Monday, November 19, 2012

AFL Rising Stars Game: A Look at Billy Hamilton

I finally got around to writing up Billy Hamilton's performance in the Rising Star Game. His performance was definitely noteworthy and made him one of the stars of the game. Given the hype surrounding him, it was a tall task for him to live up to the expectations. Yet, he managed to do so. Here's a quick look at what and how he did.

Top of 1st - 0 on, 0 Outs, vs. rhp Jarred Cosart

Pitch 1 - Fastball down, Hamilton shows bunt. Ball 1
Pitch 2 - Fastball down, Hamilton shows bunt. Ball 2
Pitch 3 - Fastball down-and-in. Ball 3
Pitch 4 - Fastball over the heart. Strike 1
Pitch 5 - Fastball over the heart. Strike 2
Pitch 6 - Fastball misses inside. Ball 4

Hamilton never seriously considered swinging and Cosart never forced him to make any difficult swing/no-swing decisions. Cosart's poor control made this an easy AB for Hamilton, putting him in a hitter's count early and letting Hamilton wait him out. 

Hamilton appeared to be taking until he got a strike. He showed bunt on the first two pitches, but it didn't look like he was ever seriously considering bunting. When Hamilton reached 3-0, he took two fastballs over the heart of the plate for called strikes 1 and 2. The only pitch that required Hamilton to make a swing/no-swing decision was the full-count pitch, which missed inside for ball 4.

Photo courtesy of Baseball America.
Steals 2nd vs. c Austin Romine and rhp Jarred Cosart

Hamilton steals second base on second pitch fastball. Good pitch for catcher to throw on, as fastball drifted up-and-away off the plate, resulting in a close play at second. Hamilton slides safely into second feet-first.

Hamilton kept his feet moving on his leadoff from first, rather than getting set, seeming to prefer as close to a walking lead as he can get.

The steal of second was about pure speed. He stole it during a 1-0 count, which is both a hitters' count and a fastball count. But, Hamilton doesn't  need to pick his spots quite as closely as mere mortals and he simply outran the play.

Steals 3rd vs. c Austin Romine and rhp Jarred Cosart

Hamilton steals third on a delayed steal. Hamilton flashes the brashness and aggressiveness that allows him to steal so many bases. It's one thing to be quick/fast, but you need a lot of confidence to steal as often as Hamilton does. Hamilton took his initial lead off of second base as the pitch was being delivered. He then took three more lateral steps towards third base during his secondary lead. From the centerfield camera, you could see that, instead of retreating back to second base when the catcher caught the ball, he was intently watching the catcher receive the ball and begin to throw it back to the pitcher. Once the catcher flipped the ball back to the pitcher, Hamilton broke for third and stole the base without a throw and with a head-first slide.

Hamilton had a great read on the play, recognizing that the catcher wasn't firing the ball back to the pitcher, rather flipping it back. Also, Hamilton likely realized that by the time the pitcher caught the ball, he'd still have to recognize the steal attempt without panicking and then fire the ball to third to get him. I also wonder if Hamilton factored in that Cosart is righthanded and as a result would have to spin his body in order to throw to third, whereas a lefty is already facing thirdbase and might have a better shot to nail him.

The steal of third showed a take-no-prisoners style of baserunning that wouldn't have been out of place during Ty Cobb's era. Put the pressure on the defense, keep them jumpy and on edge, force them to make a perfect play or into making mistakes.

An impressive and smart play by Hamilton. He caught both the defense and announcers off-guard. While he simply outran the defense on the steal of second, he out-thought the defense on the steal of third.   

Hamilton scores from third on a double to the rightfield wall

Bottom of 2nd - Austin Romine double off centerfield wall

Hamilton chases the ball all the way to the warning track, but it hit high off the centerfield wall. It was 2-3 feet from being a homer, instead Romine managed to leg out a triple as the ball bounded back towards the infield. Hamilton, arguably, should have pulled up at, or before, the warning track and played the carom. Even with his great speed he didn't have a realistic chance of running it down and by trying to track it down he let the catcher leg out a triple.

When Hamilton ran the bounding ball down, he threw it back to the cutoff man with the low three-quarter arm-slot that he used as an infielder.

More playing in time in centerfield will improve Hamilton's reads off the bat and allow him to more effectively handle these types of plays. 

Top of the 3rd - 0 on, 1 out, vs. rhp Chase Anderson

Pitch 1 - 91-mph fastball low and on outer half. Strike 1
Pitch 2 - 81-mph changeup belt high and running off outside corner. Hamilton swings and (I thought missed, but) ump signals foul tip caught by catcher. Strike 2
Pitch 3 - 79-mph sinker/changeup borderline at bottom of the zone. Hamilton fouls it off to protect. Strike 2
Pitch 4 - 91-mph fastball running away and off outside corner. Hamilton takes it. Ball 1
Pitch 5 - 80-mph changeup low and on outside corner. Hamilton tries to pull it, fouls it off. Strike 2
Pitch 6 - Fastball up and at the letters, Hamilton chops it foul wide of third. Strike 2
Pitch 7 - 76-mph curveball drops over middle of the plate. Very good pitch. Hamilton frozen. Called Strike 3

This AB was the exact opposite of the first AB, as Anderson immediately gets ahead 0-2, putting Hamilton on the defensive the rest of the AB. Unfortunately, this AB once again precludes any study of Hamilton's swing/no-swing decision making, as he was forced into protect mode immediately. Hamilton does a nice job of fouling off pitches and was punched out on a nasty curveball.  

Bottom of the 4th - Double by Brian Goodwin

Long flyball to center over Hamilton's head. Hamilton turns and tracks it down on the warning track. When he reaches to catch it, his momentum carries him to the ground. It wasn't a pure diving catch, but he ends up almost kissing the wall as his momentum carries him close to face first into the wall.

Hamilton made the play, but he made it more difficult than it needed to be. It's possible that the ball drifted in the Arizona air or the wind carried it farther than it would normally travel, but Hamilton drifted back with the ball rather than running full out. As a result, he ended up barely reeling it in on the warning track. This is another play where more experience will result in better defense. As it stands, his athleticism allows him to outrun most mistakes he makes, including this one. 

Top of the 5th - 1 on, 0 Out, vs. rhp Tony Zych

Pitch 1 - Fastball on outer half at the belt, Hamilton pulls a perfect drag bunt down the first base line. Speed causes first baseman to rush his throw, which sails down the right field line. Hamilton easily advances all the way to third. A single and an E-3.

The bunt was very well executed. The form was good and he looked very comfortable doing it. It's very encouraging to see him combine the secondary skills necessary to utilize his plus-plus speed.   

While on third, Hamilton had a running start towards home and got almost halfway home before causing the pitcher to step off the rubber. Disruptive.

Hamilton scores easily on a single to center.  

The bunt showed a high level of skill and an understanding of the type of player he needs to be. Hamilton has no problem embracing the small ball skills he needs to be an impact player.

Bottom of the 5th - Corey Dickerson single to centerfield with runners on 1st and 2nd

Hamilton charges a ground ball single and fields it cleanly in shallow center. Hamilton comes up throwing to the plate, but the run scores.

Hamilton's throw is a tick late and up the line. The catcher comes off the plate to field it up the third base line. Hamilton used a high three-quarter arm slot, so it's not surprising that his throw had arm-side run and drifted up the third base line.

Bottom of the 5th - David Adams doubles to right-center gap

Hamilton runs to the right center gap to field a double after right fielder Rhymer Liriano took a poor route. Hamilton cuts it off and stops his momentum about 10 feet short of the warning track, spins and makes a solid throw to the cut-off man. Not the strongest throw, but certainly playable. 

Bottom of the 5th - Brian Goodwin doubles with a short hop off the wall in center

Even Hamilton has no shot to run this one down, as its zips over his head. He plays it well off the wall, grabbing the big hop, and throws it towards the second cutoff man. The throw had a little arc to it and it actually came in high, tipping off the glove of the second cutoff man. A solid, but unspectacular throw.

Top of the 7th - Billy Hamilton, 0 on, 0 out, vs. lhp Santos Rodriguez

1st Pitch - Fastball up and away out of the zone. Hamilton tries to drag bunt to third, pops it up and it's caught by the third baseman.
The first opportunity Hamilton has to hit from the right-side of the plate ends quickly. This was a failure of judgment, as he shouldn't have attempted to bunt this pitch. It was out of the zone and difficult to handle, so the pop-out wasn't a surprise.

Top of the 9th - Billy Hamilton, 1 on, 0 out, vs. rhp Trey Haley (plus velocity)

1st Pitch - 92 mph fastball, way outside. Ball 1
2nd Pitch - Fastball very high. Ball 2
3rd Pitch - Fastball up and in. Ball 3
4th Pitch - 92 mph fastball on the outer half. Called strike 1
5th Pitch - 92 mph fastball. Ball 4

This was an opportunity to see how Hamilton fared against plus velocity. One of the question marks on Hamilton is his strength and whether he has the bat speed to turn around a good fastball. Unfortunately, Haley didn't cooperate, once again throwing Hamilton three straight balls to put him in a massive hitter's count. Haley cedes control of the AB to Hamilton and ultimately walks him without Hamilton ever having to lift the bat off his shoulder.

Hamilton forced out at second on a ground ball, ending his day.

Overall, it was a very good game for Hamilton. He drew two walks and reached on a perfectly executed bunt single. He flashed the elite speed that makes him the most hyped prospect in baseball and held his own in centerfield. It was comforting to see him so fully embrace the small ball approach, dropping down two bunts, drawing two walks, and stealing two bases. Admittedly, I was hoping to see him swing the bat a bit more, but Hamilton seems to understand that you can't steal first base and seems committed to maintaining a high on-base percentage.

I'm still not sure how much of his stellar OBP is the result of a disciplined approach and how much is due to command issues of the pitchers. Given his combination of elite speed and minimal power, pitchers have tremendous incentive to throw strikes and yet...they don't. Hamilton's two walks in this game were more attributable to the pitcher's struggles than a grinding approach by Hamilton. Still, he had the good sense to not help the pitcher out and was rewarded with two free passes. 

Hamilton still has some developing to do, but he's been impressive thus far. A bit more polish and he'll be ready for prime-time.

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