Week One Of The Billy Hamilton Phenomenon
Without so much as a single plate appearance or a play in the field, Cincinnati Reds rookie Billy Hamilton has made his mark on baseball in just his first full week in the show. Entering four games as a pinch runner in close and late situations, Hamilton stole four bases without being caught, scoring three times – one tying run and two game winners. According to Elias Sports Bureau this makes him the first player ever to steal a base in each of his first four games as a major leaguer.
Setting a record for steals with 155 in 132 games at high-A and AA last season led some to call Hamilton the fastest man in the history of the game, and his .410 OBP certainly tantalized. But he fell back to Earth in 2013, nabbing “only” 75 in 90 attempts and getting on base at a frankly dismal .308 clip at AAA Louisville.
For many prospects this could mean ending the season in AAA but this is possibly the most disruptive baserunner in the game. Though he’s likely to start next year in the minors, Hamilton got the call.
Entering his first game September 3 as a pinch runner for Ryan Ludwick, who had just singled to lead off the seventh inning of a 0-0 deadlock with the St. Louis Cardinals, Hamilton faced a battery that does not yield stolen bases easily. Pitcher Seth Maness had only given up a single steal in more than 50 innings. And the catcher, Yadier Molina, who has won the Gold Glove every year since 2008, is the major league active career leader in caught stealing percentage and the leader in defensive WAR among active catchers. Since he nailed more than 64% of base stealers in his first full year in 2005, the Cardinals have allowed fewer steals than any team in the majors.
And yet. After three straight pickoff attempts, Hamilton bolted for second on Maness’s first pitch and reached easily as Molina’s throw sailed wide. He would later score the only run of the game.
The next night, Hamilton again ran for Ludwick, this time in the bottom of a 14th inning in which the Cardinals had scored a go-ahead run. Again he stole second against Molina, who this time bounced his throw. And again he would score, this time the game tying run from second on Zack Cozart’s grounder through the box. In his next series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Hamilton would make two more appearances as a pinch runner, stealing second both times, and scoring the game winning run Saturday night on a walk-off single by Todd Frazier in the tenth inning.
True, the small sample size makes Hamilton’s 4 for 4 debut rather insignificant at this stage, no matter how exciting for Reds fans. But there’s no doubt that Hamilton’s very presence on the basepaths disrupts opposing defenses. He drew three throws to first base before his opponent even threw a pitch. He rushed Molina, the best defensive catcher in the game, into bad throws. Los Angeles catcher A.J. Ellis, who actually leads Molina and the league in caught stealing percentage this season, was so distracted he couldn’t transfer the ball to his throwing hand and failed to make a throw both times Hamilton stole against him. Even Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers’ rookie right fielder who is starting to make a reputation with his arm as well as his bat and shows no lack of confidence, rushed his throw from shallow right field as Hamilton rounded third on Saturday, drawing Ellis several feet away from the plate and allowing the run.
Ultimately, though, Hamilton is little more than a shiny piece in Dusty Baker’s chess set this year. The Reds manager, famously dubious of playing inexperienced talent, will use Hamilton only as he deems necessary. In fact on Sunday with the game tied, Baker twice declined to pinch run for Cozart, who led off the seventh with a single and reached with one out and bases empty in the ninth. Ryan Hanigan would double Cozart home, and the grandmaster would win another game without having to touch his new pawn.