The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Billy Hamilton, and the New Stolen Base Record

On Tuesday night, Reds prospect Billy Hamilton, a shortstop with the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos, set a new professional baseball record for stolen bases in a season.  He now has 147 steals in 2012.

Hamilton broke the old record set in 1983 by Vince Coleman, then an outfielder on the Cardinals Single-A Macon baseball team.  Coleman, of course, went on to steal over 100 bases in each of his first three MLB seasons, and he led the N.L. in steals in each of his first six years.  He also led the N.L. in times caught stealing three times during that period (1985-90.)

Coleman went on to steal 752 bags in his career, sixth best all-time.  More impressively, Coleman’s successful steal percentage for his career was about 81%.

Yet Vince Coleman ultimately was not a very valuable baseball player.  His career WAR was just 10.5, and he never reached 3.0 WAR in any of his 13 seasons.  His career OPS+ of 83 is even less impressive.  Coleman never reached 25 doubles or even seven home runs in a season, and despite all the plate appearances he accumulated, especially in his first half-dozen years, he reached a hundred runs scored just twice.

All of which brings us back to Billy Hamilton.  (And yes, it is a bit ironic that he has the same name as a famous 19th-century baseball player who also stole a lot of bases.)

While his stolen base totals are impressive, there are four things that will enable Hamilton to be a truly valuable MLB player.

1 On-Base Percentage:  If he knows how to draw a walk (say, 70-80 per year), those walks will add significant value, as long as he can hit above .275.

 2) Gap power:  Even though reaching first base appears to be a virtual automatic double with him, he should still (in his prime) be able to drive the ball into the gaps and leg out at least 25-35 doubles and double-digit triples.  50-60 extra base hits per year should be his baseline.

3) Stolen Base percentage:  Loads of steals are nice, but the goal is not simply to reach second base (or even third base), it is to score runs.  A caught stealing is much more harmful than a stolen base is helpful.  If he can steal at something very nearly at (or, preferably, above) an 80% success rate, then all the running will be worthwhile.  If he gets caught 30% or more of the time, then this is all much ado about nothing.

 4) Defense:  Will his quickness on the base-paths translate into good range in the field?  Will he end up being a defensive asset?  If so, then he becomes much more valuable.  If not, then we are looking at a fast guy without a real position, and that means a glorified pinch-runner.

At least three out of these four aptitudes will be necessary for him to be a useful ball player.  Two will allow him to hang around for a while.  One means a future career as a pinch-runner who ends up back in Triple-A for good before he turns 30.  On the other hand, if he hits all four of the above benchmarks, then we might be looking at the next Kenny Lofton or Tim Raines.

It’ll be interesting to see how much the Reds allow him to develop as an actual baseball player before he is let loose on the base-paths.  They might be sorry if they rush this kid before he is ready, because though he’d be fun to watch with the one skill he was born with, he’ll be a lot more useful when he is truly Major League ready.

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10 thoughts on “Billy Hamilton, and the New Stolen Base Record

  1. All I can say is…. Remember Herb Washington!

    Glen Russell Slater

  2. I’m glad that you pointed out that Billy Hamilton was also the name of another famous base stealer (not to mention in the Hall of Fame, as well), because when I first saw the name of the post in my e-mail (I follow this blog and get e-mail notification when you publish a new one), the 19th Century Billy Hamilton was the first (and only) thing that popped into my mind!


  3. I can’t help but wondering if this isn’t becoming a sideshow, or maybe the mishandling of a prospect. If you’ve attempted to steal 175 bases, don’t you have to be running in some situations where it’s really unnecessary? I’ve got to think that much running involves some risk and wear and tear on the legs. Plus, what’s the development value of all that running? This kid seems like a legitimate prospect, and I think the Reds organization has put publicity over what is best for the player here. I’ll also say this–if I’m playing AA ball for the Reds and I’m trying to make it to The Show, I’d be a little less than thrilled to be taking a boatload of pitches so this guy can run.

    • You raise an excellent point. When does attempting to steal bases become counterproductive? And how does it help his development as a player? The actual value of a stolen base is not that great. Stealing as a tactical weapon in high-leverage situations makes sense. Running just for the sake of running does not necessarily add a great deal of value to the offense, even if you’re playing in dead-ball era. I’m sure you’re right that the organization loves the publicity. It’ll create a buzz at the ballpark. This is not a bad thing in itself; baseball is, after all, just another form of entertainment. But as you say, if it is a hindrance to either Hamilton’s own development, or that of the organization as a whole, then perhaps it’s time to scale back a bit.
      Excellent comment,

  4. It’s always exciting to see a truly talented young player come up. It seems like so many of them turn out to be busts at the major league level or end up being cautionary stories of an arm rode too hard.
    Of the four attributes you listed as conditions for Hamilton making a difference in the big leagues, I think they can all be developed to varying degrees. Particularly 1 & 3 which are as much (or more) disciplines as physical skills (being fleet of foot doesn’t matter much when you’ve just been picked off). Hopefully, as you say, the organization will groom him properly.
    Good insights, as always.

    • Like you, I always approach the subject of so-called phenoms with a bit of skepticism. No matter how well a player performs in the Minors, it just isn’t the same as MLB. There are so many variables when it comes to a successful MLB career. Injuries, of course, are always possible. Too many young players are rushed before they are ready. On the other hand, if he is already better than what the Reds currently have on the field, then I suppose they’re gonna play him.
      Thanks for reading, and looking forward to your next post over at your site.

  5. As a fan of the other Billy Hamilton (the 19th Century one), I’ve always been inpressed that in 14 years played he had more runs scored than games played in 8 seasons (and had a dead tie in another). If this guy can do half as well. Wow.
    Good analysis, Bill.

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