Height 6-1, Weight 160, B/T: B/R, DOB: 9/9/1990
2009 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: NA
Billy Hamilton is one of the best athletes in the Reds farm system and one of the absolute toughest for me to evaluate. I had him slotted in anywhere from 10 to 24 until he finally landed here in the #11 slot. Hamilton combines one of the highest ceilings with one of the lowest floors in the system. His athleticism elevates his ceiling, while his limited baseball experience drives down his floor. This combination of attributes gives him an extremely wide range of possible career outcomes and it's up to the Reds player development department to start him on the career arc that enables him to reach his ceiling.
DRAFT POSITION AND RAW ATHLETICISM
The Reds selected Hamilton with the 57th overall pick in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft out of Taylorsville High School. His off the charts athleticism turned the heads of many an organization, but it was the Reds who reeled him in.
For Taylorsville, Hamilton was a three sport star, excelling in baseball, football, and basketball. The Reds had to sign him away from a football scholarship to Mississippi State University where he was slated to play wide receiver. He was also a guard on his high school basketball team, averaging 35 points a game in his senior season. As for baseball, Hamilton is obviously no slouch, taking home the Mississippi High School Player of the Year for Class 2a.
While it is impressive that Hamilton's athleticism enabled him to excel in three different sports, his multi-sport career also prevented him from focusing solely on baseball. His divided focus prevented Hamilton from getting as much game experience as is typical for premier prospects. So, somewhat ironically, his athleticism is responsible for both his sky-high ceiling and his basement level floor.
The Reds sent Hamilton to the rookie level Gulf Coast League after he was signed. He got in 180 plate appearances and despite a strong start, finished off the season with uninspired numbers. On the season, he posted a slash line of .205/.250/.277/.527 with a 47/11 K/BB ratio. He collected 34 hits, including 6 doubles, 3 triples, and 0 homeruns. He did flash his game changing speed, as evidenced by his 14 steals in 17 attempts.
Hamilton got off to a hot start in June, which energized the fan base and started building his value. He hit a solid .333/.370/.375 with an impressive line drive rate of 20%. Even with the strong line drive rate, his BABIP was still abnormally high at .421, which was a sign of things to come. After a strong start, Hamilton hit the skids in July, posting a line of .158/.238/.193. Unfortunately, he was never able to right the ship, posting a .200/.222/.306 in August.
On the season, he struck out in 26.1% of his plate appearances, walked in 6.1% of his plate appearances, and hit line drives at a paltry 14% clip. Obviously, his peripherals were as unimpressive as his overall production. Overall, it's difficult to draw any other conclusion than that he was completely overmatched against one of the lowest levels of competition in the minors. One mitigating factor could be Hamilton's attempt to become a switch hitter. Getting your first taste of pro ball is challenging enough, but trying to do it from the opposite side of the plate increases the difficulty exponentially.
However, the somewhat disturbing part is that Hamilton was actually better from the left side than he was from his natural right side. In 37 ABs from the right side, Hamilton posted an appalling slash line of .135/.158/.162/.320. Granted, it's a very small sample size, but I'm not sure I've seen ever a lower level of production in a non-pitcher. In 128 ABs from the left side, he hit a more respectable .225/.279/.310/.589. So, obviously, it wasn't solely the switch hitting that dragged down his production.
Hamilton is new to switch hitting. He's a natural right-handed hitter and is still working on his left-handed swing to better utilize his speed. But, for now, let's just take a look at his more natural right-handed swing.
Hamilton hits from a wider than shoulder width stance and a slight crouch. He uses a high pre-pitch hand position and a small bat waggle. His stride involves two steps, first drawing his foot back slightly towards his back foot before striding even farther forward. After his stride foot plants, his hitting position is rather spread out. As the pitch is delivered, he draws his hands back into hitting position.
When he does fire the swing, he opens up too soon with his upper body. In fact, his swing seems to involve too much rotational movement with the upper body, as he somewhat pulls his swing through the zone by spinning out with his upper body and front shoulder. Instead of keeping his shoulder closed and pointed at the pitcher, staying down and through the pitch, releasing the swing, extending out through the ball, and letting the arms finish around his body, Hamilton has a tendency to spin open his front shoulder too soon. The rotational style swing results in a flatter swing path and a lower finishing position for the hands. Another consequence of his spinning out too soon is a swing that is inefficient in imparting energy to the baseball, as power bleeds from the swing when the shoulders and hips fire too soon.
Additionally, when the front shoulder flies open and you pull off the ball, it leaves you susceptible to pitches on the outer half of the plate. Hamilton's lack of extension and spinning out with the upper body gives him poor plate coverage, which helps explain his struggles with pitches down and away. Hamilton's swing may also lead to struggles against good breaking balls.
From the left side, Hamilton is still a real work in progress. Initially, it seems the idea was for Hamilton to start a couple of feet closer to first base to more effectively utilize his speed. Not surprisingly, his swing is still very raw, as he's trying to find the balance and tempo to his swing. In addition, to learning new swing mechanics, Hamilton has to learn how to recognize and track pitches all over again, which is no small task. To become an effective switch hitter, he has a long way to go, as he'll have to both refine the mechanics of the swing and develop a plate approach.
Overall, Hamilton is very, very raw at the plate. Regardless of the side of the plate from which he hits, he has a lot of work to do to develop an effective swing that will play against advanced professional competition. He needs to improve both his contact rate as well as his ability to drive the ball with authority.
If you want to take a look at Hamilton in action, then check out the MLB scouting report and video clip here.
DEFENSE, SPEED, AND POSITIONAL VALUE
Heading into the draft, Hamilton was viewed by many scouts as an outfielder. However, the Reds were one of the organizations who viewed him as a legitimate option at shortstop. His early season performance at short has rewarded their faith in his defensive abilities, as he flashed above-average range and a strong arm.
For the Gulf Coast League Reds, Hamilton had 144 chances and converted 101 outs. He rated out quite well in TotalZone metric, posting a +5 in Runs. So, despite still needing to refine both his positioning and footwork, his plus quickness and speed allow him to really cover the ground at shortstop. He was a bit erratic, as evidenced by his 9 errors and .955 fielding percentage, but that's to be expected in a young shortstop. The initial read off the bat and the first step an infielder takes on a ground ball are key determining factors in whether the play is made. However, Hamilton's defensive performance was impressive and when he polishes up the finer points of his defense, he could become a true impact player on defense.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Hamilton's game is his plus foot speed. He has both good quickness and impressive top end speed. When he runs you can see the electricity in his game, as he has the fast twitch muscles that quickly generate a lot of force. Hamilton is the type of runner who gets to top speed very quickly and when he does seems to almost glide across the turf.
Obviously, Hamilton's value gets a huge boost if he can stick at shortstop, as it is very difficult to find a legitimate defensive shortstop who can actually be an impact player on offense. If you look around the minor leagues, there are actually only a handful of prospects who fit the bill. The ability that Hamilton flashed with the glove is what ultimately earned him such a high spot on this list, as shortstops who can both hit and field are scarce and scarce is valuable.
Hamilton is an exciting prospect, but one that is difficult to evaluate. He's undoubtedly high risk, but also very high reward. He could develop into an All Star caliber shortstop or he could flame out entirely. Ultimately, when valuing this type of prospect, it comes down to preference. Whether you value certainty or upside. Whether you like low risk and a high floor, or favor a high ceiling and higher risk. While a lot of factors come into play, I typically favor the prospect with the higher upside and Hamilton certainly has that.
Hamilton has the type of athleticism that could make him an elite prospect if he can learn to translate those tools into baseball specific skills. However, baseball isn't a game that always yields in the face of great athleticism. It takes a great deal of work to learn how to use that athleticism in a way that will generate usable production. It remains to be seen whether Hamilton will be able to effectively harness his abilities, but his upside is just too intriguing to land him any lower on the list than #11.