It takes a rare and special talent to become a household name in Major League Baseball, especially if the player in question isn't going to hit many home runs.
Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton feels like a player from a different era of baseball.
He's a pure-speed talent who has no other carrying tool—with the possible exception of his glove because his legs allow him to track down balls in center field, a position he's still learning.
The difference between Hamilton and all of these other speed-first players you hear about, like Arizona's Tony Campana or San Francisco's Gary Brown, is Hamilton's speed doesn't measure on the 20-80 scouting scale.
Sure, when you read scouting reports, Hamilton will be listed as having 80-grade speed, but that's only because the scale doesn't go higher than that.
Bleacher Report Lead Prospect Writer Mike Rosenbaum's scouting report proves that 80 is just a number:
Fastest player I’ve ever seen on a baseball field; best home-to-first time I’ve ever recorded or heard of; everyone in the park knows Hamilton is running and he still swipes bags with ease; potential top-of-the-order monster; secondary skills are raw and will have to develop at the highest level.
Therein lies the problem facing Hamilton as he prepares to play his first full season in Major League Baseball. Speed is great; we saw what he could do last September with 13 stolen bases in 13 games, and no one knows how to slow Hamilton down when he gets on base.
Unfortunately, Hamilton's legs are just one part of the scouting equation. In order for them to play in games, he has to get on base—especially if the Reds plan to use him in the leadoff spot, as Reds president Bob Castellini said in December (via Mark Sheldon of MLB.com).
Hamilton is 23 years old and has stopped filling out his frame. He's listed at 6'0", 160 pounds, and that might be generous. With limited size and strength, he has problems driving the ball with any kind of authority.
In addition to lacking natural strength, Hamilton will often look awkward in the batter's box. He doesn't have much of an approach at the plate; he wants to swing at anything and gets caught lunging at pitches.
Last year, the speedster had a 102-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 504 Triple-A at-bats.
He's never had more than 38 extra-base hits and six homers in the minors. A lot of his power comes from being able to take an extra base on a ball hit to the outfield that would be a single for most players.
No one is going to confuse Hamilton for Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout with a bat in his hands, but if he could turn into an Everth Cabrera-type player (career .252/.330/.342), the Reds would be thrilled because it would mean he'd be getting on base at a good enough clip to steal 60-plus bases.
That is a big "if" at this stage of Hamilton's career. After all, his minor league slash line is just .280/.350/.378. By comparison, Cabrera hit .290/.381/.385 in the minors.
ESPN's Keith Law (Insider subscription required) wrote about the top-20 impact prospects for 2014, listing Hamilton at No. 7—a very respectable spot given the depth of this year's rookie class—but he wrote that "his total lack of power has become a problem."
MLB pitchers understand, or will learn to exploit, Hamilton's physical limitations, inability to consistently drive the ball and need to hit the ball on the ground to make any kind of impact.
That will allow them to pound him with fastballs on the inner half of the plate when he's hitting left handed in order to get weak grounders that will turn into routine outs.
Given the limitations Hamilton has with the bat, his role as Cincinnati's leadoff hitter shouldn't last long. If Dusty Baker still managed the team, that might be a different story. He let Todd Frazier (.314 OBP), Brandon Phillips (.310 OBP) and Zack Cozart (.284 OBP) hit second 103 times last year.
But new manager Bryan Price might have a better handle on lineup construction and what it takes to score runs. We won't know until we see him in action, though the fact that Hamilton is going to get first crack at the leadoff spot doesn't inspire confidence.
It's easy to sit here and think that Hamilton's ability to run the bases is going to make him a star in the big leagues. After all, it certainly looked good in a 13-game sample last September.
But September baseball is a different kind of animal than April through August.
Rosters are expanded and watered down, as teams out of contention will routinely play older Triple-A or "Four-A" players to see if they have a spot on the roster for next year. Six of his games came against the Cubs, Brewers and Astros.
Anything can happen in a small sample size. When you start projecting over 162 games, Hamilton leaves a lot of questions.
No one doubts that Hamilton will carve out some kind of MLB career, even if it's just as a bench player/pinch runner, because he's got a rare gift that teams can use.
There is a world of difference between being a part-time runner and everyday impact player. Hamilton has shown his limitations moving up the minor league ladder, bottoming out in 2013 with a .256/.308/.343 line.
Despite the low on-base percentage/no power combination, Hamilton still managed to steal 75 bases. He's going to be a stolen-base nightmare in the big leagues for opposing pitchers and catchers.
Hamilton's ceiling just doesn't offer much else beyond that.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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