CHICAGO—Billy Hamilton has annihilated the minor league stolen base record with 155 steals. He led two different circuits in steals, another unprecedented feat.
Now comes the hard part: becoming a standout big leaguer. Of the 19 minor leaguers before Hamilton to reach triple figures in steals, just one managed to pull that off.
Lenny Dykstra stole 105 bases in 1983 before making three all-star teams, twice leading the National League in hits and finishing second in the 1993 National League MVP voting. Only once in his 12 major league seasons did he crack the NL top 10 in steals, but he became an on-base machine with solid pop and defensive skills. Perhaps not coincidentally, he wound up in the Mitchell Report as well.
Almost all of the other prolific minor league base thieves were one-trick ponies.Vince Coleman, who established the previous record with 145 swipes in 1983, led the NL in steals in his first six big league seasons and played in two All-Star Games. But he was an on-base percentage sinkhole with no power and little defensive value.
None of the other stolen-base kings earned all-star recognition even once.James Johnston andOtis Nixonwere the only others to become long-term regulars.
Speedsters often fall prey to a vicious cycle once they step in the batter's box. They're usually small and skinny, and teams want them to put their quickness to use by beating out groundballs. So they slap the ball on the ground and rarely drive the ball.
Pitchers have nothing to fear if they fall behind in the count, knowing they can throw a fastball down the middle and the worst thing that will happen is a single. Many basestealing threats hit for a decent average but provide little in the way of walks or power, making them offensive liabilities.
Though he's 6 feet and 160 pounds, Hamilton's not an easy mark at the plate. He has wiry strength and was tough enough to earn a football scholarship to play wide receiver at Mississippi State before the Reds drafted him 57th overall in 2009. He can sting the ball on occasion, including from the left side after taking up switch-hitting since signing.
Hamilton has boosted his slugging percentage from .360 in 2011 to .420 this year, and while he'll never be a slugger, pitchers have to at least respect him. That has led to an increase in walks as well, from 52 a year ago to 86 in 2012. His numbers didn't drop off significantly since his promotion to Double-A in mid-July.
Speed prospects often are labeled as future leadoff hitters based on their stolen-base prowess, even if they lack on-base ability. Hamilton has both skills and has the upside to become a .300/.400/.400 hitter.
Work remains before Hamilton can help Cincinnati on a full-time basis, though the team would be wise to add him to its playoff roster. Dave Roberts in 2004 andJohnny Damonin 2009 showed how a single steal can provide the catalyst for a championship.
Hamilton has improved significantly at the plate since struggling in his first two months at low Class A last year. The part of his offensive game that needs the most refinement is actually his basestealing, because the fastest player in baseball shouldn't get nabbed in 19 percent of his attempts. For all the tales of him defeating pickoffs and pitchouts in the minors, he'll need to improve his reads and jumps before he can embarrass major leaguers.
The biggest question with Hamilton is where he'll eventually fit with the Reds. He covers a lot of ground at shortstop, but his hands and arm strength are nothing special. He can't make all the plays from deep in the hole, and a wandering arm slot costs him accuracy on his throws.
Center field seems the most obvious solution, especially with Drew Stubbs regressing at the plate. While Hamilton has yet to play a professional game in the outfield and would need time to get acclimated, he unquestionably has the wheels to run down everything from gap to gap. There already are legends of him making catches running from shortstop to the warning track.
While he's not ready yet, Hamilton will be soon. And he's equipped to outrun history.