As a Reds fan, the lure of speedy prospect Billy Hamilton is undeniable. As if one season leading the minors in stolen bases wasn’t enough, he’s keeping a record setting pace in A+ ball, enough to bring plenty of excitement to a league that’s known for inflating power numbers. And plenty of people are sitting up and taking notice, like Baseball Prospectus and Hardball Talk.
Hamilton’s speed is the kind of raw tool that Cincinnati fans haven’t seen in house in years. But almost anyone will admit that he’s anything but a done deal. He looks great now, and he certainly isn’t behind in his development, but A+ ball is a long way away from the majors. His offensive numbers weren’t that great in Dayton – and it’s hard to sort out the California league effect in this year’s stats from actual improvement. But even so, the improvement in walk rate is a good sign.
Certainly, a quick read of the comments in this minorleagueball thread will assure you that Billy Hamilton comes with a lot of questions, especially when it comes to his bat and his defensive position. It’s also true that stealing a lot of bases in the low minors, especially in this day and age, may mean a lot of different things – excellent speed, obviously, hopefully combined with good baserunning instincts and strategy, but maybe just a series of managers who are willing to give him his head, and Hamilton’s own inclination to try to steal everytime he gets on base. That’s still good – the minors are a place to get experience, and if Hamilton is trying to hone the craft of base-running, he should be trying to steal every chance he gets.
But still, it only takes a short look at the roll of “minor league stolen base leaders” to know that there are plenty of guys who have speed in spades and never make it to the minor leagues. Looking at those numbers is actually pretty depressing in the context of Billy Hamilton – hence the ‘excruciating’ in the title. There’s a plenty of promise, but, as with most prospects, a lot less results: remember Freddy Guzman? How about Chris Morris, Esix Snead, Marcus Lawton? Of course, it’s not all bad news: Rafael Furcal and Vince Coleman feature among best case scenarios.
It’s also interesting that looking through all these numbers also provides a bit of hope. Although these guys were all fast, many of them stole 100+ bases in the Midwest League, and many of them were near the top of the leaderboard for consecutive seasons – all of them fell back into the pack the next season. Billy is refusing to do that. He stole almost half again the number of bases as the second stolen base guy in the minors last year, and is well on his way to repeating - or exceeding – that feat.
Hamilton’s talent is irresistible. It gives me the shivers, thinking of that kind of speed on this ball club, and I can’t help but get caught up in the excitement, in the fantasy. (My imagination likes to insert Billy Hamilton as Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez in the final sequence of The Sandlot) Yet, underneath that, I can’t help but worry about where all that potential’s going to go.
For now, I should probably just enjoy the ride. Afterall, it’s a treat to have a prospect who is the very very best at something (See: Aroldis Chapman), no matter the caveats that may be attached.