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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Should Billy Hamilton swing less?

Embedded in my Rockies series preview at Red Reporter yesterday was this bit on Billy Hamilton.  I thought it was an interesting little digression, even if it's basically amounting to lamenting what a player does not do rather than what they do (a bias I usually try to avoid):
Billy Hamilton returned to the starting lineup Sunday after a long time off, and immediately had an impact. He got on base three times, and scored the first run of the game thanks to an errant (and arguably rushed) throw by Justin Morneau on a bunt single, followed by a Skip Schumaker groundout. This is the first series preview that I've done this year in which his actual wOBA meets or exceeds his projection. There's no question that he's been better since his awful first two weeks. And, according to the measures at FanGraphs, he is already about a third of the way to his projected season WAR. Therefore, the projections, at least, think that what we've seen of Hamilton, in sum, is a good indication of what we'll see from him moving forward.

There was a short but interesting discussion on a recent FanGraphs audio about the Minnesota Twins' apparent new hitting strategy, which basically involves taking a lot of pitches (they rank last in baseball in Swing %). One of the arguments that Dave Cameron made is that the players who stand to benefit most from a more selective approach are hitters like Hamilton. Hamilton is not a guy who gains a lot when he swings the bat, compared to a guy who has a lot of power and can add real value when he places the bat on the ball. Hamilton's offensive value is entirely wrapped up in his ability to get to first base, and little else.

Hamilton's swing rate is actually right about average (45% career vs. 45% MLB average), but that hasn't translated into a lot of extra walks (only 5% walk rate). I think he can be effective when he hits the ball on the ground, but he is not really a ground ball hitter (46% career ground ball rate is about average). Given that he makes good contact (86% career vs. 79% MLB average), however, I'd love to see a Hamilton that adopts a Marco Scutaro-type hitting approach: be patient, take pitches, and only swing when you get your perfect pitch...or when you have to with two strikes. His contact rate should make him an effective two-strike hitter.

Of course, that's easier said than done. Hitters can't just change their approach at the drop of a hat. They are reaction machines that have trained themselves to make split-second decisions in a time frame that doesn't allow a thoughtful, considered approach. One can't discount the argument that a hitter's aggressiveness (or patience) is part of what has made him successful to this point in his career, and trying to become more patient (or more aggressive) could have unintended, negative consequences on other aspects of how a player hits. But that doesn't stop me from dreaming about it!