Those Sneaky Reds – Talent From Corner To Corner
by Jim Silva
The Reds are an old franchise – one of the five oldest continuous franchises in baseball – and unlike the A’s, Braves, Giants and Dodgers, they’ve stayed in their original city the whole time. The Cubs and Braves are older, but the Reds have been around long enough to see every World Series and all the rule changes in the history of baseball. So it must be painful to watch a franchise like that struggle and then enter a rebuilding phase like the current Reds are in. Hey, everyone goes through the ups and downs of building, competing, and rebuilding – yes – but the Reds franchise that has been around for 127 years has won the World Series only five times in their long history and the last time was in 1990. The Cincinnati club has never finished first more than two seasons in a row, including their Big Red Machine teams of the ‘70s. That team finished first six times in a 10 season span and won back to back World Series in 1975 and ‘76. So the peak of the Reds’ franchise history was in the ‘70s and they’ve been good a couple of times since then. But enough history for now – the primary questions are whether or not their current rebuild will result in sustained success, and if they are now close to the peak or still tearing down and building up. We will examine their outfield to see if at least there the Reds are close to a finished product.
In Billy Hamilton (no, not THAT Billy Hamilton http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamilbi01.shtml), the Reds have one of the fastest players in the game in the last decade. Hamilton has game-changing speed but runs afoul of the adage, “You can’t steal first base”, because he continues to sport a low on-base percentage hampering his development as a leadoff hitter. While Hamilton has nabbed 217 bases at an 86% clip in his first 1900 or so plate appearances, his career on-base percentage sits below .300. As a leadoff hitter what that means is Hamilton is making a boatload of outs. How fast is Hamilton? He is the fastest player in all of baseball as measured in the Statcast era. He has the fastest double and the fastest triple this season and while a couple center fielders are close, no other position players are in his league. It is difficult to compare him to players from other time periods because nobody tracked their times on the bases. Jim Thorpe was pretty fast – Olympic Gold Medals and junk – and so was Bo Jackson. There have been base-stealers in the past who were way ahead of the rest of the league – Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, Maury Wills – and it would be exciting to line them all up in their prime and have them race, but Hamilton is unusual in that he was already somewhat of a legend before he arrived in the majors after swiping more than 100 bases in a season twice including 155 in 2012.
In spite of his elite speed he is no better than a mediocre contributor on offense including this season where at the halfway point his oWAR is 0.0 – so exactly replacement level – and his career wRC+ is a disappointing and well below league average 70. Hamilton has almost no power, having totaled 15 home runs in the equivalent of three full seasons of plate appearances, so he has to make up for his lack of muscle by getting on base and stealing his way into scoring position. There is almost no reason for pitchers not to pound the strike zone against Hamilton, so they do. He gets about 4% more first pitch strikes than the rest of the league averages and sees slightly more strikes than the average hitter. Hamilton doesn’t draw nearly enough walks (career high of 36 in 2016) and strikes out way too often (career high of 117 in 2014 but on a pace to eclipse that this season).
With all of that frustrating news about Hamilton’s offense why would the Reds continue to run him out to center field almost everyday? The main reason is actually his defense. Speed certainly can translate into defensive chops because no matter how good your reads are on balls hit to you, if you are slow you aren’t going to chase them down. Hamilton uses his track star-like speed to put up excellent range numbers while playing nearly error-free ball and throwing really well. He isn’t the best centerfielder in baseball but he is near the top season after season. That is why Billy Hamilton continues to notch 2.5-3.0 WAR seasons in spite of his disappointing offensive production. As long as he can do that he is definitely worth the starter’s role. As soon as his wheels slow a bit, and his range decreases to mortal proportions, then he will cease to be the answer, unless he can figure out how to get on base more often. It is already clear that the Reds should stop batting him first so that he can make fewer outs. Hamilton should be near the bottom of the order to keep his excellent defense in the game while limiting the damage that his weak bat does to the offense. And heck – he can still steal bases from the seven or eight hole.
Standing off to Billy Hamilton’s right (from the batter’s perspective) is right-fielder, Scott Schebler. Schebler was a decent prospect with the Dodgers and finally made it to the majors to stay, not long after coming to the Reds in the three-way trade that sent “The Toddfather” to the White Sox. As a baby, Scott would probably belt home runs from his crib into the street, but his ability to get on base has always been just average in part because his game has a lot of swing and miss in it. His minor league slash line is .276/.342/.499, so while his power has drawn attention, his “just average” average and on-base percentage made him expendable to the Dodgers. Schebler slashed .311/.370/.564 in Louisville after the trade and the Reds called him up where he put up a wRC+ of 101 in roughly half a season. In roughly half a season to start 2017, Schebler has a wRC+ of 120 – so roughly 20% better at creating runs than your average major leaguer. His defensive numbers have been a bit disappointing since he spent a decent amount of time in centerfield in the minors so you would expect a good translation to either corner outfield spot. To be fair, his range numbers have looked good this season as has his arm, but he has booted a few too many balls and that should even out based on his minor league numbers. I would expect defensive metrics to show him to be a slightly above average right fielder in the majors as soon as this season. Schebler looks to be a five or six hole hitter on a decent offensive team – one who can contribute average to good defense in a corner outfield spot – and that has value. While he probably won’t be a star, he certainly could be better than a 2.0 WAR player (already 1.6 this season) and that would make him a keeper on a rebuilding team even when the rebuild is done.
Left field is the home of Adam Duvall. He didn’t become a starter in the majors until 2016 when he played as a 27 year old. That is a late start for most hitters, but Duvall is Schebler-like in that he hits a lot of home runs but doesn’t hit for a high average or get on base often enough to look like a star. In fact Duvall’s minor league slash line (.268/.338/.503) is almost identical to Schebler’s, making it seem like the Reds have identified an undervalued type of player that they can acquire on the cheap. Duvall hits a bunch of home runs, strikes out too much, and doesn’t quite walk enough but still managed a wRC+ of 104 in his first full season in the majors and 122 so far this season – sound like a familiar pattern? Duvall is most definitely a corner outfielder and actually has good defensive numbers showing good range and a strong arm. While he might not be the natural outfielder that Schebler is, he can play both corner outfield spots decently well and both corner infield spots. Due to small sample size constraints it’s hard to say exactly how good he is on the infield, but it is clear that he is a good left fielder – and a good left fielder who doesn’t create too many outs and is likely to hit 30 bombs a year – 33 last season and 19 in half a season so far. Who doesn’t want that? And if he can be a multi-tool able to shift positions to make the lineup work then he is even more valuable.
Two of the Reds top 10 prospects, according to Keith Law, are outfielders – Jesse Winker (#2 for the Reds and #49 overall) and Taylor Trammell (#7 for the Reds). Both young outfielders are having excellent campaigns in 2017, Winker at triple-A and Trammell at full season A-ball). Winker is close, but Trammell has the much higher ceiling. Both men could potentially unseat the incumbents when they arrive, although Winker hasn’t demonstrated the power usually associated with a corner outfielder. Winker gets on base, hits for average and slugs in the .450s by hitting doubles and 10+ homers, but doesn’t steal bases because he isn’t the athlete that Trammell is. Taylor Trammell is fast and powerful, and at 19 is already holding his own in full season ball. He steals bases, drives extra-base hits and gets on base at a .360 clip so far in his young career. Both players look to be major league regulars with Trammell the more exciting of the two, while being much further away, and Winker, who is big league ready now, needing to increase his power numbers to have star potential. Both players differ from the incumbents in that they project to hit for average and walk enough to post good on-base numbers. Reds faithful should be excited to see what becomes of these two outfield youngsters.
On the big league club, Hamilton is clearly the guy who has more star potential (although he is 26, so…) than the other two guys in the outfield, but based on his limited offensive ability and the sneaky goodness of Schebler and Duvall, he might be the worst bet of the three moving forward. The starters in the Reds outfield are all plus defenders and two of the three are already offensive pluses while falling short of star level. Hamilton has the raw talent to be a star for sure but if he can’t get on base then he might just top out as a really good fourth outfielder on a contending team. The youngsters on the way could give the Reds a really nice problem possibly pushing them to trade someone like Joey Votto for pitching and moving Duvall to first to make room. The Reds have a lot of offensive tools in place with more on the way. Their rebuild has worked in the outfield, and with more outfield help on the way it looks like the Reds are moving in the right direction.