The Giants made waves the day before FanFest when they brought Hunter Pence back on a one-year contract, delighting the fan base and filling a hole in left field. But as they get set to embark on an unprecedented season, their most impactful addition might end up being another veteran outfielder who quietly joined the club in the midst of Pence mania.
Billy Hamilton signed a minor league deal with the Giants and was in a pretty solid position when camp ended. He now looms as a potential game-changer because of a new rule MLB is instituting over 60 games.
Extra innings will begin with a runner on second base, making Hamilton, one of the fastest players in MLB history, a hell of a chess piece for a manager who intends to grab every single edge as the Giants aim to surprise the rest of the league. Asked about Hamilton during this week's Giants Insider Podcast, Kapler smiled and admitted he had been talking to general manager Scott Harris about the player just a few minutes earlier.
"He's a perfect piece for that moment," Kapler said. "One of the things (Harris) brought up is how nice would it be to have Billy Hamilton run out there at second base and try to steal third base with a stolen base rate in the past of like 85 percent. He's been really successful at it and Scott brought that point up to me.
"It makes that roster spot more important. It makes having a dynamic player like Billy more important to have on a roster and it's just kind of exciting to be able to have that as an option in those situations."
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Hamilton, 29, has four 50-steal seasons in the big leagues, although he had just 22 last season because on-base percentage woes limited his playing time with the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves. He has been extremely successful when trying to swipe third, as the Giants have found over and over again -- while with the Cincinnati Reds, Hamilton was particularly cruel to Tim Lincecum.
Hamilton is 73 for 84 when attempting to steal third, a success rate of 86.9 percent. Most of those came against starting pitchers, too, who generally are more aware of the running game than relievers.
The new rule is being put in place to make sure there are no marathon games during a sprint of a season. It has been part of minor league ball the last two seasons, and after initial grumbling, most at those levels have gotten used to it. Under the rule, each inning starting with the 10th will begin with a runner on second base. He is the player who hits in front of the leadoff hitter in that inning, so if the No. 4 hitter is due up in the 11th, the No. 3 hitter goes to second.
You can replace that player with a pinch-runner, which is where Hamilton could become so valuable. Say Buster Posey is hitting third and Alex Dickerson is fourth, and the bottom of the ninth ends with Posey grounding out. The Giants can start the 10th by placing Hamilton on second for Dickerson, knowing Posey's spot wasn't going to come up for a couple innings anyway, and that they've dramatically increased their odds of getting that runner home.
While Hamilton is a serious threat to steal third, he also would score on just about any single (he was on second for 12 singles last year and scored 11 times), and if the Giants get him to third with one out, there aren't many fly balls or slow rollers that wouldn't bring him home.
This might seem like a very small advantage, but over 60 games every edge will matter, and the Giants tend to play more extra-inning games than most, especially at Oracle Park. They played them about 10 percent of the time last year, going an MLB-best 13-3.
Hamilton isn't the only edge Kapler might have in an unprecedented situation. His staff includes several coaches who were recently in the minors and he said he already has talked to those guys about their experiences with the new rule.
"When we dug into it, what they thought was happening wasn't necessarily happening," he said. "A lot of conversations have been around whether to bunt somebody over from second to third, whether to attempt to steal, or whether to play it straight up."
Kapler paused as he thought of what had been discussed.
"The reason I'm being a little cautious here," he said, "is I don't want to give away strategy."