Editor's note: This story previously had the wrong photo. It's been corrected, and we apologize for the error.
The biggest story in baseball this summer may be minor league base-stealing sensation Billy Hamilton, a 21-year-old Cincinnati Reds prospect who has stolen 105 bases in 89 games. That’s right, 105 steals – and we’re still in July. Hamilton is on a blistering pace that projects to more than 160 stolen bases this season. That would break the all-time professional baseball mark of 145 steals set by Vince Coleman in 1983 at Class A Macon, Ga.
Hamilton was recently promoted from Bakersfield (the Reds Class A team in the California League) to Pensacola (AA Southern League) and will likely remain with that club until the end of the minor league season on Labor Day. Sources say it is unlikely he will be jumped again this year to the Louisville Bats (AAA) – a club that could certainly use his help. (Wait until next year!)
But Hamilton could vault all the way to Cincinnati in September, when major league clubs are permitted to call up a few prospects for a look at what big league ball is all about.
And it might be more than a look-see for Hamilton and Cincinnati. The Reds just regained first place in the National League Central – a game ahead of Pittsburgh, and 4 ½ on top of the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Hamilton, a shortstop hitting above .300 for the first time since signed by the Reds in 2009, is, of course, seasons away from being able to handle major league pitching. But his feet are fast enough. The 6-1, 160 lbs. speedster could be a factor in a game if he were, say, inserted as a pinch-running base stealer in the late innings of a tight game.
That’s an idea Reds fans have kicked around since Hamilton stole 103 bases last season at Dayton (A) Now others have begun to notice.
“I’m sure (Cincinnati manager) Dusty Baker is giving very serious thought to adding Hamilton to his roster in September,” says Sports Illustrated sportswriter/broadcaster Tom Verducci. “He could be a very potent bench weapon.”
A sharp contrast to the Reds’ slow boats to Covington
And if you’re thinking Hamilton might not have enough experience for crafty big-league relievers and catchers, he probably doesn’t. But he couldn’t do much worse than the current Reds cast, which is last in the National League in base stealing. If there were a statistic for it, the Reds would also be first in bonehead base running. The young Reds have some speed, but far too often seem to run themselves into trouble. Jay Bruce, for one, has accumulated several especially embarrassing moments on the base paths, and cost the Reds at least a couple games this season -- getting doubled off second, stopping a base too soon, etc.
None of that for Hamilton, a former high school football star, who turned down college scholarship offers as a wide receiver to play professional baseball.
Most teams today go in for “situational” stealing. They’re cautious, looking for the right spot to run. But not Billy Hamilton. He’s gets on, he’s going.
“I feel like I’m bringing back stolen bases,” Hamilton told Seattle Times writer Larry Stone, who took in Hamilton’s act at the recent Futures Game in Kansas City, part of the All-Star Game festivities.
“Last year, (going for his 100th steal) was kind of intense because it was at the end of the season,” Hamilton explained. “This year, it was more like, just another stolen base. I guess the excitement will come with 145. Or 146. I want to break it, not tie it.”
Hamilton notched no steals in the Future Stars game, but whacked a shot over the center fielder’s head and sped all the way to third for a triple.
The next batter, Stone reported, hit a come backer to the pitcher, who looked Hamilton back several times before rushing a throw to first, which was wild. Hamilton waltzed home.
“I could tell he was nervous,” Hamilton said. “He kept watching me. I’ve had a few times this year where the pitcher catches the ball, gives me one look, throws to first and I go. I feel I can put that pressure on pitchers now. It’s a good thing.”
A good thing in any league.
Hamilton notched just 14 steals in 42 games brief pro season in 2009, then 48 in 2010, before checking in with Dayton manager DeLino DeSheilds and Bakersfield skipper Ken Griffey. Both urged Hamilton to run on his own. Now at Pensacola, Hamilton has been joined by former Cincinnati star Eric Davis, a roving coach for the Reds who works with the system’s budding stars.