Billy Hamilton and Stealing 100 Bases

Because he is a man who hates joy, Walt Jocketty said yesterday that Billy Hamilton would “probably not” be called up to the majors in September, as the Reds put the finishing touches on a first-place campaign. (Hamilton has been assigned to the Peoria Javelinas of the Arizona Fall League.) But you never know — as Lloyd Christmas might say, there’s a chance — so I think it’s still worth writing about Sliding Billy, the man who could reach the century mark in steals for the first time in a quarter-century.

Hamilton has stolen 154 bases in 127 games in the minors this year, in High-A and Double-A, breaking Vince Coleman‘s minor league stolen base record. Hamilton also stole 103 in 135 games in Single-A last year. If Billy played 150 games in the majors, the odds are awfully good that he could steal 100 bases, which no one has done since Coleman in 1987. Hell, Mike Podhorzer estimated that he could steal 100 bases as a pinchrunner next year.

Only four men have stolen 100 bases ever, and you probably know their names. Eight 100-steal seasons occurred between the years 1962 and 1987, and none before or since. Maury Wills stole 104 bases in 1962, setting the all-time single-season record, breaking Ty Cobb‘s modern baseball record of 96 steals in 1915, which had stood for 47 years.* Lou Brock upped the ante in 1974, with 118, which is still the second-most of all time. Then, of course, six of the eight 100-steal seasons occurred between 1980 and 1987, with Rickey Henderson on the Billyball Athletics and Vince Coleman on the Whiteyball Cardinals.

* Ty Cobb didn’t hold the all-time record, exactly, and technically, nor does Henderson Brock. It would actually be Hugh Nicol, who is credited with 138 steals in 125 games for the 1887 Cincinnati Red Stockings of the American Association, the predecessor to the modern Reds, Billy Hamilton’s club. I wrote about those Red Stockings in my Opening Day column: they were banned from the National League because the Reds wanted to sell beer at the ballpark. They were finally readmitted to the NL in 1890. Anyway, a lot of people stole 100 bases in 1887, according to Retrosheet: in addition to Nicol, there was Arlie Latham, Jim Fogarty, Pete Browning, future Players’ League founder Monte Ward, and future White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey. Two other players stole 100 bases before 1900. One of them was Tom Brown. The other, of course, was the original Sliding Billy Hamilton, who did it four times — and that is also a record.

Baseball has changed a lot since the 1980s, of course. In stealing 100 bases, Maury Wills established the primacy of the steal by breaking a record that had lasted even longer than the home run record that Roger Maris smashed the year before. And the speedy shortstop got value from his legs during a decade when offense was down across the major leagues.

Despite the fact that his offensive stats appear slightly worse than Coleman’s — Coleman had a career .320 wOBA, 97 wRC+, and 28 career homers; Wills had a .308 wOBA, 95 wRC+, and 20 career homers — Wills had a much better career, about 30 wins better. That’s partly because of the positional adjustment: Wills was an average defensive shortstop and Coleman was a slightly below-average left fielder. But that’s also because the replacement adjustment since the offensive level in Coleman’s era was a fair bit higher than it was in Wills’ era. Wills played from 1959 to 1972, when the major league average was 4.04 runs a game; Coleman played from 1985 to 1997, when the major league average was 4.52 runs a game.

Indeed, Wills’ career would be a very good outcome for Hamilton. Wills was an average defensive shortstop who managed a 40-WAR career and firm enshrinement in the Hall of the Very Good; he’s also probably the greatest major leaguer to hail from Washington, DC. He didn’t really have any power and didn’t really walk. His only two really remarkable talents were his ability to make contact — he had a career 8.2 percent strikeout rate — and his basestealing ability. Wills’ contact rate is the main thing that separates him from Hamilton, who has struck out in more than 20 percent of his minor league plate appearances.

Coleman’s career is another possible outcome, Mike Newman wrote two weeks ago. Coleman managed around 13 WAR in parts of 13 seasons. The typical Coleman season was above replacement-level but below league-average; he was exciting to watch but no more than “a useful player,” as John Sickels writes, predicting that Coleman’s career is essentially Hamilton’s floor.

Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson are less likely outcomes, unless Hamilton flashes power at the major league level. Brock finished with 149 homers, and he is one of only four members of the 100-800 club of players with 100 homers and 800 steals: Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, and Ty Cobb. Brock had an ISO of .118, more than twice the .050 that Wills posted, and Henderson’s ISO was .140. Hamilton’s career minor league ISO is .101, and his ability to keep that up will be strongly related to his ability to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples at the major league level.

But Wills and Coleman demonstrate that Hamilton could have a long, successful career even if he does no such thing. One thing is for sure: he’s gonna be a whole lot of fun to watch.




Print This Post



Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


47 Responses to “Billy Hamilton and Stealing 100 Bases”

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
  1. Detroit Michael says:

    In your note about Hugh Nicol, you might want to edit the first sentence to refer to Henderson, not Brock. Henderson with 130 SBs in a season is widely regarded as the current recordholder.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Sorry, brain freeze on my part. Fixed.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • KentuckyPirate says:

      Correct me if I’m wrong but at the time Nicol set his record didn’t stolen bases get counted any time a player advanced a base?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Brian says:

        No – the got stolen bases in the usual way, and if they advanced more bases than the batter on a hit (e.g. going first to third on a single was a stolen base, on a double was not, but scoring from first on a double was a stolen base, etc.)

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Nathan Nathan says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m excited about Hamilton. I was thinking that Willie Randolph might make a good comp if Hamilton gets his contact rate up.

    y Cobb didn’t hold the all-time record, exactly, and technically, nor does Brock.

    Should this be Henderson instead of Brock? Also, I found the discussion in paragraphs 3 and 4 (4 being the italicized one) confusing as you refer to Wills’s record as “all time” and Cobb’s as “modern” but then go on to say that “all time” doesn’t really mean all time. I think the biggest source of my confusion is referring only Cobb’s record as “modern”. That and suggesting that Brock is either 1st or 2nd all time, when I think he’s actually third behind Nicol and Henderson.

    Anyway, that part threw me some..

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. tz says:

    Hamilton has made great strides in his plate discipline this year and is only 21. He could easily split the difference between Wills and Raines if he keeps progressing.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown says:

    Rickey Henderson is such a unique player. Combining that much speed with a good amount of power is rare. In any event, I will put money on it that Hamilton never steals 100 bases.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. jesse says:

    I found this interesting:

    ” and he [Brock] is one of only four members of the 100-800 club of players with 100 homers and 800 steals: Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, and Ty Cobb”

    They are also the Only four players since 1900 to steal 800.

    Since 1971, the only player to top 800 steals and not hit 100 homers: Billy Hamilton!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. mcbrown says:

    Not that it’s a big deal or anything, but Coleman’s career WAR is probably understated since it excludes baserunning value (other than SB/CS). It’s plausible that he added a few runs per year with his speed, and if we could properly measure that it might goose his career WAR total by a few wins, maybe 2-5 or so. But that is pure speculation.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Doug B says:

    Since you mention Hugh Nicol… didn’t stolen bases in the 1800’s include going first to third or second to home on a single?

    If so, stolen base totals of that time are interesting but not relevant to this discussion. Otherwise our Billy Hamilton might not be considered a whole lot faster than THEIR Billy Hamilton. (Sliding Billy Hamilton that is)

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • JimNYC says:

      Still confused by this every time I see an article on this new kid. I’m a big 19th century baseball fan, and so every time I see an article on the Reds’ prospect, it’s like seeing a player named Mark McGwire who’s known for his prodigous HR power as a shortstop prospect with the Padres.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Ricky says:

    The kid might steal 100, but he’ll never steal more than Ricky.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. EDogg1438 says:

    You have to discount Nicol’s steal totals because stolen bases were recorded differently back then. I believe any extra base you advanced on a hit was included in steal totals. It wasn’t until the late 180s that the modern steal rule was in place.

    Strangely, the first year of the modern steal rule the league was surprisingly led by power hitting Ed Delahanty.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Irrational Optimist says:

    In terms of Washington D.C. born greats, I think you are forgetting Pop Joy.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Dave Silverwood says:

    Not only not bringing him up,but do not be surprised if he is not part of a deal before Sept.1,

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Ultimately it depends on the Manager/GM he plays for whether he gets the opportunity to steal even 80 bases, assuming he pans out in the majors.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. brendan says:

    “If Billy played 150 games in the majors, the odds are awfully good that he could steal 100 bases”

    I’m not sure. would he get on base enough to have 110-120 opportunities? I watched raj davis run wild for a few seasons, but he didn’t get on base enough to even approach 100 SB.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • JimNYC says:

      In his rookie season, Vince Coleman got on base 220 times, and attempted 135 SB’s. If New Billy Hamilton can get on base 200 times, he should be able to attempt 110 SB’s.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • garik16 says:

      Hamilton’s got a .418 OBP over A+ and AA ball this year, and walked at a BB% of 14.3% over the two levels. Rajai Davis walked at a 7.6% rate in AA (Hamilton’s over 17% alone). Not comparable.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • EmanRedsFan says:

      This would be a valid point if it wasn’t for a couple key facts. 1.) Billy Hamilton is getting on base at a far better clip than Davis ever hoped to. and 2.) Billy Hamilton is probably the fastest baseball player anyone has ever seen. Scouts say he the fastest player in the MiLB and apparently it’s not even close. I’ve read that he makes Guys like Dee Gordon and Tony Campana look slow. Routinely clocked home to 1st at 3.0s or under. That’s unheard of!

      Long story short, if he gets 5-600 pa’s., he should be a virtual lock for 100+ steals.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. jpg says:

    Hamilton is fascinating player to try to project. On the surface I think Sickels is crazy for saying coleman is his floor. His BB and strikeout rates figure to trend in opposite directions as he faces better pitching as he advances levels. His K rate is almost 20% for his minor league career and there is no way pitchers are gonna walk this guy 17% of the time at the big league level. Say what you want about Coleman, but lasting 13 years at the big league level is no small feat. He also struck out around 15% of the time during his prime while walking around 9%. Billy is still raw so maybe he can improve his contact rate as he matures. If he can do that while maintaining a 12% or so walk rate than he can have a long, productive career. Pretty big ifs if you ask me.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • garik16 says:

      Except they haven’t. His walk rate has gotten better as he’s gone up. People keep projecting an imaginary walk rate onto Billy Hamilton instead of the one he has.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • jpg says:

        He JUST got to AA. Having super high BB rates in rookie ball through A+ ball is nice but translating that to MLB level is a much harder feat.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. BookWorm says:

    For some reason, I would’ve thought Carlos Gomez had more career steals than he actually does due to his speed. I just checked his numbers, though, and he’s never had more than 33 in a season, probably due to the fact that he’s never had a major league OBP over .300.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  16. Old Scout says:

    “…exciting to watch but no more than “a useful player,”…”

    Ask Jack Clark how many less RBIs and HRs he wouldn’t have gotten had Coleman not been on the base paths wrecking havoc on the pitchers, forcing them to throw more fastballs.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Doug Gray says:

      You mean like the Jack Clark who had 79 extra base hits in 1978? Clark had one incredible season with the Cardinals, but the two years before that, with Coleman also on the base paths for him look an awful lot like the years he had in San Francisco before he got to St. Louis.

      Clark from 1978-1984 had a 141 OPS+ with the Giants.
      Clark from 1985-1986 had a 138 OPS+ with the Cardinals.

      Then he had his incredible 1987 year. But if Coleman were the reason for it, what caused 85 and 86 to look just like his previous 7 seasons? Was 110 and 107 steals not enough those years, but 109 was enough in 87?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • I Agree Guy says:

      How many more RBI would he have had with someone getting on base more often?

      I can play that game too.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. TKDC says:

    ” The other, of course, was the original Sliding Billy Hamilton, who did it four times — and that is also a record.”

    From the link, I count three (not four) 100+ SB seasons, along with seasons of 97 and 98 SB.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • 1889: 111
      1890: 102
      1891: 111
      1894: 100

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • TKDC says:

        The player page you link to says he had 98 in 1894. I see that you must have used baseball reference, which has him at 100. I find it hard to understand how there could possibly be a descrepancy in data that is only 118 years old.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

  18. West says:

    I think Walt is afraid of Dusty falling in love with him because he’s fast. He should be on the playoff roster as a pinch runner though.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Natty Bumppo says:

      More like Walt asked Dusty if he wanted him up, and Baker responded, “he thirty yet? Players ain’t really ready till they’re 30.”

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  19. Cus says:

    The real question is what would Billy be capable if we got him on Ricky’s ‘magical vitamins’ made so popular in the ’80s?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  20. Natty Bumppo says:

    I find it kind of interesting that three of the best basestealers of all time – Coleman, Brock and Henderson, were all left fielders. In a vacuum, not knowing anything else about them, you’d expect these 99th-percentile speedsters to play center, would you not?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Ian R. says:

      Oddly enough, most modern center fielders don’t steal a whole ton of bases. I suspect it’s partly because speed in the field and speed on the basepaths aren’t precisely the same thing – raw running speed helps, of course, but it’s also about getting a good jump under very different circumstances – and partly because most center fielders wear themselves out too much in the field to really cut loose on the bases.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  21. Dustin says:

    A couple things I think are overlooked when people are saying that he’s a virtual lock to reach 100 stolen bases at the major league level: the pitchers ability to hold runners, and the catchers. Both are going to be exponentially better than those of the A/AA kids that may or may not ever advance above the level at which they faced Hamilton.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Ian R. says:

      Eh. Defense at the major league level is definitely better than defense at the minor league level, but I’m not sure if it’s exponentially so. Most major league pitchers and catchers set themselves apart with their pitching and hitting skills, respectively, rather than their ability to control the running game.

      Vote -1 Vote +1