Reds' Billy Hamilton Thrills Cal League With Feats Of Speed
It usually starts with a chuckle.
Scouts, coaches and managers generally love to talk baseball—after all, they spend their lives working in the game. And there's nothing they like talking about more than the unexpected.
When Reds high Class A Bakersfield shortstop Billy Hamilton
is on the field, a lot of unexpected things happen.
When they talk about Hamilton, scouts and coaches get pretty excited, let out a chuckle, and then have a story that often begins with the same question.
Have you heard about the time Hamilton scored the game-winning run from third base on a sacrifice fly to second?
"The ball didn't leave the infield," Bakersfield manager Ken Griffey Sr. said. "Now it was a tough play for the second baseman. The infield was in. He had to turn his back and go after the ball. When it hit his hand, Billy was gone. By the time he turned around Billy was scoring."
It's hard to say if that tops another game-winning run he scored. Did you hear about the time Hamilton scored the winning run from second on a ground out?
"It was a slow bouncer to third," low Class A Dayton play-by-play man Tom Nichols said. "He never broke stride and beat the first baseman's throw home to end the game."
Or have you heard about the time Hamilton made a catch in deep left field while playing shortstop?
"(Juan) Duran was playing left field," Hamilton said. "There was a fly ball hit. I looked up at him and he looked back at me with his hands up in the air. I just took off running. I just dove and the ball landed in my glove. It was the most amazing thing I've ever done."
"He caught it over the shoulder," Reds field coordinator Freddie Benavides said. "It was a Jim Edmonds catch. It was unbelievable. To catch a ball deep down the left field line. Duran lost the ball completely. As soon as he threw his hands up, Hamilton took off. He caught it with a full-out dive."
|Normally basestealers see their stolen bases dip as they climb the minor league ladder, as pitchers and catchers become better at controlling the running game. But in Billy Hamilton's case, he's seen his stolen bases per game rate jump every year since he turned pro.
|Steals Per Team
Per Game, 2012
|High Class A
|Low Class A
|Billy Hamilton's SB By Year
Hamilton has hit an inside-the-park home run where the ball never reached the warning track. In 2011, he led off the first inning by reaching base, then stole second on the first pitch to the second batter for four games in a row.
In high school, when Hamilton scored from second on a groundout, it wasn't a surprise—it was a normal part of his Taylorsville (Miss.) High team's game plan. Taylorsville coach Dusty Hillman gave Hamilton a green light when rounding third to make his own decision on if he could score.
"If he was on second base and we hit a ball where he was advancing, we never stopped him," Hillman said. "He always thought he could score."
At Taylorsville, Hamilton also scored from second on a sacrifice fly. In another game, Hamilton started as a pitcher but was pulled by Hillman after he rolled his ankle during an inadvertent home-plate collision with the opposing team's catcher. Hamilton persuaded Hillman to let him limp around at shortstop to at least make the routine play, and when the game tightened up in the final innings, Hamilton pulled Hillman aside.
"He said, 'I can finish the game if you need me to,' " Hillman explained.
Out limped Hamilton to the mound.
"He was sitting 93-94 (mph) to finish it out on a bum ankle," Hillman said.
In A Class By Himself
Hamilton's 35 stolen bases are more than all but two other California League teams. His total of 11 steals of third base would be enough to rank fourth in the league by itself. He has stolen at least one base in 24 of the Blaze's first 36 games. After stealing 103 bases in his first full season in the Midwest League last year, Hamilton is on pace to easily top that this year.
He's piled up nearly as many "can-you-believe-that?" stories as he has stolen bases. But more importantly for his chances at a big league career, Hamilton is sprinkling more and more base hits around the chaos he creates on the bases.
In April 2011, Hamilton's speed was about the only thing worth talking about. Defensively, he was struggling with his arm slot on his throws. Offensively he was completely helpless from the left side as he tried to get comfortable switch-hitting. He was hitting under .200 in late May last year. Eventually he went to the Reds and suggested it would be worthwhile to give up switch-hitting.
"I told them, 'I'm wasting at-bats lefthanded,' " Hamilton said. "But they told me that's the way to get to the big leagues. I stuck with it and got more relaxed."
Hamilton fared much better in the second half of the season with Dayton. He raised his average to .278/.340/.360 by the end of the year. This year he flirted with hitting .400 in the early going and was hitting .346/.412/.507 in early May. The reason for the dramatic change? One year after wanting to give up hitting his from unnatural side, he was hitting .393/.453/.548 lefthanded.
"Last year I was trying to be a power hitter hitting lefthanded," he said. "I'm not a power hitter. Now I'm more worried about contact. When you're trying to hit the ball hard you pop up, Now I'm putting the bat on the ball and I'm hitting the ball to the gaps."
The dramatic turnaround has helped confirm what the Reds have believed since they selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft, that Hamilton's athleticism allows him to quickly fix most of the problems he finds in his game.
Hamilton has shown significant improvement at the plate, but his ability to play shortstop in the big leagues is still in question. Hamilton often throws from a three-quarters arm slot that affects the accuracy of his throws. He's played second base at times in the past, but that avenue to Cincinnati is blocked now that Brandon Phillips has signed a contract extension that keeps him in the Queen City through 2017.
At shortstop Hamilton will have to prove he's good enough to usurp rookie Zack Cozart as well as the Reds' current Double-A shortstop Didi Gregorius, who is better defensively and has also shown ability at the plate.
If Hamilton does switch positions, it would now most likely be to center field. As Hamilton has shown with his adventures running down balls in the outfield from his shortstop position, he doesn't have much problem tracking down a fly ball.
"He's so athletic you could put him in the outfield right now and not hesitate. He could play center field or left field," Benavides said.
Wherever he ends up playing in the big leagues, Hamilton will undoubtedly be stealing plenty of bases. Maybe one of the most surprising of all the Hamilton tall tales is this—he's not the fastest player in the game. In fact, he might not even be the fastest Reds player if you timed them in a 100-meter dash.
But he is the quickest player in the game, and it's his ability to reach full speed in an instant that makes him such a threat on the bases.
Hamilton can get a big lead with the confidence that he has the reaction time and quickness to make it back on a pickoff throw. And when the pitcher does go home, it's going to take the pitcher and catcher working together to have any chance of nabbing him.
"He's at full speed in the first two steps," said Benavides, adding that even the quickest deliveries to the plate aren't fast enough to nab Hamilton. "I see pitchers with 1.1 (seconds) slide steps and it doesn't stop him. He's fearless. He gets a big lead against a guy with a 1.0 to 1.1 slide step and he's gone. And the catcher still needs a perfect throw to get him."
Usually it all ends with Hamilton calling time to dust himself off at second or third base. But despite getting his jersey dirty night after night, Hamilton has managed to avoid the nagging injuries that often plague basestealers.
He played in every one of Bakersfield's first 26 games this season. He then missed three games to travel home for a funeral, but has played in all seven games since he's returned. Over the previous two years he played in 204 of 215 possible games. His time off has consisted of regularly scheduled days off and an additional bereavement leave in 2011.
"Back home, I grew up in a rough neighborhood where we were always getting banged up. I told the coaches, 'If I'm not dying don't take me out. I can take the bruises,' " Hamilton said.