Billy Hamilton Excites Us About Stolen Bases Again

Unlike nearly any other sport, an individual baseball game can be broken down into individual moments, isolated from some events during the game and connected with others.

On the offensive side of the game, two outcomes stand out above all others: home runs and stolen bases. This week the Cincinnati Reds called up Billy Hamilton to much fanfare.

Hamilton was Keith Law’s 30th ranked prospect this spring but failed to crack his midseason Top 50. So why are people excited? Because, without exaggeration, Hamilton has game-changing speed.

Sharing his name with a Hall of Famer who had four 100 steal seasons, the Cincinnati Reds incarnation of Billy Hamilton might just be the fastest player in a baseball uniform anywhere.

In his first full minor league season in 2011, with the Midwest League Dayton Dragons, Hamilton stole 103 bases in 135 games. He followed this up with 155 steals over two levels in 2012, including stealing 51 bases in 50 games at Double A against more advanced competition.

Hamilton was so fast that there was enough speculation the team might call him up for the playoff roster in 2012 that GM Walt Jocketty quashed the rumors. After losing to the Giants in five games in the NLDS, one game by one run, another by two runs, maybe that was a mistake.

In 2013 the Reds are rectifying that decision. After stealing “just” 75 bases at Triple A, a September promotion was in order. Since calling up Hamilton last week, the center fielder has appeared in four games, each time as a pinch runner. Each time he has stolen a base. Three times he scored a run.

The Reds are making a charge to secure a place in the playoffs and have added perhaps the best player for tactical use in years.

Stealing bases isn’t just about the runner, it’s about the pitcher on the mound and about the catcher behind the plate. Among catchers, the Molina family is a trio of living legends. Yadier Molina, the youngest, and possibly the best, has thrown out 44% of attempted base stealers in his career, leading the league in this measure three times. Hamilton stole his first two bases against him.

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who has thrown out 43% of runners this year, was the victim of stolen bases number three and four.

Different pitchers, different catchers, and everyone in the ballpark knowing Hamilton was summoned into the game for one purpose and he hasn’t been caught.

Reds fans around the country can surely envision Hamilton playing the role of Dave Roberts during the Red Sox memorable comeback against the Yankees during the 2004 ALCS. If Cincinnati can make it into the playoffs, Hamilton could be the difference maker they lacked in 2012. Already the Reds may have won an extra game that the Hamilton-less club, while remarkably talented, wouldn’t have been able to pull off.

Baseball lore speaks highly about runners getting into the minds of the pitchers and fielders. Reds manager Dusty Baker can now exploit this to the maximum level with Hamilton. Whenever Hamilton enters the game, the focus will be on first base. Could Baker call for a steal of home by another player already on third base? If Hamilton himself is on third, will he employ the squeeze play?

The Reds are making a charge to secure a place in the playoffs and have added perhaps the best player for tactical use in years. David Price emerged as a dominant relief pitcher for the Rays run to the World Series in 2008 and, now a Cy Young winner, has shown himself to be pretty good. Hamilton may never be an MVP candidate, but his speed could supply the winning run that keeps the Reds alive at a critical moment.

Cross posted at The Sports Post