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Billy Hamilton isn’t a typical “sleeper” considering how much media coverage his speed has gotten over the past couple of years. Fantasy baseball moods change quickly, however, and after he batted .205 in April, he returned to the infamous “wait and see next year” list. That was early in the season and investing in Hamilton early certainly wasn’t a good move and certainly didn’t pay off for anyone. With September around the corner, though, picking up Billy Hamilton is no longer an investment, it’s a high-probability lottery ticket.
Hamilton hasn’t always been considered the second coming of Rickey Henderson. Although he was a second-round draft pick, no one was particularly high on him after he put up a .205/.253/.277 line with just nine extra-base hits, 11 RBI, 19 R, and 14 SB/3 CS over 166 at-bats in Rookie League. He also struck out 47 times, a plate discipline problem that remains to this day.
In 2010, he turned heads. As a 19-year-old playing in the Pioneer League (rookie league), Hamilton put up an impressive .318/.383/.456 line with 25 XBH, 24 RBI, 61 R, and 48 SB/9 CS over 69 games. Following the season, Baseball America ranked Hamilton the 50th top prospect in the league.
In 2011, Hamilton finally got to play in the real minor leagues and let people see the one flaw to his makeup – rabid inconsistency. His batting line slid to .278/.340/.360 as he hit just 30 XBH and struck out 133 times in 135 Single-A games. He did put up an impressive 99 runs and 103 SB/20 CS, the only reason he remained among the top 50 prospects following the season. When a kid steals 100+ bases, people tend to take notice.
Last year, Hamilton (seemingly) broke out. He improved his batting line to .311/.410/.420 and although he struck out 113 times, he also walked 86 times over 132 games between High-A and Double-A. He put up 38 XBH, 14 of them triples. He scored 112 runs and stole a monstrous 155 bases (37 CS). Following his ridiculous 2012 campaign, Baseball America ranked Hamilton the 20th top prospect while MLB.com deemed him 11th.
Then, the chronically inconsistent Hamilton reverted to Mr. Hyde. He began the season batting just .205 through April and his line currently sits at a pedestrian .255/.308/.343. Unlike previous seasons, his other stats have fallen as well. His 155 SB through 132 games last season is down to 73 SB over 120 games this season. That’s a near 50% drop. His runs are down from 112 in 2012 to 73 this season. His walks are down from 86 to 38. Across the board, Hamilton is having a way down year.
So what gives? Why am I recommending an inconsistent prospect who’s having arguably his worst minor league season? Well, it’s not quite that simple.
Players who move up levels typically need some time to adjust to stiffer, more veteran competition. Let’s write off his .205 April on an adjustment period. Since then, he’s batted a much more serviceable .279 in May, .269 in July, and .270 in August. He also had a tough June (.245) but it’s a long season and everyone will have their slumps.
A .270 hitter isn’t what most fantasy players are after but considering that seems to be his fantasy basement (and .300+ seems to be his ceiling), it’s a range I’m willing to live with considering the steals and possibly runs. Personally, I strongly doubt his long-term Major League hitting ability but the other tools are there. Besides, we aren’t talking about his long-term ability, we just need him to give us some speed juice for the fantasy playoffs.
When he’s called up, he’ll almost certainly be higher on the depth chart than Ryan Ludwick (40 AB, .225 BA, one HR, two RBI) and Chris Heisey (187 AB, .225 BA, eight HR, 20 RBI, 24 R). When he’s not starting, he will undoubtedly get plenty of pinch running opportunities. Whether he’s a 155 SB guy who can steal 25-30 bases per month or a 75 SB guy who can steal 15 per month, it’s still more than anyone in the league can (Jacoby Ellsbury leads the league with 47) and he’ll certainly give your team a speed boost in the final month of the season.
If you’re worried about batting average, no one in the Reds outfield has an average higher than .278 but that hasn’t stopped Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce from being very reliable fantasy producers all season. Since the All-Star Break, Hamilton’s average is .283 (with 17 SB and four caught stealing). I wouldn’t worry too much, at least not this season when you’re not looking at him as a long-term investment.
So the moral of the story is that even if Hamilton comes up and bats .240, it’s not the end of the world because he will help a fantasy category that many teams lack in. On the flip side, he’s a top prospect for a reason and although he’s a singles hitter, he can move on the base paths and add runs as well. He’s not for everyone but if your team needs help in the steals and runs categories, it comes down to math.
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