Hamilton Trades Football Dreams For Baseball Success
Almost two weeks after the Mississippi State football team began its fall camp, Billy Hamilton admits that he thinks about playing football for the Bulldogs all the time.
Only for Hamilton, it isn't just the wistful dreaming of a Mississippi native, it was once a very real opportunity that he traded for bus rides through Montana and the chance to one day play major league baseball.
Hamilton was born and raised in Taylorsville, Misss., a small town of less than 2,000 people that, like many rural towns in the state, loves football. In 2009, Hamilton led the Tartars to a 12-1 record on the gridiron by catching 49 passes for 742 yards and 18 touchdowns, and also making 68 tackles and intercepting seven passes.
His football prowess attracted Mississippi State and on Jan. 26, Hamilton picked the Bulldogs over schools like Southern Mississippi and South Alabama. However, the chance to play football in the SEC was only part of the reason he chose Mississippi State. The real reason was because the Bulldogs had also offered him a chance to play his favorite sport growing up—baseball.
"I called (football) coach (Dan) Mullen first," Hamilton told MagnoliaPreps.com upon signing. "It is the SEC and it is just better competition and I like the SEC better. I am really going for the baseball though and they have better baseball, so that is why I chose Mississippi State."
When the Reds picked Hamilton in the second round of the 2009 draft, the then-17-year-old was torn. Did he want to stay close to home and play both football and baseball or did he want to get an early start on his lifelong dream?
In the end, the idea of having to defer his baseball dreams three years, as well as a $623,300 signing bonus from Cincinnati, were enough to pry Hamilton away from his commitment to Mississippi State and he was shipped off to Florida and the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
Now, playing shortstop and second base for Billings in the Pioneer League, Hamilton has emerged as one of the most intriguing young prospects in the Reds system. And, despite admitting that his mind wanders to Starkville and the pigskin from time to time, Hamilton thinks he made the right choice.
"I still think about football all the time, especially nowadays," Hamilton said in a telephone interview. "But I feel I made the right decision. Eventually my goal was to go pro in baseball anyways, but me and my family decided to start it up now rather than wait a few years."
No Looking Back
At first it looked like Hamilton might regret his decision. He was blessed with tremendous arm strength and the athleticism necessary to play shortstop. And many scouts rated him a true 70 runner on the 20-80 scouting scale. Recognizing this, the Reds urged Hamilton, a natural righthanded hitter who never hit lefthanded, to try switch-hitting.
The problem was that Hamilton was still raw from the right side of the plate as well. Having excelled at three sports in high school, Hamilton never focused his efforts solely on baseball and, like many Mississippi prep products, needed to face better competition.
The result was that Hamilton was trying to juggle switch-hitting with learning how to see the ball better and recognize pitchers. He hit just .205/.253/.277 with 11 walks and 47 strikeouts in 166 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League.
"Last year he had really only hit lefty in the cage, so he went into games having never seen pitchers from the left side," said Alex Pelaez, who has seen every single one of Hamilton's at-bats as the hitting coach for the GCL Reds and now the Mustangs. "But you could tell the potential was there, I mean I clocked him once at 3.4 down the line from the left-side."
Despite Hamilton's struggles in the GCL, this season the Reds decided to send him to Billings to work with manager Delino DeShields, who stole 463 bases in his 13 seasons in the big leagues, to turn his raw speed into base-stealing ability.
"DeShields is a perfect fit for him and it's the reason why Billy went to Billings with him in the first place," Reds' field coordinator Freddie Benavides said. "He was just getting by on pure talent and at times it looked like he was even outrunning the ball and that's how he would get the base."
But Hamilton and the Reds both knew it would ultimately be the strides he made at the dish that would determine whether he would make it to the big leagues. So Hamilton and Pelaez spent time in the batting cage getting Hamilton to use his hands more and doing no-stride drills.
Slowly, Hamilton learned to use the opposite field to his advantage and now the hard work has paid off. Through 206 at-bats, Hamilton was hitting .340/.395/.481 with 10 doubles, eight triples, and 28 steals.
Even more impressively, in 176 at-bats lefthanded, Hamilton was hitting .335/.380/.466. He has had such little practice against lefthanded pitching that he said he has had to go back and work with Pelaez on his swing from the right side again.
"Most of these kids who try switch-hitting like to see the ball get through to the outfield," Pelaez said. "But Billy seems to truly enjoy the infield hits. I think he has come to accept they are just a part of his game. The scary part is that he is still figuring it all out. Once he does that, he will be a real good player."