(Frank Victores/USA Today Sports)
*This column was originally published in The Inkwell, and on its website.
Speed kills, and in baseball speed is loved, coveted, and has also been dead in recent years, but may have its savior in a skinny speedster named Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds. Hamilton, 23, is being handed over the reigns to the leadoff spot and centerfield for the Reds after Shin-Soo Choo departed to the Texas Rangers with $130 million in his pocket.
One aspect of Hamilton’s game that is a guarantee in production is his knack for stealing bases. After being called up to the big leagues in September as a spark plug off the bench to help lead the Reds to the playoffs, Hamilton stole 13 bases while only being caught once. Oh, and just in 13 games. Most of his appearances came late in the game off the bench as a pinch-runner. He only received 22 plate appearances, hitting .368 in limited action.
Hamilton sparked the interest of the baseball world after playing the role of the Road Runner in the Looney Tunes while playing in the minors. In 2012, Hamilton broke the minor league record for stolen bases by swiping 155 bags. The years before he recorded 103 stolen bases, and backed-up his record year with 75 bags last season. Over the course of his time in the minors since 2009, Hamilton stole 395 bases, and was caught just 84 times.
As a sensational athlete, Hamilton turned down a football scholarship from Mississippi State as a receiver and punt returner to sign with the Reds after being drafted in the second round of the MLB draft. Hamilton was also drafted as a shortstop out of high school, and spent four years at the position in the minors. To utilize his speed and athleticism, the Reds have converted Hamilton to center field and expect him to roam the outfield for years to come.
What we know about Hamilton is that he can run. The numbers speak for themselves and the league knows it. What we don’t know and what Hamilton must answer is if he’s a one-trick pony or not.
How effective is blazing speed without getting on base? About as effective as throwing 100 miles per hour with a blindfold on. The Reds hope that Hamilton’s days of a pinch-runner are behind him. Currently Hamilton is working with past hyped prospect, Eric Davis, who was compared to Willie Mays with his speed, athleticism and freakish bat speed.
Hamilton, a switch-hitter, has seen his offensive production fluctuate throughout his career. Since 2010, his OPS has dipped from .893 to just .651 last season. In that same time, his second season in the minors, his batting average has gone from .318 to .278 to .311 to just .256 last year.
In Cincinnati, Hamilton unfortunately doesn’t have the luxury of struggling with the bat and keeping his spot as a rookie. This isn’t the Miami Marlins or Houston Astros, but a team who fired their head coach after making the playoffs in four out of the last five seasons.
To make the Reds look smart and prove that he’s not just a track star with a bat in his hands, Hamilton can’t just bunt to .300 average either. If he hits .265, he can bunt up to a .275 or higher average, but if he hits .220, it won’t do too much good. An ideal model for Hamilton should be the Yankees’ Brett Gardner who just landed a four-year, $52 million deal to stay in New York.
Gardner hit .273/.344/.416 with eight home runs, 10 triples, 33 doubles and 24 stolen bases in 145 games played. His career-high in stolen bases is 49 in 2011.
When the Bronx Bombers are paying that much money for a player that hasn’t made one All-Star team in his career and eight home runs is his career high, it’s clear speed is coming back to the game. New York also gave Jacoby Ellsbury – who led baseball with 52 steals last season – a seven-year, $153 million contract.
Since Vince Coleman stole 109 bases in 1987, no other player has swiped 100 or more bags. In the new millennium, the highest single season stolen base total is Jose Reyes with 78. The Reds don’t need Hamilton to be Rickey Henderson as a rookie, but if he can hit at least .260, draw walks and have a solid on-base percentage, his speed will do the rest.
The “Steroid Era” is over in baseball, and while power is still adored, speed is finding its way back. When watching the Reds this season, don’t blink an eye, because Hamilton may be stealing the show as the head of a speed resurrection in baseball.