The 21-year-old is starting a renaissance of sorts with his rampant base-stealing in the minor leagues.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Futures Game on Sunday, an All-Star precursor, was filled with elite prospects, flame-throwing pitchers and stocky hitters who can hit the ball a mile.
But the guy I wanted to see most, the player whose mounting total in one slightly out-of-favor baseball specialty has captivated me all season, was a skinny, 21-year-old kid from a tiny town in Mississippi.
He’s Billy Hamilton, and he steals bases. He swipes bags like few ever have, at any level, at least not since the glory days of the 1970s and ’80s when Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman were running rampant. And he’s threatening to leave them in his dust, too.
Hamilton, a shortstop in the Reds organization, has played all year for the Bakersfield Blaze of the California League. In 82 games, he has stolen 104 bases.
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Let’s let that settle in.
In stolen-base lore, 104 is a significant number. Maury Wills, in 1962, ushered in a golden age of steals by bagging 104 in 1962, shattering Ty Cobb’s previous modern-era mark of 96 in 1915. Lou Brock passed Wills with 118 in 1974, and Henderson shot past them all with 130 in 1982, which still stands.
Coleman exceeded 100 three times for the Cardinals, the final of which, in 1987, is the last time any major-league player reached triple-digits. Hamilton may be at the forefront of a base-stealing renaissance as he charges after Coleman’s professional record of 145 steals, set in Class A Macon of the Sally League in 1983.
“I feel I’m bringing back stolen bases,” said Hamilton, who is still new enough at all this to be amazed — and pleased — by the newfound attention he’s getting. “Even in the Cal League, there’s more guys stealing. I feel we’re bringing a big part of the game back.”
You can’t steal first base, as the old saying goes, and the first step for Hamilton has been a major improvement in hitting. After struggling to a .215 mark in his first pro stop — when the Reds turned the second-round draft pick into a switch-hitter — he’s hitting .323 so far this year with a .413 on-base percentage. Hamilton has been promoted to Class AA Pensacola, where he’ll report after leaving Kansas City.
Hamilton wreaks havoc with the opposition. He beats out routine grounders to shortstop. He steals bases successfully on pitchouts. He said that teams sometimes pitch out one, two, three times in a row — even with three balls on the hitter. I think he was kidding. But it’s true that one pitcher threw to first base eight consecutive times. When he finally threw a pitch, Hamilton stole second base.
“If they pick over that many times, that means he wants to get me out, so I’m going to let them try to throw me out,” he said, grinning. “Now I see more guys balking. In the last two weeks, there have been four balks.”
Hamilton stole 14 bases his first year and 48 his second, but made a quantum leap last season when he joined Class A Dayton. Manager Delino DeShields encouraged him to steal at will, and his skills have been further honed this year by Bakersfield manager Ken Griffey Sr.
“DeShields showed me some, Griffey showed me some, and I just put them together,” Hamilton said. “Both of those guys have been a big part of my stolen bases. They taught me to have that confidence you can steal every base.”
He can’t, of course. Hamilton has been caught 21 times, one more than he was all of last season, when he broke through with 103 steals.
When Hamilton reached 100 steals last week, it was almost anti-climactic.
“Last year, it was kind of intense because it was at the end of the season,” he said. “This year, it was more like, just another stolen base. I guess the excitement will come with 145. Or 146. I want to break it, not tie it.”
Hamilton didn’t steal any bases on Sunday, but he did show off his speed — he’s been timed at 3.4 seconds down the line from the left side, 3.85 from the right, both in the “blazing” category — on a drive over the center fielder’s head. He reached third easily with a Coleman-esque burst.
“George Brett (the U.S. team manager) told me I should have stopped at first, and stolen second and third,” Hamilton said. “It was a pretty good joke.”
The next batter hit a comebacker to the pitcher, who looked Hamilton back several times before rushing his throw to first, which was wild. Hamilton trotted home, having conducted a seminar on how speed can be a lethal weapon.
“I could tell he was nervous,” he said. “He kept watching me. I’ve had a few times this year where the pitcher catches the ball, gives me one look, throws to first and I go. I feel I can put that pressure on pitchers now. It’s a good thing.”
There are questions about Hamilton’s defense at shortstop. He may not find it so easy to run as he moves up the ladder, and both pitchers and catchers get more sophisticated in slowing down a running game.
But right now, Billy Hamilton is one of the best shows going in all of baseball.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org