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.