Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout might be baseball's best athlete, possessing four, if not all five, of the game's tools—contact, power, speed, arm and fielding.
But baseball's most exciting player—its most spectacular—is Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton. Hamilton can truly claim just one tool, but his is the best in the sport. Maybe ever.
Hamilton can flat-out burn. There's fast, there's freakishly fast and then there's Billy Hamilton.
How quick is the 23-year-old from Mississippi? In case you missed it, Hamilton scored last Wednesday on a pop up (essentially) to deep second base. That was after he stole second and after he went to third on a fly to shallow right center.
This is the same Hamilton who once stole 155 minor league bases in 132 games. And while there's much more to steals than foot speed, Baseball America writer J.J. Cooper has tweeted that a scout said that Hamilton can finish swipes in 2.98 to 3.03 seconds. That's lightning, even before you compare it to all-time steals (and runs) king Rickey Henderson's 3.04 to 3.10, as also mentioned in the tweet.
But is Hamilton the fastest baseball player ever? Really, there's no way to know for sure.
Willie Mays won 12 straight Gold Gloves as a center fielder, the position responsible for covering the most real estate on most baseball diamonds. Mays also led his league in steals four straight seasons. He has to be considered.
Then, of course, there's the rest of the majors' all-time and single-season steals leaders—players like Lou Brock, Ty Cobb, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman and even another Billy Hamilton who played in the majors from 1888 to 1901. However, back then, more actions counted as steals, like going from first to third on a teammate's single. That helps to explain why Hugh Nicol, with 138 steals in 1887, is still the majors' single-season record holder.
But, where do you rank Deion Sanders, who was fast enough to be perhaps football's greatest defensive back but never really played a full major league season and wasn't out-and-out great at stealing bases? (Though, in just 303 at-bats in 1992, Sanders led the majors with 14 triples.)
And you may have never heard of Evar Swanson. Or even one-time MVP Maury Wills. Though unofficial, Jon Daly writes in a Society for American Baseball Research article that Swanson and Wills each completed a trip around the bases in less than 13.5 seconds—Swanson in the 1930s and Wills in the 1950s. And there are almost certainly others who have done or could do the same. (It's a shame that major league teams quit conducting field days.)
Lest we forget, Cool Papa Bell, one of the best players in Negro Leagues history, was rumored to have gone all 360 feet in less than 13 seconds. Talk about spectacular.
So is Hamilton the fastest ever? Even the fastest major leaguer? There's no way to know. At the very least, he's the fastest out there today. And we're very lucky to witness it.