Ever since the Reds acquired Josh Hamilton, fans have been mesmerized by the "what if" factor of Hamilton actually making an impact in the lineup for the Reds at some point in their future. With only a handful of minor league games last season, his first real game action in four years, and after years of drug addiction, Hamilton walked into spring training as nothing more than a lottery ticket. A huge talent, yes, but also a huge lottery ticket.
Of course, so far in spring training, Hamilton's been crushing the ball, and the fascination with his "talent" level has taken off to new heights. Will Hamilton make it? Can Hamilton make it? Nobody knows as it's still way too early to tell, though I will submit that his chances of making the active roster out of spring training are now 100 percent, barring an injury. The Reds have seen what he's capable of, and they're not going to let it go. Given that defensively he can definitely help the team off the bench, I've never been opposed to having Hamilton on the roster. Prior to spring training, I did advocate caution with Hamilton because we really have no idea what to expect. He was a guy with 23 games at the AA level six years ago, and only 15 games period in the minors since 2002.
But even with my cautionary glance at what Hamilton can provide us, I've observed quite possibly the best thing I could ever hope to observe with Hamilton thus far in spring training ...
The guy seems to just know the strike zone. And just not know the strike zone like a run-of-the-mill MLB hitter. But really know the strike zone.
Hamilton's plate appearances, from best as I've been able to observe listening to the radio and hearing his batting counts, has been a clinic full of an ability to recognize balls and strikes. He's displayed an astonishing amount of plate discipline with a remarkable batting eye, and he's shown that he's capable and willing to lay off bad pitches with the sense to get a good pitch to hit. Then when he finds a good pitch to hit, he's able to recognize it and crush it.
Statistically, Hamilton has three walks in 20 plate appearances thus far in spring training. For those scoring at home, that's a rate of 90 walks over 600 plate appearances (note that this doesn't mean he'll walk 90 times if he finds the plate 600 times, but that's a good rate to see). Even during plate appearances that Hamilton is not walking, my observations this spring have been that he's getting himself into good hitter's counts.
All the above is a trait of excellent plate discipline, and amazingly Hamilton's showing these traits already during spring training. Any hitter that knows the strike zone and recognizes the difference between balls and strikes gives himself an undeniable advantage to hit major league pitching successfully.
There is a chance that what we've seen with Hamilton's plate discipline so far is a mirage, and small sample size warnings abound here. But as he strolls to the plate more and more the picture will clear up a bit. I'd love to be able to track every single pitch that Hamilton is seeing this spring training, but unfortunately the box scores are not as detailed for exhibition games. Once the season begins, I'm going to make an effort to track in detail each of Hamilton's plate appearances.
Likewise, once the season starts, we'll be able to see Hamilton hitting instead of relying on box scores and radio play by play, and we'll have a much better understanding if he really is showing the amount of plate discipline that the stat lines and radio announcers claim.
Just remember to not yet get carried away and suddenly believe that Hamilton's going to quickly develop into the monster talent that Reds fans are dreaming about. That much being said, we can understand that if he's able to continually display the amount of plate discipline he's already showing early in spring training, his chances of succeeding in the majors (and in a Reds uniform) increase exponentially, and so far that's really all we can ask and hope for.