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Billy Hamilton: A Pleasant Surprise

by Logan Bradley

Let me be honest for a second: I didn’t want Billy Hamilton having any type of significant playing time for the 2021 Chicago White Sox. And, I’m willing to bet you felt the same.

Yet, here we are.

Back on March 16, the White Sox’ signing of Hamilton to a minor-league deal caused but a ripple of reaction. Every season, teams take fliers on veterans, offering an invite to Spring Training, only to see that player fail to make the Opening Day roster, let alone the active roster at any point during the season. The case of Hamilton and the White Sox was no different. At the time of the signing, Eloy Jimenez hadn’t leaped for a meaningless Spring Training fly ball, Luis Robert hadn’t gone down in a heap and Adam Engel was still days from a Cactus League hamstring strain. Suffice to say, the Sox had no immediate, nor long-term need, really, for the services of Billy Hamilton.

Alas, all of that changed quickly, thrusting the veteran outfielder onto the White Sox active roster by game No. 2. So what exactly led to chants of “BILL-Y, BILL-Y, BILL-Y” by May 29? Let’s take a look at just how surprisingly valuable Billy Hamilton has been to this team and what his performance has taught us.

At the start of this season, the main rallying cry of most White Sox fans was depth. Whether it was the signing of Adam Eaton as the primary right fielder, or the fact that a closer was the main splurge, the consensus was that at some point, we’d run into the problem of not having enough quality offensive depth. While we can argue whether that’s true or not (losing two of your best players would create a depth problem for anybody), this season has taught us that depth isn’t created equal. Especially when you have the type of leaders that the Sox do.

It’s impossible to quantify how much of an impact Tim Anderson has had on Billy Hamilton’s performance, but his encouragement has been well-documented. Seemingly hanging over the dugout during every batted ball, Anderson has been the main source of encouragement for a nine-year veteran whose career slash line (.241/.295/.328) isn’t going to make you think he can provide any power. “Build his confidence; that’s how you’re going to get the best out of [Hamilton],” Anderson told The Athletic’s James Fegan in late-May. “He’s not going to just steal bases. He’s got to realize how dangerous he can be in this game. If he learns to hit, his defense is there. He can steal bases, really all angles. That’s kind of the way I go about it. It’s only right to share as much game as I can.”

Since that quote, Hamilton is slugging .636 with a wRC+ of 149.

Let’s not get used to Billy Hamilton, the Power Hitter™, but the fact that he hit home runs on back-to-back days (the last time he had two HRs in the same month was June 2016) speaks to how depth can come in different shapes and sizes if it comes at the right time. Meaning, Hamilton on the fractured 2016 White Sox is likely different than the 2021 White Sox who Rick Hahn recently described as “a very strong clubhouse that’s focused on persevering and winning that night’s game.”

Chances are high that Hamilton regresses toward his career wRC+ of 67, but in many ways, he’s already done enough to make the Sox’ light investment worth it. You think back to nights like May 12. Hamilton went 4-4 and was a home run shy of the cycle in a 13-8 divisional win over the Twins. Not only did he do the part nobody expected — hit the ball all over the place — he also did exactly what you’d expect — use his speed to create runs out of thin air.

Or we could talk about May 13 when Hamilton singlehandedly changed the trajectory of an afternoon game against the Twins with his glove.

The Twins have had some tough luck this season, but, boy, they must hate Billy Hamilton. The catch saved three runs, allowed Lance Lynn to take one more inning off the bullpen’s plate and, most importantly, was the turning point in a 4-2 White Sox win.

It’s safe to assume that when Billy Hamilton became a White Sox, the intention was for him to be nothing more than speed off the bench if he was ever called into duty by the big league club. Ironically released in Spring Training by a now-outfield-needy team, the Indians, he was scooped up in a move that deserves recognition. As mentioned earlier, it’s not often that this type of transaction pays heavy dividends, but props to Hahn and the front office for their evaluation, the clubhouse for its ability to squeeze every ounce of ability out of a player, and *gulp* Tony La Russa for putting Hamilton in the right spots to succeed.

With the return of Adam Engel looming, along with those of Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert further down the road, Hamilton’s role within this team will diminish, and that’s a good thing. Whether he remains part of the active roster for the rest of the season remains to be seen, but his impact has already made, even if he somehow never puts a White Sox uniform on the rest of the year.

For now, let’s just take our hats off to the electricity that is Billy Hamilton.

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