Hamilton Readies for Stretch Drive

As teams enter the stretch drive the Reds have managed to stay in the hunt despite an abundance of injuries this season. One player that has stayed healthy is Billy Hamilton atop the lineup. He should be ready to finish strong and possibly bring home an NL Rookie of the Year award.

Cincinnati had an off-day Monday before opening up a home series against defending World Series Champ Boston. They’re sitting on a 60-58 record after avoiding a sweep against visiting Miami which may not be that impressive, especially considering they’re in fourth place in the division, but it’s good enough to keep them within five games of division leader Milwaukee and only two and a half behind third place Pittsburgh who currently has ownership of the second wild card spot.

As the team looks to find a way to win without former all-stars Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, they will continue to rely on Billy Hamilton atop their lineup. The rookie has had a bit of a roller coaster season but overall he’s been a nice surprise as he vies to become the first Red to win the NL Rookie of the Year award since Scott Williamson in 1999.

His performance has not been a surprise as far as his talent is concerned. Amassing over 300 stolen bases over the past three minor league seasons alone is enough to get heavy attention and Hamilton was rated among the top prospects in baseball. However, there were some concerns over the 23 year-old’s readiness after he was fast-tracked up the system with only one season as an outfielder after moving from shortstop to center field.

The fastest of runners (which Hamilton may very well be) can have their game short-circuited if they are kept off base. Hamilton showed they he knew the way to first in the lower levels but struggled at Louisville last year after only one half season each in high-A and AA. What was particularly alarming was his strikeout rate as he whiffed in almost 19% of his plate appearances.

Ready or not, the leadoff job was his this season after the free agent departure of Shin-soo Choo. His cup of coffee after roster expansion in 2013 was plenty impressive, but the gaudy .368 average was over only a handful of plate appearances while most of the action he saw came after entering games as a pinch-runner and it appeared like he was given the job extremely premature when he started out this season gong 2-23 after his first seven games.

However, he soon turned his season around and hit .299 AVG/.331 OB over his next 81 games. That lifted his average to its high water mark thus far this season at .285, but since July 11 he’s gone 21-98 (.235) to drop it down to .268 with an on-base percentage has dipped down to .299. In the meantime he’s manned centerfield proficiently which is no surprise for anyone possessing speed like his.

His road is certainly not an unusual one for a rookie. Often first year players start out hot and slow down after opponents develop strategies on how to pitch them. The players that stick around long term are the ones that can adjust to the adjustments. Next up for Hamilton is the stretch drive during which he and others in the lineup will have added pressure of picking up the slack for some teammates currently on the DL. One thing for certain, should they be successful at gaining a third consecutive post season berth, Hamilton will be crossing the plate frequently.

As far as competition for Rookie of the Year Hamilton leads all other National Leaguers in games played, hits, runs, doubles, triples, RBI, and (of course) stolen bases. Actually, his toughest competition for the award will probably come from a couple of pitchers, Chase Anderson and Jacob deGrom, who have managed to keep their ERA’s down around a flat three while manning rotation spots for much of the season. There’s also reliever Jeurys Familia who’s got his ernie under two after 57 appearances. Hamilton is still the front-runner and should he finish strong it would likely be rewarded with the hardware.

But the award is a secondary concern as the Reds have some catching-up to do in the standings. Hamilton will certainly continue to wreak havoc on the base paths given the opportunity. If the rest of the lineup behind him can get healthy it would be a huge boost. The Cincinnati rotation is plenty good right now and the back end of their bullpen has been rock solid when healthy. It’s been a challenging year for the Reds who’ve dealt with what has seemed to be a non-stop string of injuries. If they can finally field the lineup projected coming into the season and sneak into the playoffs again they could be a tough out for anyone come October.

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