Chicks may dig the long ball but dudes love speed. At least the dudes who frequent this space. If you’ve been here awhile, you’ll no doubt recall the love and admiration that flowed towards Eric Young Jr. Or how people went bananas when Juan Lagares successfully stole nine bases in 10 attempts in his final 18 games of 2014. Also, there’s the continuous fascination with Mallex Smith. And no mention of 21st Century speedy guys with limited offensive ability is complete without Billy Hamilton.
Okay, let’s make no bones about it – Hamilton stinks. C’mon say it with me – Hamilton stinks. In case you guys in the back didn’t hear it – Hamilton stinks.
He came up at the end of 2013 and in 13 games he posted a .902 OPS and was successful on 13 of his 14 SB attempts. Bonus points if you remember the only catcher to throw him out. Hint: It was a Met. But after that glorious debut, here are Hamilton’s yearly OPS+ figures: 81, 55, 77, 66, 69 and 50. In his career, Hamilton has 3,089 PA and a 68 OPS+. It’s hard to wrap your head around the putridness of that number.
In his last year with the Mets, Jose Reyes put up a 62 OPS+ and we lost our minds that the Mets gave him 251 PA that season. Now, imagine giving a guy pretty much that bad, 3,000+ PA over seven seasons. They say that one of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. It’s pretty clear the Reds were insane when it came to objectively valuing Hamilton.
Yet even the Reds gave up on Hamilton, letting him leave as a free agent following the 2018 season. But another team stepped up to the plate, as the Royals signed him. No, it wasn’t an NRI. It was for $5.25 million with a $7.5 million mutual option ($1 million buyout) for 2020. Kudos to his agent for getting him that deal.
You may find this hard to believe but the Royals found out he couldn’t hit and DFAd Hamilton in mid-August. He was picked up by the Braves and had, for him, a strong final six weeks of the season, posting an 81 OPS+. He was a valuable bench piece for Atlanta down the stretch. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Braves paying $7.5 million for a backup who can’t hit.
We’ve been focusing – correctly – on what Hamilton can’t do. But it’s important to note what he can do. He can run and he can play defense. If you look to maximize the things that he can do and minimize the thing that he can’t, you could have a useful player on your hands.
And it just so happens that the two things that Hamilton can do are things that the Mets need.
With Lagares taking his balsa wood bat elsewhere for 2020, it makes sense for the Mets to replace the things he allegedly brought to the table. Of course, Lagares had a (-2) DRS and a (-2.9) UZR last year and had 4 SB in 133 games played. By contrast, Hamilton had a 7 DRS, a 7.9 UZR and swiped 22 bases in 119 games.
The trick is to get Hamilton’s pluses without suffering his huge negative.
When assembling your bench, you want your reserves to give you something that your starters don’t. Assuming the Mets play Brandon Nimmo in center field next year, it’s imperative that they have a good defensive outfielder on their bench, to give the club something they don’t have.
It would make a ton of sense for the Mets to add Hamilton – or someone similar – as long as the plan is not to start him more than once a month. Instead, the plan should be to use him as a defensive replacement in the late innings in games with a one or two-run lead. Or use him as a pinch-runner in games with a one or two-run deficit.
If the Mets were disciplined enough to use him in that way, what would his final line look like? Something in the ballpark of 100 games played, 200 defensive innings and around 50 PA. That would be completely different from anything we’ve seen from the Mets recently. In the last 20 years, the fewest number of PA for a guy who played in at least 100 games in a season was the 143 totaled by pinch-hitter deluxe Lenny Harris back in 2001.
A defensive specialist in this role would have value to the Mets. The question is: How much is it really worth? You can be pretty certain that it’s not $7.5 million. Back in 2017, we looked at what top clubs pay their fourth outfielder and the average for the top 15 teams in Opening Day payroll was $2.5 million. Would Hamilton in the role described above be worth $2.5 million? FanGraphs Dollar Values say that Hamilton’s 0.3 fWAR with the Royals in 2019 was worth $2.7 million.
Could that role produce 0.3 fWAR? Maybe, I don’t know. Perhaps the better question is if the Mets should spend that much money on a guy to play that little. According to Cot’s 40-man payroll, they paid Luis Avilan $1.6 million for 32 IP and a (-0.1) fWAR last year. And $2.4 million to Adeiny Hechavarria for 151 PA and a (-0.1) fWAR. In that context, $2 million is certainly not unreasonable.
Will Hamilton’s late-season “surge” get him a guaranteed deal in 2020 and if so, how much above minimum wage will he get? It’s certainly something the Mets should track. And if somehow Hamilton does get another free agent payday like he got this past offseason, the Mets could look to fill that specialist role with Peter Bourjos, who likely will be available on an NRI.