Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton shattered the professional single-season stolen base record on Tuesday night when he swiped his 146th base of the season, breaking Vince Coleman’s long-standing 1983 mark of 145.
Heading into the game, the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos shortstop needed two stolen bases to tie the record and three to call it his own.
With a flair for the dramatic, Hamilton wasted no time, stealing No. 144 in the first inning, followed by No. 145 and 146 after reaching base in the third. His head-first slide into both third base and the record books prompted a standing ovation from everyone in attendance, while the historic base was swapped out and given a one-way ticket to Cooperstown.
Unlike the iconic Crash Davis in Bull Durham, who went unrecognized despite setting the all-time minor league home run record, Hamilton’s quest for No. 146 became a story of national interest, drawing at least some form of coverage from every sports media outlet.
But why are we all so captivated with Hamilton’s record?
Perhaps it’s because for the first time since Ichiro broke George Sisler’s single-season hits record with 262 in 2004, we can celebrate an achievement that doesn’t involve home runs or the ongoing speculation that surrounds them—especially in the wake of Melky Cabrera’s positive test and subsequent suspension.
The stolen base has become a lost art in Major League Baseball, but Hamilton has reminded people of the impact of game-changing speed.
While the new record is in itself stunning, Hamilton’s speed is absolutely mind-blowing in the proper context:
Hamilton currently leads the Southern League (Double-A) with 44 stolen bases. His made his Pensacola debut on July 11.
Similarly, after playing his last game for High-A Bakersfield on July 7, Hamilton’s 104 stolen bases in 82 games still pace the California League—behind him is Rico Noel (Padres) with 85.
Having played in 122 games this season, Hamilton has swiped at least one bag in 87 games.
Of those 87 games, 41 have featured a multi-steal performance.
Of those 41 games, he’s registered nine games with three stolen bases, four games with four and one five-steal performance.
Last but not least, a fact that we all have been inundated with since Tuesday night: If Hamilton were his own baseball team, his 148 stolen bases would be higher than the team total of 171 (of 190) professional teams.
Naturally, his relentless pursuit of the stolen base title has invoked memories of the last generational speedster, Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, whose 1,406 career stolen bases rank first all-time.
His high-water mark came in 1982 with the A’s, when the 23-year-old stole 130 bases in 149 games. However, Henderson’s success on the basepaths was primarily a product of his ability to get on base, as he batted .279 with a .401 on-base percentage in 3,081 games spanning 25 years.
To think that Hamilton’s career will echo Henderson’s is absurd; Rickey was an all-around, complete player who's regarded as the best leadoff hitter in baseball history. Hamilton, on the other hand, is a raw work in progress—you know, besides the fastest man in baseball thing.
The two players are only compared because they both have that rare breed of superhuman speed, where everyone in the stadium knows they’re stealing and still can’t do anything to stop it.
However, it’s important to note that Hamilton's video game-like accomplishment is also a direct result of the improvements made this season.
As a switch-hitting shortstop, the improvement in his plate discipline this season has significantly boosted his prospect stock. Overall, his hit tool is still suspect. However, as long as he can make consistent contact and utilize his speed, it shouldn’t matter.
The little power he has is more apparent from the right side of the plate due to more lift in his swing and better extension after contact. He’s also done a better job of putting pressure on opposing defenses, hitting ground balls at a favorable rate while employing a more selective approach at the dish.
Despite not being on the Reds' 40-man roster or having a favorable path towards playing time, cries for a September call-up—even if his only role is to come off the bench and steal a base (or several) late in a game—are sure to persist throughout the remainder of the 2012 season. With a rare weapon like Hamilton's, his potential impact is immeasurable.