With about a month left in the minor league baseball season, one of 2012′s worst kept secrets has been the prodigious speed of Cincinnati Reds shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton. With 139 stolen bases entering today’s action, Hamilton is six away from the minor league record of 145 set by Vince Coleman in 1983.
Video after the Jump
Barring injury, Hamilton is likely to set the record within the next week and may very well push 160 steals before the end of the season. And while this is an exciting development and worth following closely, I can’t help but think prospect followers are missing something after watching Hamilton play. Instead of salivating over the speed, it’s time to start focusing on the other aspects of his all-around game and discuss whether the sum of the parts equals a contributing big leaguer at the game’s highest level.
Working in Hamilton’s favor is the idea his speed — which one scout in attendance categorized as a 90 on the 20/80 scale — will allow his other tools to play up allowing greater room for error. I believe this to be true to a point, but a look at the other nine players Hamilton now shares minor league history with indicates it may be prudent to proceed with caution when projecting the Reds prospect.
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In my lifetime, Vince Coleman and Otis Nixon are the most recognizable names on the list and paired elite speed with periods of quality all-around play. And while wreaking havoc on the base paths does burn lasting memories into the minds of baseball fans, it’s safe to say Hamilton’s career would be considered a failure should his career path take similar shape.
On the field, Hamilton presents as lean and wiry with a bit of development through the shoulders leading me to believe he’ll add a few pounds at full physical Maturity. His long limbs and high torso are ideally suited for speed and an exceptionally long stride for his stature.
At the moment, overall strength is a serious concern and Hamilton is unlikely to quite those doubters anytime soon. Of prospects scouted this season, Hamilton put on the weakest batting practice display of anybody other than Red Sox Jose Vinicio. In defense of Vinicio, he was 18 at the time and had the leanest lower half of any player I’ve ever seen.
That lack of punch presents as 20 power without much projection for growth. Fortunately for Hamilton, he’s pretty adept at working counts and beating balls into the ground. At the plate, the shortstop presents with a developing understanding of where he fits in offensively which is a positive sign. However, it’s quite possible velocity will overwhelm him at the major league level. In Huntsville, he was able to handle 90+ low in the zone, but unable to catch up to pitches at the letters.
In his stance, Hamilton has a slight double tap as his timing mechanism and I question how successful it will be for him in the long run. In eight-to-ten plate appearances from the left side, he failed to square up a baseball once and his inconsistent weight transfer led to a lack of consistency in his swing. Plus, his hand speed was only in the average range for me meaning the pieces of his swing will need to work in unison better than they do to produce hard barrel contact.
It took more than 15 innings to finally see Hamilton take a swing right-handed and he laced a single to left field. Unfortunately, my camera batteries had just run out of juice so I don’t have it on tape. It was a considerably cleaner swing with significantly more hand explosion. From a single swing, it was obvious his natural side of the plate is right-handed. I completely understand trying to maximize Hamilton’s speed by turning him into a switch hitter and trusting his gifted athleticism will make the transition less painful. But if it doesn’t work out as planned, what’s left is a prospect who has missed many hundreds of plate appearances from his better side equaling lost development time.
On defense, Hamilton has the range for shortstop and his glove was better than expected. Unfortunately, his arm was below average for the position and his throwing motion seemed awkward on the left side of the infield. It’s easy to see his speed and speculate Hamilton is a centerfielder in the end, but I’m confident he could handle second base if the Reds decided to go that route as well. Of course centerfield is a more demanding position defensively than second base and elite speed has a better opportunity to stand out. With Brandon Phillips locked up for a few years and Drew Stubbs regressing, Hamilton is extremely likely to wind up in center for the Reds. And while his speed will allow for elite range at the position, his arm will be a hindrance and route running may not come naturally.
In spite of Hamilton’s gaudy stolen base totals, he’s actually a suspect base stealer in terms of technique. In his first stolen base attempt which resulted in a caught stealing, Hamilton’s actions at first base tipped off the entire stadium. It reminded me of my time as a coach when we played teams with no ability to defend against stolen base attempts. The other team knew we were going to steal second and third base on the first and second pitches, but it didn’t matter. In this instance, it did matter and Hamilton was thrown out by a good six feet.
In subsequent stolen base attempts, Hamilton was much more impressive and racked up three steals on attempts where the catcher might as well have put the ball in his back pocket. Additionally, Hamilton’s speed forced multiple mental and physical mistakes by Huntsville players resulting in two runs he scored without help advancing bases from batted balls. I was only able to pull one home-to-first time on Hamilton from the left side and it was a 3.85.
For the Cincinnati Reds, Billy Hamilton very well may be their long term answer in centerfield as soon as next season. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and classify Hamilton as an impact talent just yet. Yes, the speed has the ability to change a game, but what if it’s wrapped in a Dee Gordon-esque .230/.280/.280 triple slash and causes the Reds to tinker with batting Hamilton ninth?
Speaking of Dee Gordon, I asked a scout in attendance, “what if all the hype surrounding Billy Hamilton resulted in a debut similar to that of the Dodgers product?” His response was to flick his wrists mimicking bat whip and say, “But Dee Gordon had more of this. Plus, he IS a shortstop.” Celebrate the speed of Billy Hamilton, but be careful to temper expectations. The gap between Hamilton the Double-A shortstop and Hamilton the contributing big leaguer is wider than most are expecting.
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