The Pittsburgh Pirates Have a Billy Hamilton Problem

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Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /
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Analysis: The Pittsburgh Pirates face the Cincinnati Reds and Billy Hamilton this week. The Bucs have a Billy Hamilton problem, but does he deserve this reputation? The stats show that he undoubtedly hits more against the Pirates, but could the cause of this be something as simple as good luck?

Starting tonight, the Pittsburgh Pirates will be facing the Cincinnati Reds for the second time this season. When they previously met April 10-12 the Reds swept the Pirates. If the Pirates are going to win the division, they’re going to have to rack up wins against the bottom-feeders. The Pirates have a chance to get a measure of revenge this week when they play 4 games in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, in contending with the Reds they also have to deal with their Center Fielder Billy Hamilton.

The Problem: Hitting

Billy Hamilton has been seemingly a thorn in the side for the Pirates since he came into the league. I and many Pirate fans have noticed that Hamilton has seemingly performed much better when playing the Pirates. Overall Hamilton has generally been a 2-4 WAR type player, meaning he is a solid starter but nothing more. He is a light hitting player but has extreme speed that turns most singles into doubles via stolen bases. That same speed makes him a valuable asset as a Center Fielder. That speed generally doesn’t help him at the plate though as evidenced by his career .245/.295/.328 slash line.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, Hamilton seemingly brings his “A game” every time he faces off against the Bucs. Hamilton owns a .320/.365/.376 slash line for his career against the Pirates. These slash lines except for Slugging Percentage, are significantly higher than what he owns against the rest of the NL Central (.243/.308/.370) and all are much better than his results against the other 25 teams in baseball (.231/.277/.313). Even in 2015, Hamilton’s worst year against the Pirates, he was still performing at a higher level from the plate compared with other teams. That season he had an unimpressive .250/.306/.250 slash line against the Pirates, but slashed an even worse .226/.274/.289 overall.

Despite Hamilton’s relative impressive hitting performance against the Pirates over his career, other aspects of his game show no significant uptick in performance when he’s playing the Pirates. For example, his career strikeout rate against the Pirates (17.4%) is only a little lower than his overall career rate (18.7%). Additionally, his career walk rate against the Pirates (6.5%) is almost identical to his overall career walk rate (6.4%). Finally, the difference between his stolen base success rates is negligible (83.3% vs. Pirates compared with 82.5% overall).

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The Explanation: Luck

Hamilton gets more hits against the Pirates, which is the only significant difference between his performance against the Pirates compared to the rest of baseball. Additionally, despite being in the majors for several years and playing in the same division, Hamilton still has a small sample size of appearances against the Pirates. In 47 career games against the Pirates, he has 148 balls in play and has a .392 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). The major league average for BABIP is generally considered to be around .300. While it is often used as an indicator of luck, skilled players can have more impact. In any case, a player’s BABIP stabilizes after 800 balls in play. This is of course much more than the 148 he has against the Pirates.

Next: Can Harrison Continue to Produce

Hamilton’s .392 BABIP against the Pirates is unsustainably high given that it is significantly higher than his career average of .299 and within what is still a small sample size. All of this indicates that Billy Hamilton has been very lucky against the Pirates during his career to this point. Because of this, though it may seem hard to believe, we should not expect Billy Hamilton to have as much success against the Pirates over the remainder of his career. Hamilton will continue to use his speed to steal bases at a very high rate. He’ll also keep tracking down balls in Center Field against the Pirates. However, in the future, he probably won’t seem as superhuman though.

* Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and baseball reference

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