“Speed kills.” Throughout the 1980’s, that was the widespread belief amongst baseball teams, as the game’s greatest leadoff hitter, Rickey Henderson, was piecing together his Hall of Fame career by being the game’s greatest threat on the basepaths. It wasn’t so much that he was fast. It was that he was able to take walks and singles and turn them into doubles or even triples with the stolen base, bringing with him a productivity level that hasn’t been seen in the history of Major League Baseball. Henderson’s particular skill set was his and his alone, but he was joined by the likes of Tim Raines and Vince Coleman as the terrorizers of the basepaths, turning the speed on and not letting teams breathe easily when they were standing on first base.
But once the power game took over in the late 1980’s and went through the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, speed became an alsoran. It wasn’t valued as much as people who could put home runs into the bleachers, and the base stealer became a thing of the past. In the present day, there has been more acceptance of base stealing, but only amongst the elite, as players like Jose Reyes (who famously went to Henderson for coaching on his base stealing), Jacoby Ellsbury and Michael Bourn have become some of the few that can terrorize the basepaths in an efficent manner that helps their teams.
With all that said, there’s a chance that the best base stealer in baseball does not reside in the Major Leagues, but instead plays for the Bakersfield Blaze of the California League. 21-year-old shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton, who is either the #1 or #2 prospect in the Cincinnati Reds system depending on the publication you like most, has become the most exciting player to watch in the minors, and it’s because of baserunning abilities that are unmatched thanks to his 80-grade speed and instincts.
In 2011, Hamilton had a rather pedestrian line of .278/.340/.360, and coming into this season, had a walk rate of only 8.3% in his career with a strikeout rate north of 22%. But then, you take a look at the stolen base category and it jumps out at you like bold print: 103 stolen bases in 123 attempts. 84% success rate. It’s not just that he is blindingly fast. It’s that he has become a master of the stolen base. And this year in Bakersfield, where he could put together an incredible stat line thanks to it being a fantastic offensive environment, he’s off to a great start going 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts.
There are plenty of players who make it as fourth outfielders or utility infielders because of their speed and their ability to steal bases (a list too long for any website), and while Hamilton is still a bit raw, he’s on the cusp of putting it all together to become a superstar-caliber leadoff man. A spindly 6’1″ and 165 pounds, Hamilton has room to put on some extra weight without losing his speed, and with that could come the gap power that could see him stretch doubles into triples as opposed to the singles he stretched into doubles in 2011, where most of his 30 extra-base hits came from. That he now plays in the California League can only help his power output, and a good showing in the Central Valley will only help his prospect status more now that Devin Mesoraco has graduated to the Major Leagues. He’s also decent with the glove, although there have been some talks about him moving to center field to better use his speed.
If Hamilton can cut down on his strikeouts and up his walk rate a tick while also growing into some power, 2012 might be the breakout season that could propel him to the top parts of prospect lists everywhere for 2013. The Reds have been looking for their leadoff man for Joey Votto and company for quite some time, and once Hamilton steps into a Major League batters box for the first time, you can bet that the people hitting behind him will be chomping at the bit to drive him in. If you live near a California League team, take the time to watch Hamilton in action. You’ll never be more excited to see someone draw a walk.