You can do a lot worse if trying to replace (some of) Ender Inciarte than Billy Hamilton. On Monday evening, the Atlanta Braves announced that they claimed Hamilton off waivers from the Kansas City Royals. It’s a short end to Hamilton’s run in KC after signing with the Royals last offseason for $5.25M. Prior to that, he was non-tendered by the Reds. While Hamilton never became the guy the Reds dreamed of, he could be a difference-maker at some point for the Braves.
Let’s cover the financials for a second because (1) it’s interesting that the Braves took on his salary and (2) they’re boring and I just want to get through them early.
Of that $5.25 million, $4.25M was guaranteed for 2019. He also receives $100K performance bonuses based on every 25 PA he receives starting with his 325th plate appearance. So, another $100K for his 350th and 375th and so on. Let’s ignore the incentives for a second. Of the $4.25 million, the Braves will absorb the remainder of the contract. That’s a little less than a million. They’ll also add a million to their 2020 payroll when they buyout his contract rather than pick up their half of the $7.5 million mutual option. All in all, the Braves are making a $2 million move here. That seems like a lot for the limitations Hamilton has, but it could turn into a bargain depending on how this season plays out.
Hamilton came to the majors for a 13-game run in 2013 before becoming an everyday starter the following year. He had his pluses – 2.7 fWAR in 2014, 2.9 fWAR two years later – but Hamilton’s bat kept his speed from being a bigger weapon. It’s frankly shocking he stole 50 bases in four consecutive seasons despite an OBP under .300. After one final season of low returns at the plate, the Reds moved on with a year left of team control. Overall, you’re looking at a guy with a .242/.296/.326 career slash in slightly over 3000 PA.
But his bat isn’t why he’s here. Oh, sure, you hope for more than the 44 (!) wRC+ he had in 305 PA this season, but Hamilton’s value to the Braves is quite similar to what they wanted from Lane Adams last fall. If you recall, the Braves carried Adams – and Rene Rivera (yep…) – on their bench for the NLDS against the Dodgers. While Adams has more potential to do more at the plate than Hamilton, the fact is that Hamilton’s two skills – defense and speed – are exactly what the Braves are looking for and there are few better at both of those skills than Hamilton.
To be fair, Hamilton’s not quite as lightning fast as he once was. Between 2016-18, he averaged 30.1 ft/sec, finishing near the top in sprint speed in baseball. On average, he was getting to first base in under four seconds. He’s a “little” slower this season, his Age-29 year, with a sprint speed of 29.5 ft/sec and an average time to first base of 4.01 seconds. As a result, he’s no longer in the Top 10 in speed. But 16th fastest in baseball is still plenty fast.
Defensively, again, there is some decline. We can probably point to two reasons for that – the slightly slower speed in the field and playing in a different league with different ballparks. Hamilton had 21 Outs-Above-Average in 2016. He added another 30 over the two seasons that followed. This year, he only has six – which is still good! Hamilton has never graded high in terms of route-taking or reaction time. Hamilton relies on his speed to make up for his weaknesses. Less speed means less magic acts in center field. Again, he’s still an above-average center fielder who, in terms of catch percentage added, remains one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball. If you prefer DRS as a metric, Hamilton’s sitting at 9 DRS on the season, good for a tie for his third-best total.
TL;DR – while maybe Hamilton’s not as good as he once was in terms of speed and defense, both skills continue to be weapons.
Hamilton’s value to the Braves isn’t entirely dependent on whether or not Inciarte returns, but certainly, his importance increases. The Braves outfield had two Gold Glove winners last year and a finalist as well. This year has been a struggle. A predictable fall from Nick Markakis was part of it and Inciarte’s injuries – and lesser play – is a big factor. Further, Ronald Acuna Jr. is doing his best in center field, but it’s really not the best place for him. He can play the position, but he won’t be a plus. That doesn’t even get into the hodgepodge of other options looking to fill in for the Braves while they wait for Markakis to return and hope Inciarte also gets back.
You don’t want Hamilton to hit, but you do want him in the field. Like a top multiple-inning relief option, Hamilton can come in to play center field in the 7th or 8th innings, moving Acuna Jr. to right field. You need to hide Hamilton’s bat, but luckily, the guys he would replace in the lineup are already hitting low in the lineup. Suddenly, the outfield defense looks dramatically improved, which helps the bullpen secure leads. God knows the Braves need more of that.
Plus, as a caddy to the Matt Joyce‘s of the world, Hamilton presents a potential boost to any late-inning rally as a pinch-runner. While Hamilton is running a bit less, be remains both a premier base stealer and base runner. Very few are better and more efficient at running the bases than Hamilton.
In many ways, Hamilton is a much better option for your roster in September and October than he ever will be in April and May. Hamilton’s bat neuters his value in the starting lineup. But as a bench piece, he can be a real difference-maker. It’s difficult to keep a player like that all year, but for the final weeks of the season – mostly spent with an expanded roster – and the playoffs, Hamilton can be more of an asset. Just ask Red Sox fans about Dave Roberts.
He won’t ever challenge for the Braves’ best Billy Hamilton, though.