, at least for a contending team. In '18, there were 390 hitters who made contact with at least 100 batted balls. Of those 390 hitters, Hamilton's hard-hit rate of 8.5 percent wasn't just last, it was last by a decent-sized gap behind Dee Gordon's 12.7 percent at 389th. He is very arguably the weakest hitter in the game, and that is extremely unlikely to change going forward.
But what if ... that's OK? In today's baseball world, there's different ways to extract value. For example, a pitcher who can't turn a lineup over three times might be asked to do it just once or twice, putting him in better position to succeed. We've seen what kind of impact the "opener" can have. Just because you can't throw complete games doesn't mean you can't contribute. 
What if we approach Hamilton in the same way? No, you wouldn't hit him leadoff and let him play nine innings, but what if you used him strategically? What if you used him in a way to maximize his skills and avoid his weaknesses, which is to say, batting? If an inventive team deployed Hamilton as a baserunning/defensive weapon, taking advantage of his strengths, there's a potential for value.

We're not talking about being a one-time pinch-runner. We're talking about being the position-player version of whatever it is we're calling the next pitcher to enter after the opener. The idea here would be that he rarely if ever is in the starting lineup -- the fewer plate appearances the better, obviously -- but he enters early in the game when a non-elite hitter reaches base, then he stays in for defense. You've taken a roster spot, but also guaranteed him at least one time on the bases, prevented him from hitting once, and gained a defensive boost. Those are three good things.
When we talk about the aspects of baseball that don't require holding a bat, Hamilton is a superstar. 
• He's an elite defender, ranking fifth with +21 Outs Above Average (OAA)
• He's got elite speed, ranking fifth with a 30.1 ft/sec Sprint Speed
• He gets value from the speed, ranking third in FanGraphs' baserunning metric
You want that player in the field, and you want him on the bases. It's that last part that's been the problem, obviously. His .299 on-base percentage tells you that 70 percent of the time, he failed to reach; in 42 of his 138 starts, or nearly a third, he failed to get on base at least once. If you can fix that part, you've got something here.
If this sounds familiar, it's because we wrote about how contenders should have attempted to acquire him in July for exactly this role, when we also suggested that he was probably going to get non-tendered this winter. If that sounded familiar, it's because Travis Sawchik, then of FanGraphs, approached Hamilton with the idea in March. 
As Sawchik explained:
"The strategy would eliminate roughly 20 percent of his plate appearances (and the times he reached base in those PAs, as well), but he would start on base an 140 additional times as a pinch-runner -- that is, once per game extrapolated over the share of games in which he played last season. Using that quick math, the net gain for his 2017 campaign would have been 100 extra appearances as a baserunner over the course of the season. So, instead of being on base 192 times, as he was in '17, Hamilton would have been on base 292 times."
As Hamilton replied:
"This is the stupidest thing I've heard in my life." 
Well, OK. Maybe that's what you'd expect him to say when he's about to enter his fifth year as the starting center fielder. Perhaps, if the free-agent market offers no starting opportunities, his outlook might change. It might be the only way he gets on a contending team, if that's what he values.

We'll admit it's a wild idea. Then again, you'd have said the same a year ago if we told you the Rays would use and as starters 34 times, or that the Brewers would start Dan Jennings for three pitches just to get Matt Carpenter out, or that the A's would start in a Wild Card Game. (Or that the A's would be in a Wild Card Game.) Baseball in 2018 was weird. Let's help it get weirder.
Arguably, this could work for any team, but we're focused on contenders here, because a lesser team might just play him every day, and the incremental upgrade this may offer would be most effective for teams who need every win. We need a team with outfielders you might ever want to replace -- so long, Red Sox and Brewers -- and ideally has someone with positional versatility in the lineup, so that he's not restricted to replacing an outfielder only. Here are our three favorite fits.
Hamilton has always made sense for the Rockies, in part because the massive size of their outfield demands a center fielder with elite speed; Charlie Blackmon did not rate well on defense this year (-7 OAA) and profiles better in a corner. But since Colorado has some serious offensive shortcomings of its own, it can't just plug Hamilton in as a starter. Instead, let anyone who isn't Blackmon,  or reach base -- seems a perfect target here -- and let Hamilton run (and field) wild.
Bonus: Maybe the huge field lets a few more Hamilton singles turn into speed doubles. 
What do you get the team that has everything? How about speed and defense? For all of the Dodgers' strengths, they were only about average in outfield defense, and they obviously have endless amounts of versatility. (In our hypothetical, they have opened up a roster spot by trading an outfielder like , Matt Kemp or .) Imagine Chris Taylor or reaching base, then deferring to Hamilton? There's room to experiment here.
Like we're going to propose a weird baseball strategy and not include Tampa Bay? This probably works less well for an AL team -- you can't sub him in for the designated hitter -- but that might be OK. The Rays have plenty of non-elite bats who could be swapped out easily for the baserunning upgrade, and the idea of defensive outfield that has and Hamilton in it at the same time is a very appealing one.
Is any of this likely? Probably not. But Hamilton's starting days appear to be over, and if so, baseball would be worse off for it. He's one of the most exciting players the sport has to offer. An inventive team might be able to take advantage of his considerable strengths.