Why can’t Billy Hamilton hit a triple?

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On May 2 of last year, Reds centerfielder Billy Hamilton strolled to the plate for the second time that day. Facing Johnny Cueto, Hamilton laced a sharp liner to left center—a batted ball, in most common circumstance, results in a routine single. Denard Span, the center fielder, understood immediately it would not be a routine single. He hurried a few steps to his right, scooped the ball from the ground, twirled, and fired a quick throw to the second baseman. Of course, it was too late. Billy Hamilton was sliding into second with a leadoff double.

The Reds’ announcers were impressed. “He can turn a single into a double and a double into a triple better than anyone in the game,” one remarked.

The first part is almost certainly true. (I will show you, later, with videos, and statistics.) But the second part is where things get tricky.

Last year, Billy Hamilton hit three triples. Other players who hit three triples in 2016: John Jaso, Freddy Galvis, Carlos Santana. 60 players hit more triples than Billy Hamilton last year. In 2012, Billy Hamilton stole 155 bases in a single minor league season. What gives? Why isn’t Billy Hamilton hitting any triples?

Obviously, Hamilton’s lack of power is well-trod territory. In August, August Fagerstrom wrote on the delightful results of his weakest contact. He noted in his piece that Hamilton sat at the lowest exit velocity of any single qualified batter in the league. (Hamilton finished the year just above other noted slap hitters Dee Gordon and Billy Burns.)

But just three triples? Hamilton’s contemporaries, Burns and Gordon, had 4 and 6, respectively, in a smaller amount of plate appearances. But after watching all of Hamilton’s 25 extra-base hits from last year, it’s clear looking at exit velocity leaderboards doesn’t totally get the job done. I have done the hard work here, and I return with this astounding explanation: Billy Hamilton didn’t hit a ball in the gap for the entire season!

For the purposes of this exercise, “hitting a ball in the gap” will be defined as a batted ball that splits two outfielders and reaches the wall. A ground balls or line drive in the alley is not a gapper.

Now, as promised, is some video. Behold, the closest Hamilton came to hitting a ball in the gap in 2016:

So, this one comes down to a technicality. Is a lofted fly ball, misjudged by both outfielders, but still landing between them (though not rolling all the way to the wall) a gapper? Some may say yes. Some may say no. (I say no.) You can choose to get hung up here, or you can choose to accept the statistical improbability that this is the only ball that could even be debatably determined as a batted ball in the gap by Hamilton in 2016.

His other closest instances of a ball in the gap:

On August 14th, Keon Broxton drops a line drive hit to his left. The scorer gives Hamilton a double.

Back on May 5th, Hamilton lofts a fly ball to center. Kirk Nieuwenhuis tracks back and lets the ball hit his glove as it falls to the grass.

That’s it. Every other Hamilton extra base hit last year was either a routine single stretched into a double, a grounder down the line, or a line drive into the alley. Some illustrative examples:

Grichuk got to the ball in time, but his arm just didn’t have enough juice to peg Hamilton.

This is Hamilton’s first double of the year, on April 9. We can chalk this one up to an early season blunder.

This is from June 1. Not sure how you’re still sleeping on Billy Hamilton at this point. Don’t fall asleep on Billy Hamilton!

So, to circle back to the original premise, this is how Hamilton—despite his prodigious speed—ends up with an pedestrian quantity of triples. Of his 19 doubles, I counted ten that I interpreted as regular old singles stretched into doubles by sheer willpower.

The underlying exit velocity and launch angle numbers back this up, too. Hamilton tied for the league lead last year in doubles with a launch angle of less than 0 degrees (essentially, ground ball doubles.) This likely undersells (oversells?) Hamilton, as Statcast strangely didn’t pick up four of his doubles. (Three of the missing doubles were grounders.)

Why does this matter? Well, it’s fun. Watching Billy Hamilton run is very fun. And extremes are fun. But what’s interesting here for Hamilton, specifically, and also for baseball players, generally, is the idea of attempting to calculate baserunning value from batted ball outcomes. Fangraphs’ baserunning statistic, BsR, is largely composed of UBR, which uses linear weights in various base-out states to calculate the expected baserunning value. This is strong and good methodology, but it leaves out a large component of baserunning skill (stretching extra bases), which is exactly what Hamilton is demonstrating in those clips.

Based on my own rudimentary analysis, it looks like Hamilton turned ten should-be singles into doubles. In a perfect world, we’d count those extra bases in his BsR, and subtract them from his ISO. (Poor Billy Hamilton’s ISO).

But as we gain more access to information, we can perhaps start to develop a way to include this in the BsR methodology. Already, we know that Hamilton’s grounder to center against the Rockies—hit at 95 MPH, with a -5 degree launch angle—results in a double just 3% of the time. With this information, why couldn’t a similar expected runs value be implemented to batted balls, with the goal of separating hitting performance from baserunning performance?

In this theoretical world, Hamilton’s adjusted slugging percentage drops to .289, and his adjusted ISO drops to .029. This would put him at second-worst in the modern era. Just another way for Billy Hamilton to look like one of the weirder players in baseball.

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