I have tried to temper my enthusiasm about Reds prospect Billy Hamilton. I’m a fan, but at the same time I’m an MLB blogger, so I’ve tried to maintain some semblance of objectivity while I’ve watched him progress through the minor leagues.
It’s been no easy task. Reds fans have had their eye on Hamilton since he was taken in the second round of the 2009 amateur draft. In 2011, he became only the 12th player in minor league history to steal 100 or more bases in a single season. In 2012, he shattered the all-time minor league stolen base record with 155. In 2013, he began transitioning from shortstop to centerfield because that would provide him the fastest track to the Major League club.
It’s one thing to read box scores and news stories about a player’s performance. It’s another thing to watch it live.
Having finally had the opportunity to do so, I simply can’t quell the excitement he gives me about the future of my team any longer.
Hamilton was called up to the Major Leagues on September 2 as part of baseball’s annual expansion of rosters from 25 to 40 players. He made his debut a day later against the hated rival St. Louis Cardinals.
Entering a scoreless game as a pinch runner in the seventh inning, Hamilton stole second base off Yadier Molina, arguably the best defensive catcher with the strongest arm in the Major Leagues. He would later come around to score the game-winning run on a Todd Frazier double. It was that moment – that seventh inning – that I realized this kid’s importance to Cincinnati’s future is not hype. It’s real.
You know it’s coming. You’ve scouted, you’ve practice, you’ve prepared, you’re ready. Yet you still can’t stop it.
And I’ve never seen anything like it.
Since Hamilton’s September call-up, the same story line keeps playing out every time Cincinnati finds itself locked in a close game late.
Player X reaches first base. Hamilton subs in as a pinch runner. Hamilton steals second base. Batter Y gets base hit. Hamilton blazes around the bases to score a clutch Reds run. Often it’s the winning one.
At 27, I’m too young to have had the opportunity to watch and truly appreciate Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson in his prime, which seems to be the only logical point of reference. Widely considered baseball’s greatest leadoff hitter and baserunner, Henderson holds the Major League records for career stolen bases (1,406; Lou Brock has the second most at 938) and runs scored (2,295). He holds the record for most stolen bases in a season (130 in 1982) and is the only player in Major League history to steal 100 bases in a season (he did it three times).
I’m not saying Hamilton is destined for Cooperstown. I’m not even certain he will be able to make it on a big league roster, not yet at least. As a switch hitter, he has to prove he’s able to get himself on base – that he’s able to hit major league pitching – if he wants to stick around at this level.
But consider this: last year multiple scouts timed Hamilton as taking between 2.98-3.02 seconds from first move to reaching second base on steals. Those same scouts timed Henderson at 3.04-3.10 seconds in his prime.
With that kind of blinding speed, the probability of having time to throw Hamilton out is almost nil. Even when using a slide step – a modified delivery intended to cut down the time it takes for a pitch to reach the catcher from the beginning of a pitcher’s delivery – the time to home is 1.1-1.2 seconds. Without a slide step, it’s more like 1.3 seconds.
Most teams consider the big league average for the time it takes a catcher to receive the pitch and complete a throw down to second to be 2.0 seconds. With a pitchout that time can be trimmed to 1.8-1.9 seconds.
So when you add those numbers, if all things go perfectly for pitcher and catcher, it still takes them 2.9-3.3 seconds to get the ball to second base on a steal attempt. In almost every case, that’s simply not going to be fast enough to nab Hamilton.
This gives him the ability to impact a game without getting a single at bat and is nothing short of remarkable. Hamilton is simply a different type of player than any that exists in the game today.
In this modern era of baseball, it’s all about power. Fans love flame-throwing hurlers who can reach triple digits on the radar gun. Fans love herculean boppers who can launch balls 400+ feet over the outfield fences. With all the big money going to the big bodies, the stolen base has gotten lost in the mix. It’s a lost art. An endangered species.
But Hamilton’s speed is not a gimmick. It’s a weapon. And for the Reds, in close games it’s proven to be the nuclear option.
Hamilton has appeared in nine games, and is already setting records. He stole a bag in each of his first four big league games, becoming the first player to ever do so. And he did it as a pinch runner in all of them.
In his first career start last night Hamilton went 3-for-4 with a walk and stole four bases, becoming the first player to swipe that many bags in his debut in the live ball era (beginning in 1920).
So far, Hamilton has been on base 10 times. He’s stolen nine bases and scored six runs. He has not been caught stealing yet. And this is through just eight games. Just think what they would look like if projected out for a full 162!
It has always been the plan for Hamilton to join the big league club full time for the 2014 season. The Reds may need to shuffle some pieces around to facilitate that promotion, but it’s becoming blatantly apparent how necessary Hamilton’s presence is on this roster.
My generation has had the misfortune of growing up in the steroid era. We’ve been almost brainwashed to long for the long ball. Hamilton serves to remind us all that there is so much more to this game than that.