Chicago Cubs: A trade for Reds speedster Billy Hamilton makes zero sense
By Jake Misener
For some reason, people still believe you need speed to be a good leadoff hitter. Chicago Cubs fans are apparently no exception to his antiquated belief.
While I perused the Internet, sipping my morning coffee, I got a slap in the face. Not a literal one – but one that made me question the intelligence of many a baseball fan. An individual proposed the Chicago Cubs trading Albert Almora to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Billy Hamilton.
Yes, that Billy Hamilton. The guy who owns a career on-base percentage south of .300 and, despite his tremendous speed, has yet to figure out to hit the ball on the ground and let his legs do the work.
I took a couple minutes to gather my thoughts. Here’s what I came up with. To me, Hamilton is a fourth outfielder – a pinch-runner, perhaps. But he’s not a leadoff hitter, no matter what you may think. Being a fast baserunner doesn’t make you a legitimate table-setter. Getting on base makes you a legitimate table-setter. And Hamilton has never shown the ability to do that consistently.
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In 2017, the Cincinnati center fielder drew just 44 walks, striking out 133 times. The year prior? 36 walks and 93 punchouts. Hamilton managed an on-base percentage above .300 just once – in 2016. And even then, it’s not like he became a constant threat, as he still managed a mere .321 clip.
Hamilton makes absolutely no sense
By contrast, in 2016, Ben Zobrist got on at a .386 mark. Even last year, one in which Cubs fans were ready to toss Zo into Lake Michigan over his struggles at the dish, he reached at a .318 clip. That puts things in perspective.
One of the biggest qualms with the Cubs offense last season was its inability to deliver situational hitting. New hitting coach Chili Davis is hoping to change that moving forward. But why would you set Hamilton atop a lineup in which every single player had a higher OBP than he did last season?
You wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. Theo Epstein wouldn’t.
The numbers don’t lie. They never do. But a lot of fans fail to understand a simple truth: speed does not a leadoff hitter make. I don’t care how fast you are. I care that you work counts, make opposing pitchers work and you get on base.
Last season, with the offense scuffling, Joe Maddon went to Anthony Rizzo in the leadoff spot. Why? Because he does all those things consistently. And, lo and behold, the Cubs first baseman went on to hit .300/.373/.680 out of that spot in the order. If you’re doing math at home, that’s an OPS north of 1.000.
Of course, another of his leadoff decisions, Kyle Schwarber, didn’t fare as well. But it made sense. Schwarber has always been a very sound pure hitter. He works counts and makes opposing pitchers pay. It didn’t work out that way in 2017, but you may well see him back in that spot next season. When Zobrist is in the lineup, he may find reps there, as well.
Speed does not a leadoff hitter make
The Cubs have internal options to lead things off. Albert Almora showed great promise last season. And, despite what this individual suggested (trading Almora for Hamilton straight-up), I suspect center field will belong to the former first-rounder in 2018. With Zobrist and Schwarber, Chicago doesn’t need a speedster atop the lineup.
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They need consistent quality at-bats near the top of the order. With the likes of Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras and Rizzo waiting in the middle of the lineup, putting men on ahead of them will be a major focal point offensively next season.