Here comes Billy Hamilton, there goes Billy Hamilton, whooshing around the bases like a summer breeze. Come October, if the Cincinnati Reds get there, his breeze will ruffle the autumn leaves and send them blowing across the playoff horizon.
But it is a different part of Hamilton that may be what helps push the Reds through the stretch run.
His maturity and growing confidence at the plate.
Yes, he’d like to strike out less.
Yes, he’d like to get on base more.
But for those who watched him whiff four times in four plate appearances against the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright on Opening Day…well, would you have ever figured the Runnin’ Red would be sitting here with a .279 batting average and a .309 on-base percentage with the Fourth of July on deck?
Yeah, Reds manager Bryan Price remembers Wainwright gobbling up Hamilton on Opening Day like a box of Red Vines.
And do you know what?
“You think that would have opened a book on how to pitch Billy,” Price says. “But he’s done a great job of closing up holes.
“That’s the one thing I’ve noticed with Billy—a confidence to compete. I’ve never, ever seen him look like he’s beaten. And I think that’s a character trait.”
While a couple of well-traveled newbies—the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka and the White Sox’s Jose Abreu—battle for Rookie of the Year in the American League, Hamilton is gaining speed by the week toward the NL award.
For the month of June, he led all NL rookies in steals (14), runs (18), hits (36), doubles (10) and OPS (.848), was tied for first in homers (three) and was second in RBI (18) and hitting (.327).
Speed has been Hamilton’s biggest asset throughout his life. But in Cincinnati, the questions have always been: Would he hit enough, could he get on base enough, to take advantage of it?
Replacing Shin-Soo Choo, who ranked second in the NL with a .423 on-base percentage for the Reds in 2013 (to teammate Joey Votto’s .435), was only going to increase the degree of difficulty.
That tough Opening Day turned into a rough first few weeks. On April 21, he was slogging along at .203. Since then, it’s been a steady ascent.
“If he’ll just be himself, he’ll be successful,” Reds' All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips says. “Don’t worry about what other people say. Don’t worry about stats. The stats will be where they’re supposed to be.
“That’s what I told him. Don’t worry about on-base percentage; play the game.”
That’s one of those tips that is real easy to dispense, and far more difficult to digest.
Hamilton is only 23, Cincinnati’s second-round pick in 2009 out of Taylorsville (Mississippi) High School, and is an extremely hard worker. He has the curiosity to ask the right questions and the intelligence to implement the answers.
Always, he is prepared, going all the way back to when he joined the team as a pinch runner extraordinaire last summer.
“I agree,” Price says. “There is an early part of the developmental process as well. He’s been caught stealing third base with nobody out this year, and that’s really not what we’re looking for.
“He’s going to make mistakes. But I think he has a vault in which he puts his lessons, and he brings them with him the next day.”
Out of that vault came the hard lessons of early April, slowly, day by day, as the calendar flipped to May and then to June.
Hamilton acknowledges he put an unhealthy amount of pressure on himself early.
“Too much,” he says. “I was thinking that I’m going to get sent back down, that I’m not playing well, that everybody hates me here.”
Extreme? Well, yes.
But computer viruses sometimes can be nothing compared to the dark thoughts that worm their way through a young prospect’s mind when the numbers on the scoreboard tilt toward taunting instead of reassuring.
“I told myself I’ve got to play the way I always have, the way I played at home with friends in the yard,” says Hamilton, who has fanned 57 times in 290 at-bats. “The way I played in Little League. It wasn’t about anything back then.”
Sometimes, now, watching Billy run is like watching a kid in a pickup game down at the park. His 35 thefts rank second in the NL to the Dodgers’ Dee Gordon, who has 40.
“I’ve never been around such an impact player in my life,” says Reds utility man and 10-year veteran Skip Schumaker. “He makes infielders worry, pitchers worry, coaches worry, managers worry and outfielders worry.”
Schumaker raves about Hamilton’s work ethic and ability to assimilate the game’s various angles and nuances.
“He gets here earlier than everybody else, and he listens,” Schumaker says. “He’s a really good kid.
“The thing about it is, we know about his baserunning. I played with Dee Gordon, and I think Billy’s faster than Dee. But as far as runs saved in the outfield, he’s got to be off the charts, too. I’m not into sabermetrics, but he’s got to be. And his arm is underrated.”
And as far as worrying rivals, Schumaker is still raving about Hamilton tagging up and scoring earlier in April in St. Louis on a pop fly so shallow that it could have been fielded by the second baseman (right fielder Jon Jay handled it instead).
“I heard he did it in the minors, but I’d never seen that in my career,” Schumaker says. “And in a big league game against the Cardinals, who are as fundamentally sound as it gets.
“That’s probably been the most impressive thing I’ve seen.”
Price attributes some of Hamilton’s growth to veterans such as Schumaker and Ramon Santiago, who have helped school him in things like strike-zone awareness, when to be aggressive at the plate and when not to be aggressive.
Yes, it takes a village, as someone once said, somewhere along the line.
But for a project to reach full bloom, that village must have something to work with beyond simple physical tools.
In Hamilton and closer Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati has two of the most exciting players in the majors.
“We have four or five of them,” Schumaker says. “We have an MVP [Votto], a Gold Glove second baseman [Phillips], Johnny Cueto in line for a possible Cy Young…it’s an exciting time for us.”
This notion is unquestionable, whether it is Chapman pushing the radar gun toward 102 mph or Hamilton flying down the baseline.
“I try to improve everything, every day,” Hamilton says. “There is no one in the world who is going to get too good.
“Always, you can get a little better.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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