CINCINNATI — The enigma that is Billy Hamilton continues to perplex everybody involved with the Cincinnati Reds — what to do and what not to do.
Manager Jim Riggleman continues his mantra that the Reds dearly want Hamilton batting leadoff. But he has to earn it, has to lift his batting average and his on-base percentage. And it just isn’t happening.
So when he plays, which is most of the time, Hamilton continues to bat ninth behind the pitcher, an admitted embarrassment to Hamilton.
He realizes, though, that he is where he belong right now — at the bottom of the order and some say on the bench. “I don’t like batting ninth, it is no fun batting behind the pitcher. I want to bat leadoff. But I have to do something about it myself, earn it.”
Then what happens? For one day, Hamilton turns into a one-man baseball band. On Sunday he almost beat the St. Louis Cardinals by himself as the Reds ended a 13-game losing streak to the Cardinals, 6-3.
What did he do? He tripled to left field. He walked and went from first to third on a wild pitch. He scored two runs. He threw two base runners out. He made two stupendous catches against the wall. As Riggleman said, "That was Billy Hamilton on display."
Riggleman and the entire baseball world is attune to Hamiltion's dilemma.
“With Billy it is all about on-base percentage,” said Riggleman. “When he is on base he scores runs at a higher percentage than pretty much anybody.”
Key ingredient: when he gets on base. He is hitting .191 with a .283 on-base percentage — not even acceptable in the bottom portion of the batting order.
“Earlier in the year he was approaching a .320 on-base percentage, but has drifted back since that time,” Riggleman said. “We need him in that .320 range and .320 is not high for a lot of guys. But for him it is a good number because he creates havoc, he scores runs. Whether it is a walk or a base hit, however he does it, we have to get him on base.”
The team has worked and worked and worked on trying to get Hamilton to keep the ball out of the air, to hit the ball on the ground and use his world-class speed. More often than not, though, he hits the ball in the air or strikes out. In 221 plate appearances he has struck out 67 times and walked only 25 times. He has no sacrifice flies and no sacrifice bunts.
Asked about deficiencies in his swing and approach, Riggleman claimed little knowledge of the mechanics and perplexities of hitting.
“I don’t evaluate swings,” he said. “I could evaluate it, but you get too many chefs in there and you ruin the soup,” he said. And Hamilton certainly is swimming in soup.
“Our hitting coaches are giving him all the messages and I can have my own thoughts, but our hitting coaches know a lot more about it than I do. There are some great managers who were great hitters and they got involved, but that’s not me.”
Hamilton is saving himself from more bench duty with his glove and Riggleman said, “We definitely want him in there for his defense. He is off the charts how good he is defensively. When we are in the bigger ball parks we have to have him in there. Even in smaller parks, like here at home, it shows up. Others can’t get to balls that Billy gets.”
The problem with that is that Hamilton is called upon to make an extraordinary defensive play maybe once every two games. He comes to bat four times a game.
“We’re still holding out hope that Billy will get his offensive game to the point where he is out there every day,” Riggleman added.
Hamilton is a natural right handed batter, but he was turned into a switch-hitter ealry in his minor league career. There are those who believe he should only bat right handed and there are those who say he should only bat left handed.
“I saw Billy for the first time back in ’12 (Class AA Pensacola),” said Riggleman. “It occured to me that his right handed swing looked good. I had him in ’13 (Class AAA Louisville) and I felt the same way. Maybe right handed would be the way to go. But the numbers have not bore that out.”
So far this season Hamilton is hitting .167 right handed and .201 left handed. His on-base percentage right handed is .242 and left handed it is .301.
“The thing he has right handed is a higher slugging percentage because he kind of drives the ball more right handed,” said Riggleman. “There is not enough information there that says he should quit switch-hiitting and Billy has never expressed that to us. I don’t care how he does it, I just want him on base.”
And that brings matters to another facet of Hamilton’s game. When he does get on base this year, why is he not stealing bases. This is a guy who once stole 156 bases in one minor-league year (2013) and has stolen 57, 58 and 59 in his last three major league season. This year he is 10 for 13 nearly halfway through the season.
“That has been discussed,” said Riggleman. “We’re down in ball games and he is playing team baseball. He is saying, ‘Hey, I can get my stolen base here. . .maybe, but they are throwing over (to first base), they are quick to the plate, the catchers are on top of their game and we’re down three runs. I don’t want to make an out and hurt the team.’
“I appreciate what he is doing there,” said Riggleman. “He is playing unselfish in that manner. Guys who can steal bases don’t like to be held back. So he’s put that restriction on himself and I appreciate him being that unselfish. If we could get ourselves where we are tied, up one or down one, we’d see him running more.”
HOMER BAILEY MAKES HIS first rehab start Monday for the Class AAA Louisville Bats and he has no limitations.
“He has pitched into the sixth inning, the 100-pitch range here,” said Riggleman. “He has been off 10 days so I’d be surprised if he goes past five. But if he is at 80 pitches at five he’ll probably continue on. It depends on how he feels. We’re more concerned about the health and the quality of his pitches. He is a veteran guy who knows how to manage his pitches and when it is time to say, ‘That’s enough.’”
THE REDS WENT INTO Sunday’s game 0-13 for their last 13 games against the Cardinals. Manager Jim Riggleman remembers when he managed the San Diego Padres and they were 0-and-14 against the Montreal Expos. But there was a difference, he says.
“The Expos had a great ball club and we were in the first year of a rebuild and it was men against boys,” he said. “Those games were against pitchers like Pedro Martinez and those games were 7-1.
“Our losses to the Cardinals are like 6-4, 7-5 and 4-2,” he said “You feel like you are right there with them. There are no moral victories. If you get beat 10-2 constantly than you feel demoralized.”