Reds basestealer Billy Hamilton could be a difference maker in October

Wednesday September 25th, 2013

Billy Hamilton has already stolen 13 bases without being caught in just 11 games since being called up.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The stolen base is an audacious thing. Baseball claims any number of wink-and-nod transgressions: Stealing signs, corking bats, scuffing balls. None is as brazen as taking bases without permission. It's OK to steal. It's within the agreed-upon rules.

Billy Hamilton is currently the best base stealer in the game. Since his promotion from Triple-A on Sept. 3, he has stolen 13 bases in 13 tries, entering play on Wednesday. This isn't petty thievery. In the brilliance and so-far flawlessness of its execution, it's closer to the heist in Oceans 11.

"You have to make a perfect throw to get him,'' said catcher Devin Mesoraco, Hamilton's teammate on the Cincinnati Reds. "And even then, it's not certain.''

Hamilton is an unlikely looking king. He is 6 feet tall and listed generously at 152 pounds. He fills out his uniform like half a bag of onions. If not for the wisp of beard he's attempting, the 23-year-old would look like a high school hopeful at an all-comers tryout day.

"Look at his body,'' said a bemused Reds pitcher, Bronson Arroyo. "He looks like a greyhound. All legs. He looks like he's not even there.''

What an apt description for a player who runs like a missile in the fog. Like he's not even there. Can a 23-year-old kid who weighs less than a swing weight -- who had all of 14 big league at-bats as of Tuesday -- profoundly influence a baseball game in October? We're about to find out.

Reds manager Dusty Baker has witnessed prime speed over his four decades in the game. As a kid growing up in southern California, he watched Maury Wills at Dodger Stadium in 1962, when Wills stole a remarkable 104 bases and, just as remarkably, was caught only 13 times. Baker managed Deion Sanders, whom he still calls "the fastest human being I've ever seen. He'd run a triple, his feet wouldn't touch the ground.''

Baker isn't ready to put Hamilton in that class. Watching him for three weeks in September produces only knee-jerk and flawed evaluation. What Baker will say is he's impressed with Hamilton's desire to study pitchers' moves, and his ability to apply that knowledge on the bases.

"He wasn't ready to be here last year. He'd just take a big lead and run,'' Baker said.

Hamilton's larceny is easily explained. As with lots of truth in baseball, it comes down to numbers. It takes a major league pitcher, on average, 1.3 seconds to deliver a pitch. It takes a major league catcher, on average, 1.8 seconds to throw to second base. It takes Billy Hamilton, on average, 3.1 seconds to get from his lead off first base to touching second base. Do the math.

Tie goes to the runner, right?

Baseball America provided an instructive look at the difficulty in catching Hamilton stealing. The report explained in detail each of Hamilton's four thefts at Houston on Sept. 18. The accompanying video was revealing, especially on the fourth steal.

The Astros pitched out. Reliever Jorge DeLeon delivered to the plate in 1.3 seconds. Catcher Matt Pagnozzi was in perfect throwing position. His "pop'' time was 1.8 seconds. His throw was where it needed to be, low and on the first base side of the bag, right where Hamilton was sliding. Hamilton's travel time was 3.1 seconds.

Everything was in place for Pagnozzi to nail Hamilton, and it still wasn't enough. If pitcher and catcher do everything right, they can catch Hamilton. It happened about 18 percent of the time in Hamilton's five minor-league seasons. In his three-week major-league apprenticeship, it hasn't happened yet.

Hamilton stole 103 bases in 2011, in Class A. Last year, he set a minor-league record with 155 steals in 132 games, for two teams. He has 75 steals this year in Triple-A.

Hamilton's talent for disruption can't be overstated. October is a nervous time in baseball, even without a baserunner who looks like he's not even there.

"It definitely gets into a pitcher's head,'' Mesoraco said. "They're having to throw over (to first base) three, four times. They're having to pitch out. It affects the way they go about trying to get the hitter out.'' Mesoraco suggested that Hamilton's presence on first base in the late-innings of a close game would impact the pitches called.

"More fastballs, away,'' he explained. The pitch gets to the plate quicker. Its location helps the catcher's throwing position.

Said Arroyo, "I wouldn't throw a fastball when I want to throw a curveball, just because he's on first.'' Arroyo noted the bigger concern: Pickoff attempts.

"I'd give him my quickest move every time. It tires you out, throwing over five or six times in a row, especially if you put some zip on it. It's also going to affect your command. You're going to rush a bit to the plate. You have to. Every pitch you throw is probably a little less likely to be where you want it.''

Hamilton isn't as wowed with himself as everyone else seems to be. He didn't run high school track in Mississippi. It interfered with baseball. Hamilton says he has never been timed over 40 yards or 100 meters. "Times don't mean nothin' on a baseball field,'' he explained.

He owns a certain and necessary arrogance when it comes to running the bases. "It's confidence. You have to have confidence," he said. "A young player like me, going up against big-league catchers, I wouldn't be successful if I was nervous or scared. I can steal a base off anybody.''

He isn't blind to the commotion his presence creates, on both sides of the diamond. When Hamilton enters a game, his teammates reflexively rise to lean on the dugout rail. Opposing pitching coaches make a trip to the mound, joined by every infielder. Pitchers and catchers twitch involuntarily. "I don't jump around or anything'' on the bases, Hamilton said. "But when I come in a game you can tell that something's going on.''

Hamilton credits Delino DeShields for polishing his winged feet. DeShields stole 463 bases in a 13-year major league career. He was Hamilton's manager at two stops in the Reds minor league system. He shed lots of light on the subtleties of a pitcher's moves and movements, and the nuances needed to steal bases. It's not all speed, even for Hamilton.

Hamilton also is new enough to the big leagues to be awed by the technology available to him. "The video stuff they have here is great," he said. "Split screen, home (plate) and first (base). I'm here every day, learning and watching. It's not just plain speed. You have to learn the game."

October is the province of pitching dominance and one-run ballgames. When you have a player who can turn a drag bunt into a leadoff triple (single, steal, steal) that could offer a bit of an edge. The Reds have not yet decided if Hamilton will be on their postseason roster. It seems foregone that he will be included, even if all he does is pinch run. Hamilton's legs are that special.

"He changes walks or singles to doubles, probably three out of every four times,'' Arroyo said. "I've watched him pretty closely He's at top speed so quickly. He has a good jump maybe half the time. He doesn't always get a great lead. It seems like he's outrunning the ball half the time.''

Like he's not even there. October awaits for baseball's newest flash. Catch him if you can.

Paul Daugherty is a columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer.

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