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Learning to love the idea of Billy Hamilton in center field

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A guide to embracing a sub-.300 OBP and feeling good about it.

Cincinnati Reds v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Over on MLB Trade Rumors, they’re listing possible trade partners for the Reds and Billy Hamilton, who is in his arbitration years and unlikely to be part of a rebuilding team. One of their conclusions?

... the Giants could be a particularly good match. AT&T Park’s outfield is particularly large, making it difficult for their hitters to put runs on the board via the long ball. Hamilton’s base running prowess would surely be a great asset to a team that finished dead last in baseball with 128 homers, but ranked 8th-best in contact rate. What’s more, San Francisco center fielders ranked as the third-worst defensive group in all of baseball via Fangraphs’ defensive metric. Hamilton would provide a considerable upgrade over that of the aging Denard Span.

It’s worth noting that FanGraphs’ defensive metric is the only one that has Span anywhere but dead last, and it doesn’t line up with the eyeball test. Ron Wotus, Giants bench coach and perennial managerial runner-up, had this to say about Hamilton:

"You get a Billy Hamilton type of guy, your pitching improves tremendously right there," Wotus said. "He’s saved more runs than he’s driving in. You can look at this year saying we let in too many runs. So that’s an easy way to help your pitching.”

Meanwhile, in baseball, Billy Hamilton can’t hit. His .247/.299/.335 line was eerily similar to his career numbers of .247/.299/.334. The on-base percentage hangs just a point under .300 as if to make a statement, and he’ll be 27 next year. What you see is what you get.

This is a concern for the Giants, who scored two runs last year, both on the same play, when an angry doberman jumped onto the field and chased the runners around the bases, snapping at their rear ends like a Chuck Jones cartoon, with the umpires forgetting to call time. It was the greatest offensive moment of the season, and it’s unlikely to happen again. It would appear that Hamilton might not be the person to help.

However, I can help with these concerns, and it starts with recognizing a few basic, mostly inarguable points.

The Giants need a better defensive center fielder

It’s not an option. Using Defensive Runs Saved, Span wasn’t just the worst center fielder in baseball, but he lapped the competition. The best way to put it is like this: Andrew McCutchen was ranked the third-worst defensive center fielder in baseball according to DRS. Joc Pederson was ranked the fourth-worst.

Span cost the Giants more runs than both of those center fielders cost their team combined. Let’s try that same trick with another statistic. If you add up the third- and fourth-most home runs in baseball, you get 84. So Span would be like the Giancarlo-hitting-85-dingers of bad defensive center field.

That might not be good math, but I’m rolling with it. The point is clear, though. The Giants have one of the biggest center fields in baseball and they have one of the least capable center fielders patrolling it. That’s a problem.

It would be impossible and/or expensive for the Giants to get a center fielder who can hit and field

Lorenzo Cain is available for money. He can hit .300 and fly around center field. This would seem to be a much better solution.

Except Cain ...

  • Will cost $75 million or more
  • Will cost second- and fifth-round draft picks
  • Will be 32 next year
  • Has declining defensive numbers, which you would expect at his age

If the Giants get him, I won’t complain about having to watch him next year, but he seems like another entry Aaron Rowand tradition, where they pay market price for a center fielder on the other side of his defensive prime.

If not Cain, though, then whom? Here’s a list of center fielders with at least average dWAR and an OPS+ better than the average hitter. It’s a short list, and hardly anyone is available. We’ll talk about the fourth name on it, Aaron Hicks, another day, but for the most part, it’s a bunch of players the Giants wouldn’t have the prospects to get if they were available, which they probably aren’t. The Braves don’t want to trade Ender Inciarte. The Rays don’t want to trade Kevin Kiermaier. The Phillies don’t want to trade Odubel Herrera. The Angels ...

[checks]

... don’t want to trade Mike Trout. And that’s all if you set the parameters to include players who are slightly below-average. If you set the criteria to just average-or-better, you get eight players.

The Giants, if they want a defensive upgrade in center will either have to settle for merely average (Carlos Gomez) with a solid bat, or they’ll have to worry less about the player’s bat. Hamilton would qualify as the latter. Aggressively qualify. Look, it wouldn’t be pretty, but at least he’s a spectacular talent in center/

I like it when baseball players are all fast and stuff

Vrrooom.

If Hamilton were acquired in a trade — and I don’t think the Reds’ demands would be that onerous, really — I’m not sure if his offensive numbers would slip much. I’m thinking of Norichika Aoki, whose batting average and related statistics are roughly the same in every park because he’s using the first 300 feet in every outfield and nothing beyond that. His batting average has been between .277 and .288 in each of his six seasons, regardless of him playing in Miller Park, Safeco Field, or AT&T. It would be like that with Hamilton, I’d reckon.

Just, you know, .248 instead of .288. It would be an offensive hit to a lineup that needs to score more runs.

I’m all for more defense, though. It’ll help the Giants with the money they’ve invested in starting pitching. More catches in the outfield mean shorter innings. Shorter innings mean fewer pitches thrown. Fewer pitches thrown means less reason to grind the bullpen down.

Then the Giants could focus on left field, third base, and perhaps right field when it came to improving their lineup. They still have positions to upgrade, even if they’re set with Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Brandon Belt, so punting center field in favor of defense — and speed — shouldn’t hurt too much if the Giants work hard on the other positions.

Yeah, we’ve been getting encouraging reports about Pablo in winter ball, so

IF YOU WORK HARD ON THE OTHER POSITIONS, PLEASE.

I’m not advocating for a Hamilton deal over every other possibility, mind you. I would just like to point out that it could be a reasonable move if the price is fair, even though he can’t hit. He does the other things well, and let’s all remember that the Giants need a whole lot of those other things, too.