Billy Hamilton is fast. Super-duper fast, in fact. But as we all know, there’s more to baseball than running fast, and scouting reports say that he’s not a very good hitter. Thus it should come as no surprise that, despite his prodigious speed, projections for his upcoming season are not great. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA system sees a slash line of .247/.305/.342 and FanGraphs’s Steamer system guesses a nearly identical line of .247/.304/.338, neither variation of which would be particularly good. But… he’s super-duper fast!
PECOTA pegs Hamilton as a three-win player in 2014, which is good, if not quite All Star level, because it likes his defense better than Steamer, which sees Hamilton as a one-win player. (Both systems take the total contribution of the player, including offense, defense, and base running when arriving at projections.) As the systems project a similar offensive output, the only point of contention is Hamilton’s defensive value. This is convenient because for this piece, I’m less interested in that, and more interested in his speed on the bases — more specifically, how much value could Hamilton add through base-running.
Theoretically, if Hamilton was a bad hitter (as the projections predict) but a truly great base runner, he could add a lot of value by stealing bases. PECOTA is famously conservative when it comes to projections, and it projects Hamilton to steal 74 bases. Steamer thinks he’ll steal 67 bags, but get caught 28 times. That’s a success rate of just over 70 percent (PECOTA doesn’t project caught stealings). Those are amazing projections considering how little these systems think of Hamilton as a hitter.
So could Hamilton theoretically hit that poorly and still, with his one outstanding skill of base stealing, become an above-average (i.e. about three win) offensive player? Let’s find out!
We’ll start by taking his hitting ability projections as a given and maximizing his best skill. Let’s assume two things just for the purposes of discussion.
1. Hamilton is as bad a hitter as systems say he will be.
2. Hamilton is so good at stealing bases he can’t be caught.
The projection systems say Hamilton will get on base a hair above 30 percent of the time. FanGraphs projects Hamilton for 123 hits, 20 doubles, 4 triples, and 6 home runs. That means he would have the opportunity to steal 323 bases, including home plate ((93*3)+(20*2)+4). If Hamilton were that fast and that good, he’d turn every single into a home run (provided there was nobody on base in front of him which, ridiculous though it may be, we’ll assume for now). In that case, Hamilton would hit, in essence, .247/.304/.990. According to the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) Calculator, that makes Hamilton worth about 11.5 wins, and if he’s a Gold Glove center fielder maybe that gets adjusted upwards. For a little context, during Barry Bonds’ peak with the Giants his two best seasons were worth 12 wins. That level of stolen base ability would make Hamilton the best player in baseball.
Of course, stealing home plate is very difficult and thus very rare. Stealing second and third are far more common occurrences. So let’s assume Hamilton never steals home, but steals second and third every time he gets on base. Thus, every base hit of his would for practical purposes be a triple. That would effectively turn Hamilton into a .247/.304/.755 hitter, which the WAR calculator tells me is worth 7.6 wins. For context, 7.6 wins is exactly what Miguel Cabrera had last season according to FanGraphs. As Cabrera won the MVP, we can say that’s still an MVP level of production. Again, that’s just Hamilton’s offensive value.
Of course, even Hamilton is going to get thrown out trying to steal sometimes, so let’s add a tiny bit more realism by including Hamilton’s projected success rate. Instead of stealing 206 bases (all the bases that are projected to be in front of him except for home plate), Hamilton attempts to steal 206 bases, but is thrown out 30 percent of the time as FanGraphs projects. That would put Hamilton’s effectively slash line at .247/.304/.549 — making him a three-win offensive player by the WAR calculator.
There are numerous factors working against Hamilton stealing that often, of course, beyond just the level of difficulty. A batter could hit the first pitch after he reaches base, denying him the opportunity to steal. There will be runners in front of him sometimes and no matter how fast he runs, he’s not fast enough to steal a base, push the slow runner in front of him a base ahead, and then return to the one he just stole all without getting caught.
Going back to FanGraphs’ Steamer forecast, of the 206 projected opportunities to steal (which ignores possible steals of home plate), FanGraphs projects Hamilton to run 95 times, meaning they project him to attempt to steal a hair over 46 percent of the bases he could possibly steal (excluding home plate) — making his offensive worth about one win. What differentiates Hamilton from other one-win players is that he has an opportunity to be more productive on offense than most players of his value. It’s not breaking new ground to point out that improving the frequency of steals while maintaining (or even improving upon) success rate means increased offensive value. The new part is that Hamilton really could do it.