Hamilton learns on fly as career speeds toward bigs
After stealing 155 bases in '12, Reds prospect honing all aspects of his game
NEW YORK -- This has to be more than a matter of run, Billy, run. And nobody knows that better than Billy Hamilton.
Hamilton, by his public profile, is organized baseball's Usain Bolt. Hamilton left a mark of historical proportions on the game last year, stealing a record 155 bases. He is, without doubt, the fastest man now playing baseball.
Playing for the Cincinnati Reds organization, in a season split between high Class A and Double-A, Hamilton stole those 155 bases in 192 attempts over just 132 games.
But there was, of course, much more to it than that. Hamilton had a .311 batting average and a .410 on-base percentage last season. Listed as six feet tall and 160 pounds, this will have to be his game.
"You can steal bases, you can be fast, but people don't realize, I stole 155 bags last year, but they don't give me credit for getting on base to steal those 155 bags," Hamilton said. "Baseball is not just about speed. You've got to get on base."
Hamilton, ranked No. 8 among MLB.com's top prospects, was at Citi Field on Sunday as the starting center fielder and leadoff man for Team USA in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game. Getting on base has been a more difficult proposition for him while playing in Triple-A this summer. He is batting .243 with a .300 on-base-percentage.
In Sunday's game, Hamilton, a switch-hitter, lined to center and grounded to first. Future Game rules allow for one player to return to the game after being removed. Hamilton returned as a pinch-runner in the eighth and eventually scored on a double, helping the U.S. to a 4-2 victory.
"They told me, we want to see you run, that's what you're here for,'" Hamilton said. "It was good to run a little bit. I had a good at-bat the first time, but no good results.
"I felt good out there. You come from fields where you wonder how the ball is going to roll, you wonder how thick the grass is going to be. This, everything was right there and field was good, the fans were all good."
Hamilton is only 22. His vast potential remains intact. And his speed isn't slumping. Hamilton has stolen 52 bases in 63 attempts this season.
"I'm not happy with where my average is this year, but I think I'm making progress, adjusting to the Triple-A pitching," he said. "Guys are pitching different; guys are throwing 3-2 changeups and sliders, so you know you're moving up. I've adjusted to it, I think."
The running game is not all stolen bases and records and glory. Hamilton takes a pounding from the constant sliding. "My legs stay pretty bruised up all year," he says. "I have to wear so many sliding pads."
As proof, he has matching round sores above his knees. These sores used to be described as "strawberries," and there is some resemblance, but these sores are uglier than that.
"Eventually they wear down and bust open again," Hamilton says. "I bleed every game. It doesn't bother me, though."
What has changed for Hamilton is his position. With his athleticism he was a natural for shortstop. But with his speed, he can also be a terrific center fielder. This is his future with the Reds, perhaps in Cincinnati as soon as next year. Sunday he played Citi Field's spacious center field with apparent comfort.
"I felt so comfortable out there, man, I felt like I had been playing out there for a while," Hamilton said. "It was good.
"[The Reds] really wanted me to do that switch. A lot of people were asking me did I really want to do it. I was like, 'Whatever is best for me, whatever is best for the team, whatever will get me to the big leagues fastest.' I think I've handled it pretty well. I'm at the point now where I feel pretty comfortable in the outfield, so that's a good thing.
"Just knowing the hitters and judging the balls, different guys hitting, you've got power hitters, you've got small guys hitting, just knowing the hitters has been the big key. I think I've adjusted to it pretty good.
"I'm not going to say I don't miss the infield," Hamilton said with a smile. "I've been playing it all my life, so yeah, sometimes I miss it."
Hamilton seemed to stretch the boundaries of human possibilities with the 155 stolen bases. He understands how great that accomplishment was, but he also comprehends that it can't be the basis for future comparison.
"You go into the season not thinking about what happened last year," he said. "You can't go into the season thinking, 'All right, I've got to top 155 bases.' That's something you don't do. I just come into the season thinking about getting better, progressing, adjusting to the Triple-A level. "
In the Team USA clubhouse, Hamilton had a locker next to Delino DeShields Jr., a second baseman in the Astros' organization. DeShields' father, a former Major League player, now manages in the Reds' Minor League organization. Three years ago, the elder DeShields helped Hamilton, who was then in advanced rookie ball at Billings, Mont., to a breakthrough realization.
"Delino's dad, he's the one that really told me how fast I was," Hamilton said. "He was like, 'Do you really know how fast you are?' And I was like, 'No, not really.' It was a big key to my success."
At the Triple-A level, Hamilton correctly notes, stealing bases is more than a matter of raw speed. It is also a matter of knowing the pitchers, figuring out a good pitch to run on, generally understanding the context of the next stolen base.
"It's actually been fun," Hamilton says.
And you should get some fun out of it, especially if you're bleeding on a daily basis.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.