Most minor league records are fossils.
They're wonderful to look at, but thanks to the changes in the game, most minor league record feats can be considered untouchable.
Joe Bauman's 72 home runs in a season (in the 1954 Class C Longhorn League) isn't going to be threatened anytime soon–a 40-home run season in the minors now would be cause for celebration. Nolan Arenado led the minors in RBIs last year with 122, but Bob Crues and his record 254 RBIs in 1948 for Amarillo West didn't have much of a reason to feel threatened. And as impressive as Matt Moore's two minor league strikeout crowns and a second-place finish in a three-year stretch were, you'd have to add up all three of Moore's seasons to top the single-season strikeout record of Grover Lowdermilk's 465 Ks in 1907.
Gary Redus' record-setting .462 season with Billings in 1978 and Vince Coleman's 145 stolen bases with Macon in 1983 are the only two minor league single-season records of any significance that have been broken in the past 50 years.
Since Coleman and Donnell Nixon held a furious race to nab the stolen base record in 1983, not one significant minor league single-season record has even been threatened. In fact, not one single-season performance since then ranks in the Top 10 for all-time single-season leaders. The career records are equally untouchable.
All of that makes what Reds shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton is doing this year all the more special. For the first time in a long time, we may see a run at a record. Hamilton, who plays for high Class A Bakersfield, has 71 steals in 63 team games. At his current pace of 1.13 steals per team game, Hamilton is on pace to steal 157 bases, 12 more than Coleman's record.
TOP 10 MINOR LEAGUE
SINGLE SEASON STOLEN BASES
|James Johnston||1913||San Francisco||124|
If he can stay healthy, minor league baseball fans have the chance to see a legitimate run at a minor league record. Hamilton's current stolen base numbers are so out of proportion to the rest of minor league baseball that they seem hard to comprehend.
* Hamilton's 71 stolen bases are as many as all but 20 of the 120 minor league full season teams. By himself, Hamilton has as many steals as any team in the Pacific Coast, Eastern or Texas league.
* Hamilton has 17 games this season where he hasn't stolen a base. He has 20 games this year where he's stolen more than one. He's had two games where he's stolen four bags and four more where he's stolen three. He's yet to get thrown out twice in one game.
* Hamilton isn't piling up his statistics by going in any situation. He's been successful on 83.5 percent of his steal attempts this year, well above the roughly 75 percent rate considered the break-even point for steals.
* Anthony Gose finished second to Hamilton in the minors in steals last season with 70 steals. Hamilton topped that number on June 10. Only three players in the past decade have topped 80 steals. Hamilton is on pace to reach right around the time Bakersfield hits the midway point of its season on June 16.
It all adds up to the first genuine run at a minor league record since Baseball America was in its infancy.
There are plenty of reasons that runs at minor league records are so rare.
The Pacific Coast League used to play 200-game seasons, which explains why 14 of the top 15 minor league single season hit records are held by Pacific Coast League players.
Beyond that, the minors used to have a very uneven distribution of talent. In the years before the establishment of unified major league farm systems in 1962, a major league ready player might find himself playing in a league filled with semipro-caliber competition. At the same time, a minor league star may stay put in the same league year after year, which explains how Joe Bauman (a record 72 home runs for Roswell in 1954), finished his career with six 30-homer seasons, five 40-homer seasons and three 50-homer seasons.
Also 75-plus years ago, minor league teams were mainly focused on winning. Combine that with more difficult routes to promotion and many players stayed put no matter how dominant they were. So when River Schmidt was hitting .441 in the Northern League in 1939, he'd stay there all season. Now Nick Castellanos hitting .400 for two months in the Florida State League means he's quickly promoted to the next level.
Note: The chart has been updated with two additions of more modern 111 steal seasons.