Photo by Pat Pfister

May 22, 2013

Making a run for it

Bats’ Billy Hamilton brings base stealing back to baseball

Each new season, Billy Hamilton faces a brand new challenge. But it always boils down to one thing for the Louisville Bats young base-stealing star: If he gets on, he’s gone.

Two years ago at Class A Dayton, Hamilton was stealing so many bases that observers projected it might just be possible for Hamilton to steal 100 bases for the season — something that hadn’t been done at any level of baseball, majors or minors, in years.

And he did it — stole 103 bases.

Then in 2012, starting the season at Class A Bakersfield, Calif., and ending at AA Pensacola, Fla., Hamilton really went wild, stealing 155 bases, to set an all-time professional baseball record, breaking the old mark of 145 established by Vince Coleman 29 years before. That’s the same Vince Coleman who next stole 101 bases at Louisville in 1984, and helped the Redbirds draw a million fans. A year after that Coleman was in the majors with St. Louis, where he stole over 100 bases three times — and is the last man to do it.

Now along comes 22-year-old Hamilton, climbing the ladder in the Cincinnati Reds farm system, with his sights set on stealing his way to major league stardom. And that makes Hamilton a throwback, reminding many of a time when swifties like Coleman, Maury Wills, Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock dominated the game with blazing base path speed. A throwback because in the years since, baseball has turned to the long ball, with base stealing left as an occasional situational tactic.

But Hamilton has the potential to change that. With super speed, and the mindset that he can steal any base at any time, Hamilton says he’s aiming to bring base stealing back to baseball.

Which is not just a snap.

At each level, Hamilton has faced better pitching, more polished pickoff moves, catchers with stronger arms, and infielders who know sneaky little tricks that can leave an inexperienced phenom hung out to dry. Plus, when you get to a AAA club like Louisville, just 100 miles and one phone call away from The Show, there are a lot more eyes watching what you’re doing. Wily managers and sharp scouts poring over hours of video, charting every move a base stealer makes.

“Everybody’s working against me,” says Hamilton with a smile.

But who cares?

“I feel like I can’t be thrown out,” says the native of Taylorsville, Miss. “That’s the confidence I have. That’s the confidence I’ve always had. Even if I get thrown out, I say I’m going to get the next one.”

And he probably will, if there’s a next one to get.

That’s the thing about stealing bases: Plenty of guys have come along with speed, some with real speed, but only a very few with the brazen courage to take off for the next base when everyone on the other team is dedicated to stopping them. Plus first, they have to get on base. As the old saying goes, you can’t steal first.

Which was just the predicament Hamilton found himself in two weeks ago. While Louisville celebrated the Kentucky Derby, the Louisville Bats had been playing on the road, and Hamilton wasn’t hitting. His batting average, in fact, had dipped to .198 the day before the Bats returned to Slugger Field.

But sitting across the table from an interviewer two hours before game time, Hamilton exuded the confidence top athletes display when mired in a slump.

“The past couple of weeks I’ve been hitting the ball hard, but it’s been right at people — can’t get no breaks,” Hamilton lamented. “But I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing. It’ll start falling soon.”

And right away the hits did begin falling — beginning with a leadoff home run that fell in over the right field fence. A few innings later, Hamilton socked another home run — even though he’s really a singles hitter. With the Bats again returning to town Thursday to begin an eight-game home stand against Pawtucket and Columbus, Hamilton is up to .222, with an International League-leading 22 steals.

Still far to go, but Hamilton is aided by the hitters following him in the Louisville lineup. Henry Rodriguez, a professional hitter, hits second, with top Reds prospect Neftali Soto batting third. Then comes either Felix Perez, who is hitting .308, or slugger Mike Hessman.

Bats manager Jim Riggleman, who has managed in the majors with San Diego and Washington, and was on the St. Louis coaching staff when Coleman and Willie McGee burned up the National League, doesn’t simply send Hamilton up to bat and wait to see what will happen. He’ll play hit-and-run with Hamilton and Rodriguez, and if both reach, send the pair on a double steal. The other day Hamilton reached and Riggleman called upon Rodriquez to bunt, and both reached — with the opponents’ defense set up to counter Hamilton’s speed. A club that resided in last place a year ago now seems to be learning the “small ball” that helps teams win close games.

Meanwhile, Hamilton is making the switch from shortstop to center field, and he’s getting help on that from Reds roving instructor Eric Davis, the star centerfield of Cincinnati’s 1990 World Series champions.

“When I first heard about playing outfield, Eric called me right away,” Hamilton recalls. “He said, ‘I did this. I went from being a shortstop to being an outfielder. And my job this summer is to get you to be a good outfielder.’

“So,” says Hamilton, “when I went to the Arizona Fall League, he met me there. We did a bunch of drills, worked out. Played outfield in games. Then when spring training came around, he was there teaching me stuff. Most of the stuff I know about outfield, it’s been coming from him.”

It was also the Reds idea to make Hamilton into a switch hitter.

“I was in the cage one day in Arizona, just messing around taking some swings left-handed (he’s a natural righty),” Hamilton says. “One of the coaches saw me on camera. I didn’t even know they had cameras. He asked me about switch-hitting, and I said I was just messing around. I guess he told the manager, and the next day they came around and said, ‘Well, that’s a good idea. We want you to start switch-hitting.’ The next morning they had me out there at 5 in the morning, and I was like, whew-whee, 5 in the morning!”

In response to requests for interviews and the pressure of living up to rave notices — even when his average dipped under .200 — Hamilton has responded well.

“With Billy, you never know how he’s doing,” Riggleman says. “He comes in here every day with a smile on his face. He’s got a bounce in his step, handling it all great.”

And always ready to steal.

Back in the days when I was coaching with St. Louis, Vince Coleman was stealing 100 bases and Willie McGee was stealing 50 or 60,” Riggleman says. “But people would tell me Willie was faster in a footrace. I don’t know that for a fact. But base-stealing has a lot to do with mentality, the eagerness to steal a base.”

And Hamilton has it.

“I’m on base,” says Hamilton, explaining his routine. “I’m looking at the third base coach, which is Jim Riggleman. He gives me the sign. He knows when there’s going to be a pitchout. But most of the time he gives me the green light. My main thing is to get to second base somehow. On every pitch. However I can.

“I pick a pitch. Have it in my mind that I’m going on this pitch. Or that pitch. But I’m always ready to go.

“Sometimes I’m standing, sometimes I’m down as I take my lead, so they can’t take a read on me,” Hamilton says. “But nowadays, and from now on, it doesn’t really matter. When (the pitcher) brings his hands down, he knows I’m going.”

But with all those guys “working against you,” does Hamilton believe he can always win the stealing game?

“Of course I can.” 

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