PHILADELPHIA — At 1:37 p.m. Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, veteran left-hander Cliff Lee unleashed the first pitch of a cool afternoon, the crowd still settling in. Billy Hamilton, the thin-as-a-blade-of-grass leadoff man for the Cincinnati Reds, took it for a ball. Then Lee fired his next pitch. And Hamilton, momentarily, took over the proceedings.
“I don’t think there’s anybody else like him in the game,” Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty said.
In the next 10 minutes, Hamilton laid down a bunt for a hit, distracted Lee — the Philadelphia Phillies’ starter — enough that he issued a four-pitch walk to the next batter, stole third, induced a throw home when the Phillies had another runner caught in a rundown and scored the Reds’ first run. By the end of the day, he had singled again, thrown out a runner at third and made a sliding catch in front of him in what became an 8-3 Cincinnati loss.
When the Reds arrive in Washington on Monday for the first of three games against the Nationals, Hamilton will carry a suspect .293 on-base percentage. But he will man center field and hit first, a 6-foot, 160-pound whisk ready to scramble any game.
“I’m just trying to learn something every day,” Hamilton said. “That’s been the best part about this: learning.”
At 23 and in his first full major league season, Hamilton is helping re-teach all of baseball about the potential value of speed. With strikeouts increasing annually — 2013 was the sixth straight year of a new record in that category — there are fewer and fewer instances when the ball is actually put in play. That makes what Hamilton offers more exciting by comparison. Take your eyes off him, and he’s already at second.
“Speed is something that you don’t see much in the game anymore,” Jocketty said.
Indeed, Hamilton enters the majors long past the stolen base’s glory years. Forget the turn of the 20th century, back when runners stole with abandon. Thirteen of the 20 seasons on record in which one player stole 100 bases came before 1900. Baseball experienced a speed revival in the 1980s. Of the 25 most productive seasons for base stealers since World War I, 19 came between 1979 and 1988, when Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman and Tim Raines helped make steals sexy.
But when power took over the game in the mid- to late-1990s, base runners put on the brakes. The number-crunching members of the Society for American Baseball Research community could show that a team was hurt much more by a runner caught stealing than it was helped by a successful steal. Base stealers must swipe the bag safely on 70 to 75 percent of their attempts or they’ll hurt their team over time. So why run? In a 14-year span ending in 1988, 31 players stole at least 70 bases in a single season. From 2000 to 2013 — another 14-year span, when statistical analysis became commonplace — only three players did.
“It’s such an exciting part of the game,” said New York Mets outfielder Eric Young Jr., who led the National League last year with 46 steals and is on pace for more this year. And yet for more than a decade, it was dismissed.
“I think a stolen base is valuable if you can increase your odds of being successful,” said Brad Ausmus, a former catcher in his first year managing the Detroit Tigers. “You can’t try to steal bases just to steal bases. We’re trying to play the odds.”
The odds increase when one of a handful of players — Hamilton, Young, Dee Gordon of the Dodgers and the Tigers’ Rajai Davis among them — are the players on the base paths. Those players all have the “green light” to steal when they see fit, an enormous responsibility given the rally-killing nature of a failed attempt.
“You kind of figure out it isn’t just running,” Young said. “You got to study [in order] to know when to go, what you’re looking for, what the pitcher’s trying to do.”
This all plays in to what Hamilton is dealing with during his first two months as an everyday big leaguer. Growing up in Taylorsville, Miss., his speed was such that he received a scholarship offer to be a wide receiver at Mississippi State. But the Reds thought enough of him as a shortstop on Taylorsville’s baseball team that they took him in the second round of the 2009 draft. That summer, in rookie ball, he stole 14 bases and was caught three times. The Reds made him a switch hitter so he could use his speed from the left side, a step closer to first base.
The legends grew from there: The time Hamilton tagged up and scored on a popup to second (which he repeated last month in the majors). The time at spring training he was playing shortstop and the left fielder lost a flyball in the sun, so Hamilton sprinted out and made the catch himself. In 2010, he stole 103 bases and was caught just 20 times for Class A Dayton. The following summer, split between high Class A Bakersfield and Class AA Pensacola, he stole 155 bags, a professional record.
“We had an opportunity to draft and develop a guy that could add an element to the game that we hadn’t seen in Cincinnati — or anywhere — for a while,” Jocketty said. “He had the talent. He has tremendous instincts as a base stealer. With his base running we felt that he could be a difference maker.”
It’s clear, too, that he makes a difference the moment he steps in the batter’s box. For the first two games of this series, the Phillies contained him, allowing him to reach base just once in eight plate appearances. Yet each Hamilton at-bat is greeted by a jumble of hand gestures and signals among the opposing infielders.
“You can go from series to series and see a completely different alignment, different responsibilities,” Reds Manager Bryan Price said. “How are you going to address it if it’s a bunt to the first base side? As soon as the first baseman goes, you don’t have anybody at first base unless your second baseman is in a huge cheat position [shading toward first] — and that creates a huge hole up the middle.
“It wreaks havoc in a way only speed does.”
Such was the situation in that first at-bat Sunday. Hamilton’s bunt was perfect, pushed past Lee, who charged off the mound. Second baseman Chase Utley tried to field it with his bare hand but had no chance; Hamilton was already at first. From there, his deeper impact became apparent.
Said Price: “It’s not just because of the stolen base but the times to the plate of the pitchers; the lack sometimes of pitch quality by the pitchers because they’re so concerned with his speed or rushing themselves to the plate; throws to first base, which is a huge distraction.”
With that, Lee — a four-time all-star and former Cy Young winner — threw four straight balls to second-place hitter Chris Heisey. On the first pitch to Brandon Phillips, Hamilton stole third. Lee then had Heisey picked off first, but the Phillies who conducted the run-down — first baseman Ryan Howard and shortstop Jimmy Rollins — were so aware of Hamilton’s presence at third, they nearly froze. Hamilton eventually bluffed for the plate, and Howard threw home. But Hamilton slid safely back into third. Heisey cruised into second, credited with a stolen base that was completely because of Hamilton.
“He just changes the game,” Phillies catcher Wil Nieves said. “Pitchers try to hurry up. They start making bad pitches to hitters. . . . And when a guy like that steals, as a catcher, you try to rush more instead of just trying to make a good throw.”
On Sunday, this all went for naught, and the Reds will come to Washington losers of three of their past four. But for all the evidence that stolen bases aren’t an essential part of winning — that, indeed, they might not be worth the risk — there appears to be a direct link between Hamilton’s success and the Reds’ success. In Cincinnati’s wins, Hamilton is hitting .396 and reaching base at a .439 clip. In losses, those numbers plummet to .153 and .184, respectively. Since starting the season 2 for 22, he is hitting .292.
“The first two weeks I struggled big time,” Hamilton said. “I put too much pressure on myself. I just had to relax and keep calm. Now I’m starting to get a little bit, get back to the place I need to be.”
It is a place occupied by few others in all of baseball.
Billy Hamilton’s batting average this season: