Reds' Hamilton could make history in a flash
The speed of Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton may become legendary.
It's possible Hamilton may one day break the modern-day Major League single-season stolen base record of 130 set by Oakland Athletics outfielder Rickey Henderson in 1982 at age 23. Henderson stole a remarkable 1,406 bases in his fantastic career.
This past season, Hamilton broke the Minor League single-season stolen base record of 145, established by Vince Coleman playing for Macon in 1983. Hamilton stole a record-shattering 155 bases playing for Class A Bakersfield (104 steals) and Double-A Pensacola (51).
In addition to blazing a trail on the bases, Hamilton also hit a combined .311 with an on-base percentage of .410 this past season.
It's difficult to grasp Hamilton's speed without watching him play in person.
I saw almost every game in which he played during the recently concluded Arizona Fall League.
While not his only skill, speed is Hamilton's best and most advanced tool. It is a powerful weapon that forces defensive mistakes, as well as putting Hamilton in a position to score runs that are more improbable without his graceful running skills.
Using gliding acceleration as the centerpiece of his game-changing running ability, Hamilton's instincts and self-confidence form the peripheral qualities that complement his best tool.
In the AFL, Hamilton was second in stolen bases with 10, behind only White Sox infielder Carlos Sanchez's 11. Hamilton was caught stealing twice. It happens to the best.
It is not unusual for Hamilton to walk, steal second, steal third and score on a routine ground ball or flyout.
But his challenge will be getting on base.
In 2009, the Reds chose Hamilton, now 22, with their second pick in the First-Year Player Draft.
Hamilton was a three-sport star at Taylorsville (Miss.) High School, playing baseball, football and basketball. In fact, he was preparing to play wide receiver at Mississippi State University when instead he chose a career in baseball.
At 6-foot-1 and only 160 pounds, Hamilton has the build of a point guard or sprinter. To say he runs with great intensity on the baseball field is an understatement.
He will have to be careful about losing strength and stamina during the course of the long season. It's an issue that gives me pause.
Running speed from home plate to first base is one of the measurable factors scouts use in evaluating players.
Any player that can run from home to first in less than 4.0 seconds from the right-handed batter's box (3.9 seconds from the left-handed side) is graded an 8 on an escalating scouting scale of 4-8.
This past fall I clocked Hamilton at 3.50 in the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game. Other scouts clocked him at 3.48 that evening. Hamilton told me he has run 3.3. Regardless of the fraction of a second differences, he is scary fast. Hamilton advised me that his sister, Felicia, thinks she can beat him in a race. How can that be?
At the time he was selected by the Reds, Hamilton was a right-handed hitter. He subsequently began to switch-hit and is having increasing success from the left side.
In my observation, Hamilton seems much more comfortable, much more confident and even a bit more aggressive from his natural right-handed-hitting position. However, he can shave a tick off his running time to first base from the left-handed batter's box -- especially on drag bunts, where he may flash his fastest speeds.
To be successful, Hamilton will have to keep the ball on the ground or hit the gaps in the outfield. As he has limited power, he will waste at-bats swinging for the fences. When he does get loft on the ball, any hit to the gap should result in at least a double -- probably a triple.
As he has progressed through the Reds' Minor League system, Hamilton has increased his selectivity at the plate, as well as his pitch recognition. There are still times he lunges at outside breaking balls (especially batting right-handed), but he's willing to accept a walk or wait for pitches he can pound into the ground or bunt successfully.
If his patience continues, he could be a high batting average Major League hitter. He will work pitchers deep in counts, forcing them to throw strikes.
Defensively, Hamilton has made a transition from shortstop to center field. I have seen him play both positions.
Highly athletic Reds prospect Didi Gregorius and incumbent Major Leaguer Zack Cozart probably block Hamilton at shortstop. Moving him to the outfield allows for a quicker Major League path.
Playing exclusively in center field in the AFL, Hamilton handled 43 chances, making only one error. He looked natural and comfortable playing the position. One would be hard-pressed to know he was being introduced to a new experience. That's because he's such a gifted athlete.
The most striking part of Hamilton's defense in the AFL was his ability to use his speed to close on fly balls.
In general, balls hit over Hamilton's head became routine outs. He didn't always take the most direct routes, but he closed so quickly that only a couple balls escaped his reach.
In the AFL Championship game, Hamilton suffered back spasms when he crashed back first into the outfield wall. He left the game, but celebrated a championship later with his teammates.
Contrary to the hopes of Reds fans, Hamilton is not a finished product.
He has to continue his work on pitch recognition and patience at the plate. He has to improve on hitting breaking balls. He has more work to do learning to play the outfield.
Once his development is complete, Hamilton may run his way to the record books.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.