Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton is just a small-town kid going through life in a hurry. His goals are systematic, sequential and — judging from his 81.7 percent success rate at his baseball specialty — eminently attainable.
Hamilton’s to-do list: Steal second base. Steal third base. Steal his way to Great American Ball Park. In that order.
Hamilton, 21, is causing quite a ruckus for a kid who has spent his summer playing shortstop for the Bakersfield Blaze and Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He has stolen 139 bases and needs only seven more to break the minor league record of 145 held by Vince Coleman of the 1983 Macon Redbirds in the South Atlantic League. Before that, he’ll pause briefly to refuel at Donell Nixon’s 144 with the ’83 Bakersfield Mariners.
With each new cloud of dust and corresponding piece of dirty laundry, Hamilton evokes memories of a bygone era. The stolen base was a major weapon in the days of Rickey Henderson and Whitey Herzog’s reign at Busch Stadium. But speed and derring-do were devalued in the steroid era, and steals became passé when the sabermetrics movement gained steam and it seemed foolhardy to risk precious outs for a mere 90-foot payoff. The increased popularity of the slide-step and the focus on better “pop” times for catchers were also major deterrents to the speed game.
Now, all of a sudden, Hamilton is quickening pulses one lead, one burst and one headfirst slide at a time. If he isn’t careful, he might do for the stolen base what Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman is doing for buzz cuts.
Hamilton’s rampage was a prominent topic of conversation at the All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City last month, and the momentum has continued to build as his stolen base total mounts. Toronto outfielder Anthony Gose, who stole 70 or more bases twice in the minor leagues, gets sore quads just thinking about it.
“He’s going to inspire guys within his organization and around baseball who are fast or have the knack for stealing bases,” Gose said. “It’s amazing. I hope he does something crazy and steals like 160.”
Pride of Taylorsville
Hamilton, a Derek Jeter fan as a youth, patterns his game after Jose Reyes, another switch-hitting shortstop with a flair for putting pressure on opposing pitchers, catchers and defenses with his speed. In a Cal League game between Bakersfield and Modesto earlier this season, the opposing pitcher threw over to first base eight straight times to keep Hamilton close. Then he threw home, and Hamilton immediately burst for second and made it easily.
“When a guy picks over a lot, that gets your body going,” Hamilton said. “It gets you amped up about stealing a base. It makes me want to steal even more.”
Hamilton is a product of tiny Taylorsville, Miss., home of Smacks Burger Shack, the Huddle House and the Catfish Cabin and just a short jaunt from Laurel, birthplace of Chicago Bears quarterback Jason Campbell. Taylorsville had 1,341 residents in 2000, but a subsequent population boom swelled that total to 1,353 in time for the 2010 U.S. Census.
Tyler Jennings, a former Cincinnati scout who’s now working in the Texas organization, was the first professional talent evaluator to take serious notice. Jennings, the son of Miami Marlins assistant GM Dan Jennings, played high school ball in Alabama with Pat White, who went on to play quarterback at West Virginia and was drafted by the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Royals. So he knew an elite athlete when he saw one.
Jennings heard about Hamilton through the grapevine and set up a workout in December 2008 in Birmingham, Ala. The next spring, he became a regular at Taylorsville High games, building a personal relationship with Hamilton as the word spread. He watched Hamilton throw 92 mph as a relief pitcher and once clocked him at a scorching 3.78 seconds down the line from the right side of the plate.
Jennings’ most enduring memory came during a state playoff game, when Hamilton raced across the diamond from his shortstop position and made a diving catch on the foul side of the right-field line. The ball was located about midway between the first-base bag and the foul pole.
“Billy takes off running, lays completely out and makes the best play I’ve ever seen in person on a baseball field,” Jennings said. “You look around, and all these scouting directors and crosscheckers are just looking at each other. Their mouths have dropped. It’s a ball that no shortstop in his right mind even goes after. I’ll never forget it.”
Hamilton turned down a scholarship offer to play wide receiver at Mississippi State and signed with the Reds for a $623,000 bonus as a second-round pick in 2009. He took up switch-hitting upon turning pro and has made significant strides with his plate discipline.
Last year, Hamilton drew 52 walks and struck out 133 times for Class A Dayton. This year, he has 73 walks and 95 whiffs in two stops. His on-base percentage has improved from .340 to .412, and he has amassed 35 extra-base hits compared with 30 for the entire 2011 season. Teams that try to crowd him with hard stuff inside have felt the repercussions.
“He’s strong enough to defend himself at the plate,” said an American League scout, “and he can outquick the ball at times. His hands work just fine.”
Hamilton also is smart enough to realize that every ball hit in the air can be a wasted opportunity. He puts the right swing on the ball to generate lots of line drives and ground balls.
“He’s a real quick study,” said Bill Bavasi, Cincinnati’s vice president of player development. “His baseball IQ is pretty high. He knows who he is and what his path is to the big leagues.”
Hamilton has learned the subtleties of the game from some accomplished managers. In Dayton, he played for former Montreal and Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Delino DeShields. In Bakersfield, he learned from Ken Griffey Sr. of the great Big Red Machine teams. Those two combined for 663 steals in the majors. Now he’s playing Double-A ball in Pensacola for Jim Riggleman, who has 1,486 games worth of big league managerial experience.
DeShields, whose son, Delino Jr., has 84 steals in the minors for the Houston organization, compares Hamilton to his former Expos teammate Otis Nixon because of his blazing speed and instincts. In personal tutorials with Hamilton, DeShields stressed the importance of laying the groundwork for stolen bases in the days and weeks before each series. Maybe Hamilton could find a weakness in a reliever’s move or gain some insight into the catcher’s footwork and file it away for future reference. Those fractions of a second become more precious with each step up the organizational ladder.
“I can’t take any credit for what that boy has done,” DeShields said. “A lot of the things he does out there, you really can’t teach.”
Make sure not to blink
At every stop, Hamilton does something novel to burnish his reputation as a game-changer. If he’s not turning a double into a triple, he’s scoring from first base on a single. In mid-July, Hamilton rounded the bases in 13.8 seconds for an inside-the-park homer — faster than the 14.3 clocked by Los Angeles Angels outfielder Peter Bourjos against Minnesota in April.
In a spring training game in Goodyear, Ariz., Hamilton took off on a dead run and caught a ball in relatively deep left field. Jerry Walker, special assistant to Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, told Bavasi it might have been the greatest catch he has ever seen. That’s saying something, given that Walker signed with Baltimore in 1957 and has spent the ensuing 55 years in professional ball in some capacity.
Earlier this year, the aforementioned AL scout attended a Bakersfield-Visalia game and was smitten immediately. In a two-day span, Hamilton scored from second base on a pop fly, scored from third on a passed ball that barely eluded the catcher and showed plenty of range in the field. He made a stunning backhand play, handled a grounder up the middle and deftly fielded a slow roller to short.
“He screwed me up for two days of scouting the Visalia team,” the scout said. “All I did was watch Hamilton. You could literally not take your eyes off him.”
Hamilton still needs work on the accuracy and zip on his throws from shortstop, but the Reds think he’ll improve as he matures physically and finds a more consistent arm slot. Zack Cozart has done a serviceable job at shortstop as a rookie this season and Netherlands native Didi Gregorius is making progress in Triple-A ball, so Cincinnati has a lot of organizational depth at the position.
The Reds are conscious of the physical pounding Hamilton takes with all those steals, and that might factor into their long-term plan. One possible option is to shift Hamilton to center field, where he’ll be free from takeout slides and his athleticism and wheels would play quite nicely.
In the meantime, Hamilton has no problems dealing with scrapes on his elbows and the occasional dinged knee or jammed finger. He’s more durable than his 6-foot-1, 160-pound frame would suggest.
“I’m tough, man,” Hamilton said. “It doesn’t matter how big you are. DeSean Jackson ain’t that big, but he’s in the NFL [with the Eagles]. As long as you got that toughness, you’re good.”
The Reds appear to be in no hurry to push Hamilton to Cincinnati, likely because they’re not required to place him on the 40-man roster and protect him from the Rule 5 draft until after the 2013 season. Although Dusty Baker recently told reporters that Hamilton “possibly” could join the club in September as a late-inning base-stealing weapon, it has not been a prominent topic of discussion among Cincinnati’s front-office people. “All our discussions about Billy have been about his long-term development,” Bavasi said.
While Hamilton chases Coleman’s record, he continues to hear about a ghost from a more distant era. Baseball’s original Billy Hamilton, known as “Sliding Billy,” was a running fool for the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Beaneaters in the 1890s, when stolen base criteria were more liberal. Sliding Billy snagged 914 bags and made it to the Hall of Fame through the veterans committee in 1961.
The modern-day Billy, a mere wisp of a player, is dropping jaws and demoralizing opposing batteries in a 1980s sort of way. His statistics are surpassed only by his speed, fearlessness and charisma.
“When Billy comes to the plate, there’s a lot of electricity in the park,” DeShields said. “He’ll do something on the field every day that will make you raise your eyebrows.”
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