Billy Hamilton grew up in Taylorsville, Miss., as a Braves fan.
Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Hamilton welcomes specialized role on Braves

In a span of a few days, outfielder Billy Hamilton went from being designated for assignment by a team 32 games out of first place to joining a team leading its division. 

His move from the Kansas City Royals to the Braves, from fourth place in the American League Central to first place in the National League East, surprised and elated him.

“I had chills going down my body when they called me the other morning and told me the Braves had claimed me (on waivers),” Hamilton said. “It was like Christmas again.” 

The rise in the standings isn’t the only reason Hamilton welcomed the move to Atlanta. He grew up in Taylorsville, Miss., as a Braves fan. 

“My brother called me yesterday and said, ‘Remember the times we used to be in the backyard saying, like, Chipper Jones and (Rafael) Furcal?’ ” Hamilton said. “It’s crazy. It’s unbelievably crazy. 

“I’m glad the Braves gave me the chance to be with them on this playoff run.” 

That the Braves envision a fairly limited role for the six-year veteran doesn’t bother him.

“They already told me what my job is going to be — mostly coming in near the end of games and pinch-run and play defense,” he said. 

That the Braves were willing to commit almost $2 million for such a specialized role — the approximately $950,000 remaining on Hamilton’s $4.25 million salary this season plus a $1 million buyout for next season — reflect how the organization is trying to shore up its roster for the stretch run and mitigate a recent flurry of injuries.

The Braves have three outfielders on the injured list — Nick Markakis, Ender Inciarte and Austin Riley — and have been plugging gaps in the starting lineup around Ronald Acuna with various combinations of Matt Joyce, Adam Duvall, Rafael Ortega and Charlie Culberson.  The arrival of Hamilton, an accomplished center fielder, provides a potential weapon as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner.

“I think he’ll be a good addition, especially late in the game when you start moving guys around to try and defend,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

“He has taken a lot of hits away from me in my career,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said.

“And he’s one of those guys that will steal a base when you know he’s going to steal a base,” Snitker said.

Hamilton, 28, a switch-hitter, played his first five big-league seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, who didn’t offer him a contract for this year. He signed with Kansas City in December. The Royals designated him for assignment Friday, and the Braves claimed him on waivers Monday.

He brings outstanding credentials as a defender (five-time Gold Glove finalist in center field) and base runner (four seasons of 50-plus steals), but not so much as a hitter. He is a career .242 hitter, including .236 with the Reds last year and .211 in 93 games with the Royals this year.

Despite his increased struggles at the plate, his speed remains a factor on the base paths: His 295 career stolen bases are the fifth most of any active MLB player, and his 81.3% success rate is 10th highest. He stole 56 bases in 2014, 57 in 2015, 58 in 2016, 59 in 2017, 34 last year and 18 so far this year. In the minor leagues in 2012, he set a professional baseball single-season record with 155 stolen bases across two levels.

“I’m getting a little older,” Hamilton said with a smile, “but I think I’m still probably the same speed… as when I was 21, 22.” 

According to MLB measuring system Statcast, his sprint speed is down only slightly from previous seasons. 

Hamilton’s immediate goal is to help the Braves win the NL East and then to make their postseason roster.

“It’s not a given I’ll be on the playoff roster, so my job is to come here and do what I can to get myself on that roster,” he said.

He made his Braves debut in Tuesday’s 5-1 win over the Miami Marlins at SunTrust Park, entering as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and remaining in the game to play center field as Acuna moved to right to replace Joyce. Hamilton was 0-for-2 at the plate.

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