Dayton's Billy Hamilton Sets Sights On 100 Steals

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Billy Hamilton is in a race to 100 stolen bases. And if the Reds shortstop prospect has proven anything this year, it's that one should never bet against him in a race.

The fastest man in the minors is looking to become the first minor leaguer in a decade to top 100 steals in a season. As little as 10 days ago, it seemed like the 20-year-old Hamilton would fall short of his goal. He sat at 80 steals with 20 games to go. For anyone, 20 steals in 20 games seemed somewhat preposterous.

That was 10 days ago. In the eight games since, he's stolen 12 bags in 13 attempts. He now needs eight steals in the Dragons' final 12 games to hit the century mark.

The last four games illustrate why Hamilton's likely to reach the mark. On Sunday he singled to start the game, stole second on the first pitch he saw and stole third on the next pitch. He did the same thing again on Monday night. On Tuesday, he singled, stole second on the next pitch and did the same thing on Wednesday. Four games, and in every situation, he was in scoring position before the starting pitcher had loosened up.

"He's got a great feel for basestealing," Reds field coordinator Freddie Benavides said. "And he's fearless. (Manager) Delino (DeShields) has been helping him with it. He has some huge leads. He's a basestealer. Everyone knows he's going and he still gets there."

Slide steps, pick-off throws and pitchouts haven't really been able to slow down Hamilton.

"They pitch out all the time. I've seen three or four pitchouts and he's beaten all of them. He's very fast. He gets to full speed in two steps," Benavides said.

Dayton radio announcer Tom Nichols estimates that nearly one-third of Hamilton's steals have come on pitchouts. That may sound outlandish, but Pioneer League managers reported a similar phenomenon last year.

Even with teams aware he's going to steal almost every time he reaches first base, Hamilton is still stealing at an 83 percent success rate (92 of 111). He reads pitchers pretty well, but his speed (he's been timed at 3.6 seconds to first on a bunt from the left side) and aggressive leads explain his success.

The last minor leaguer to collect 100 steals in a season was another Midwest League player. Peoria's Chris Morris stole 111 bases in 135 attempts in 2001.

While Hamilton's quest for 100 steals is drawing attention, Benavides said he's been more impressed by Hamilton's improvements at the plate and in the field. After committing 26 errors in the first three months of the season, Hamilton has committed 11 miscues in the past two months. He's still learning at times to hold on to the ball after ranging far to his right, but he is getting more consistent at throwing without the tailing action that makes life difficult on first baseman.

Hamilton's arm slot is lower than scouts would like to see at shortstop, but he adds to his trouble by sometimes failing to get the ball properly set in his hand before he throws.

"It's a matter of getting his fingers on top of the ball, especially with the routine balls," Benavides said.

At the plate, Hamilton hit just .233/.292/.329 in the first half of the season. But he's made significant strides in his third and fourth trips around the league. In the second half he's hitting .307/.376/.365.

The rail-thin Hamilton is never likely to hit for power, but he has shown a better ability to make contact (he cut his strikeout rate from 28 percent of at-bats in the first half to 19 percent in the second half) and drawn more walks, which is what the Reds wanted to see in a player who projects as a leadoff man if the bat develops further.

"The kid makes adjustments. We're happy with his progression," Benavides said. "The bunting he's picked up in the second half of the season has helped him."