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Speedy Hamilton rewrites the game

Reds center fielder had highest rate of 'Five-Star plays' in 2016
MLB.com @mike_petriello

Three seasons into his career, you probably know the Billy Hamilton story. He runs fast, real fast, so fast that we actually had to exclude him from a look at interesting Statcast™ baserunning moments just so other names would show up. What Aroldis Chapman is to pitch velocity and Giancarlo Stanton is to exit velocity, Hamilton is to baserunning. On the other hand, he hasn't hit. Not really -- not with a .248/.297/.334 (72 wRC+) total line, though a career-high .321 OBP last year (.369 in the second half) offers some hope.

It may be easy to look at Hamilton's lack of offense and conclude that other than the speed, there's not much to see here. But that would be overlooking one spectacularly important aspect of his game: Hamilton's is baseball's biggest highlight machine in the outfield. And finally, we can prove it, using our new metric Catch Probability, which you can see in action during the MLB Network broadcast of Thursday's World Baseball Classic game between the Dominican Republic and Canada (6 p.m. ET) and throughout the rest of the Classic. 

Three seasons into his career, you probably know the Billy Hamilton story. He runs fast, real fast, so fast that we actually had to exclude him from a look at interesting Statcast™ baserunning moments just so other names would show up. What Aroldis Chapman is to pitch velocity and Giancarlo Stanton is to exit velocity, Hamilton is to baserunning. On the other hand, he hasn't hit. Not really -- not with a .248/.297/.334 (72 wRC+) total line, though a career-high .321 OBP last year (.369 in the second half) offers some hope.

It may be easy to look at Hamilton's lack of offense and conclude that other than the speed, there's not much to see here. But that would be overlooking one spectacularly important aspect of his game: Hamilton's is baseball's biggest highlight machine in the outfield. And finally, we can prove it, using our new metric Catch Probability, which you can see in action during the MLB Network broadcast of Thursday's World Baseball Classic game between the Dominican Republic and Canada (6 p.m. ET) and throughout the rest of the Classic. 

We encourage you to read the entire introductory article on Catch Probability, but the short version is that based on a combination of distance needed and "opportunity time" (the time from pitcher release until the ball was projected to land), we can put a probability of the ball being caught on any outfield batted ball. Near 100 percent, it's an easy fly, virtually always caught. Closer to zero percent, it's a tough play that is just about never caught. If you can manage to get to a ball that has a Catch Probability of 25 percent or under, we call that a Five-Star play -- it's the best of the best.

Right now, we can share that Adam Eaton and Ender Inciarte tied for the 2016 Major League lead for most Five-Star plays, with 10 apiece. But remember -- Hamilton missed the final month of the year with an oblique injury, so while he finished second with nine Five-Star plays, he finished first in percentage of turning Five-Star opportunities into outs. That is, 38 percent of the time a potential Five-Star play came his way, he converted it, tops in the game, and well above the Major League average of 17 percent.

For this sample, we're looking at the 116 outfielders who had at least 100 total outfield chances and at least 10 Five-Star chances, because, after all, how can you make a great play if the opportunity to make a great play doesn't exist first? Of those 116, 44 didn't make a single Five-Star play.

Percentage of Five-Star plays made

38 percent -- Hamilton
36 percent -- Travis Jankowski
30 percent -- Kevin Kiermaier
27 percent -- Eaton / Scott Schebler
25 percent -- Rajai Davis
24 percent -- Inciarte / Byron Buxton / Lonnie Chisenhall

While this is a good proxy for great outfield defense, it's also not the entire picture, either. Chisenhall, for example, did make a handful of outstanding plays -- here he is robbing Starlin Castro on an 8 percent Catch Probability play in July -- but he also made only a single Four-Star play, while Hamilton made 15. Schebler didn't make any Three-Star plays, while Hamilton made 15 more of those, too. Like on offense, consistency matters.

So what does a Hamilton Five-Star play look like? Kick back and enjoy: This is about to get fun. These are Hamilton's five best-graded plays of the year -- and it's barely half of his Five-Star plays.

5. 14 percent -- April 27 vs. Mets (David Wright)

Video: CIN@NYM: Statcast™ takes a look at Hamilton's grab

We should note that the point of this metric is not just to find plays that "look good," because sometimes an outfielder can make an extremely difficult play look easy (here's a great Eaton example of exactly that). But because so many of Hamilton's great plays come about thanks to his world-class speed, they really do end up looking amazing, like his dive here to rob Wright back in April. For this one, he had 3.77 seconds to make it the required 64 feet, and while those numbers may not mean much by themselves, that's the entire point of Catch Probability, which adds instant context. More than 85 percent of the time, the fielder doesn't get there ... and it was only Hamilton's fifth-best catch.

3. (tie) 7 percent -- April 26 vs. Mets (Kevin Plawecki)

Video: CIN@NYM: Statcast™ measures Hamilton's leaping grab

The best thing about the Wright play, however, is that it wasn't even the best Hamilton play of the series, because the night before, he did this. Remember, this is entirely about the data. We're not awarding style points for how cool this looked -- and it did -- and even without that, it still ranks extremely highly. A 7 percent Catch Probability means that more than 90 percent of the time, a fielder doesn't get here. Hamilton did; that he looked good doing it is a bonus.

3. (tie) 7 percent -- Aug. 23 vs. Rangers (Carlos Beltran)

Video: TEX@CIN: Hamilton makes improbable diving catch

You're watching this one, because you remember how hyped it was over the summer, and you're wondering how it wasn't No. 1 on this list. We can say that with a necessary distance of 119 feet, it was the longest of the 25 Hamilton plays that had a Catch Probability of 50 percent or lower, and that leads to an interesting question. Is a play that requires long distances over a large hang time better than a short distance over a short time? That's for you to have an opinion on, but there's no question that this one stands out both visually and mathematically. 

2. 4 percent -- April 4 vs. Phillies (Cedric Hunter)

Video: PHI@CIN: Statcast™ measures Hamilton's amazing grab

Believe it or not, there's still more to go! This was only the second game of the 2016 season for the Reds, and though we couldn't have known it at the time, that's all it took for Hamilton to make one of the most insane catches of the year. The data, which says that Hamilton made it the required 75 feet in just a touch under four seconds, speaks for itself. Then again, maybe all the data we needed on this one was Hamilton's own reaction. What'd you think of this one, Billy?

That's about right, yes.

1. 3 percent -- May 20 vs. Mariners (Adam Lind)

Video: SEA@CIN: Statcast™ measures Hamilton's beautiful catch

This isn't necessarily The Play Of The Year, since we have a handful that come out as 1 or 2 percent plays, but this is also so new that we can't really say with certainty that there's a ton of difference in a percent or two. So if you prefer one of the other plays here, go for it. But data-wise, this is the best Hamilton catch of the year, because outfielders who have to run 95 feet in 4.6 seconds, well, they just about never get there.

"I can always take something out of a game with a defensive play. I love it," Hamilton said to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon after the Hunter grab, and he's not wrong. As the data bears out, Hamilton's skills on defense (and the bases, of course) more than validate Cincinnati's decision to live with the below-average offense. If he can maintain the second-half OBP we saw last year, he could yet be a star. The defense, as you've seen, is that good.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.

Cincinnati Reds, Billy Hamilton