|It's that damn Hamilton! He's so hot right now!|
The legend of Billy Hamilton is growing. He is off to an insane start this season, swiping bags at a record pace for the Bakersfield Blaze. Tales of his speed on the basepaths have been spoken about in hushed tones since the Reds drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2009 amateur draft. Hamilton was a three-sport star athlete in high school, playing baseball, basketball and football. He turned down a scholarship to play wide receiver at Mississippi State, deciding to give his attention to the better sport, with a little help from a $600K signing bonus. After getting his feet wet in the Gulf Coast League (low level rookie league) at age 18, he had a solid year in advanced rookie ball in Billings, Montana (.318/.383/.456 with 48 SB in 64 games). But it was last year that Hamilton really began to turn heads when he stole 103 bases in 135 games at low A Dayton.
I had the opportunity to see him play in Dayton last season, and seeing him beat out an infield single on a routine grounder was jaw-dropping. He has a second gear that has to be seen in person to truly appreciate. In the small sample size of the one game I saw him play in, his defense at shortstop looked a bit shaky, but many young shortstops go through a fair amount of growing pains. Hamilton's speed range and speed allow him to get to balls that most infielders could only dream of getting to, but he needs to make better decisions on throws. Billy Doran recounted a story of Hamilton's incredible range during a spring training game last year; “We were playing on this field the other day. The left fielder just lost a ball,” Doran said. “Billy took off. We were all like, ‘what’s he doing?’ He caught the ball over his shoulder, about 10 feet from warning track.” To clarify, he is describing a shortstop making a play 10 feet from the warning track in the outfield gap. That is the stuff of legend. His line in Dayton last year (.278/.340/.360) was dragged down a bit due to the fact that he was learning to switch hit. The Reds organization wanted to get Hamilton hitting from the left side, to shorten his time from the plate to first base.
Outside of Matt Kemp, few players are off to a better start in professional baseball this season than Billy the Quick. Hamilton has 31 steals in only 26 games right now. He is wreaking absolute havoc on the basepaths, and his exploits led the Bako Blaze to an 11-game winning streak. So far this season, Hamilton has more individual steals than half of the teams in MiLB have collectively. He is clearly getting into pitchers heads, as there have been three balks while he has been on the basepaths, and he has already advanced 7 bases due to wild pitches. In a game two weeks ago, Hamilton scored the winning run on a sacrifice fly that was caught by the second baseman. As Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus points out, so far this season when Hamilton has hit the ball to an infielder and the ball is fielded cleanly, he still reaches first base nearly 40 percent of the time.
Prospect guru Kevin Goldstein reported earlier this season that scouts have noticed a change in Hamilton's plate approach this season that is very conducive to a high batting average. Hamilton also seems to have a better idea of the strike zone this year, as his K-rate has gone down while his walk rate has increased. The California League, where Bakersfield plays, is notorious for inflating offensive production, and Hamilton's .382/.458/.559 (helped by a crazy .456 BABIP) line is clearly not sustainable, but the Cali league tends to increase power numbers, not contact/on-base numbers. If he keeps this up, Billy looks to see a call-up to AA Pensacola, sooner rather than later.
It is going to be interesting to see what direction the Reds organization takes regarding Hamilton. He is currently at number three on the organizational depth chart at short behind the Reds rookie SS Zack Cozart, and Didi Gregorius in AA (who turned heads in Spring Training this year). Hamilton has played some 2B in his professional career, but the Reds just locked Brandon Phillips down with a (probably foolish) long-term deal and have a legit 2B prospect in AA named Henry Rodriguez. Recently, there have been rumors of moving Hamilton to center field in the future, where the Reds could have a spot for him once he is ready for the Show. This is a bit of a risky proposition, as you would like to have a little more pop in the outfield than Billy is likely to develop. Another possibility is for the Reds to cash in on Hamilton when his stock is at it's highest. Considering the organizational depth the Reds have in regards to middle-infielders right now, Hamilton could be used to acquire a piece that could help the big club in the next few years (LF or 3B). Regardless of what the Reds ultimately decide to do with Hamilton, it'll be a hell of a lot of fun watching him play.