CHICAGO -- What if I told you two things about Cincinnati Reds rookie Billy Hamilton, and both were demonstrably true? They would be (1) Hamilton has been a disappointment; and (2) Hamilton is a significantly better ballplayer than expected.
That might seem strange, but consider the expectations people had for Hamilton coming into the season. Writers and fans projected he might become the fourth man in modern baseball history to steal 100 bases, something only Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman and Lou Brock have achieved. It’s easy to understand why people might think he has game-changing speed. In spring training, some writers started making comparisons to Usain Bolt when Hamilton reached first base in 3.3 or 3.4 seconds on a push bunt. Others had already enthused about the impossible task of trying to throw him out on stolen-base attempts, noting the average pitcher delivery to home (1.3 seconds or 1.1 with a slide step) and average big league catcher's "pop time" of 2.0 seconds to get the ball to second base.
Hamilton has special speed worth getting excited about, but only up to a point. The hard math of various projection tools don't share the enthusiasm. Hamilton's walk rate in the minors was an unexciting 9.5 percent. And power? Hamilton had never shown any. Between the challenge of getting on base in the first place, of stealing against big league opponents ready to hold him close, and the difficulty of doing it over a six-month season, it's easy to be skeptical.
When Opening Day arrived and Hamilton had to convert those feats of stopwatch supremacy into production on the diamond, the skeptics were immediately rewarded. Four weeks into the season, he wasn't getting it done, hitting just .221/.253/.279 through April 27.
And if stolen bases were the only reason to follow him, Hamilton got caught stealing in five of his first 15 attempts. He also hasn't been among the top 10 in metrics measuring baserunning value, such as FanGraphs' ultimate base running or Baseball Prospectus' base running runs. While he might beat anybody in a straight-up sprint, he has been neither the best baserunner in baseball nor a game-changer on the bases.
After that early ugliness, though, Hamilton has been a revelation, not because he has been the hitter his advocates expected, or because his speed has been mercurial, but because he has been better than that. Hamilton is hitting .295/.330/.445 over the past two months. In addition to 23 steals in his past 49 games, he has belted 16 extra-base hits, including four homers. Put that in full-season math, and we could be talking about a guy who steals 75 bases while also possibly cranking out 50 extra-base hits.
“That first month, it wasn’t too good. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here,” Hamilton said. “But the confidence I have now, the last couple of months I’ve had, I feel good. It’s all about adjustments. I knew that, but I kept working hard at it, and now it’s going good.”
So skip the ethereal compliment that Hamilton has “game-changing speed.” Instead, consider the possibility that the Reds might have a game-changing ballplayer leading off for them. While his speed is awesome and the key element of his responsibility as a leadoff man, it’s just one part of what Hamilton has started to offer.
Does Hamilton like surprising people in the power department? Laughing, he said, “It’s good. I don’t hit home runs, but it happens every now and then. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it’s not my goal. It’s not what I want to do. It’s a surprise, and it surprises me -- a good surprise.”
The addition of power is particularly interesting because Hamilton is still relatively new to life as a switch-hitter, an idea the Reds instigated. And his home runs haven't been fence-scraping almost-outs at the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark; he's hit two both at home and on the road, and his isolated power numbers at home and on the road are nearly identical as well.
While that’s a happy development, couldn’t he be even better if he exploited his speed more, such as bunting for base hits? Well, be careful what you wish for. According to Baseball Info Solutions, before Thursday night’s action Hamilton had successfully reached base on nine of 29 bunt attempts (31 percent) this season. To put that into context, this year the MLB success rate on bunt-hit attempts is 25.6 percent, and for the previous 10 years combined, it’s 22.0 percent. And as with steals, Hamilton is very good, but he isn’t leading the game -- the Nationals’ Danny Espinosa (10) has more bunt hits than Hamilton. And compared to Willy Taveras bunting for 38 base hits in 2007 -- the highest single-season tally of the past decade -- Hamilton’s numbers are relatively pedestrian.
Then again, Hamilton is still learning. Before he was drafted in 2009, he neither hit from both sides of the plate nor stole bases, and even last year there were concerns he can get overpowered batting left-handed. But this year he has been a stronger hitter from the left side of the plate (hitting three of his four homers with a .741 OPS). And he’s still sorting out how to put his natural speed to best use, while getting tips on the finer points of baserunning.
“Delino DeShields, he’s my main guy,” Hamilton said. “Before I got drafted, in high school I didn’t steal bases. I didn’t really start stealing bases until after I got drafted. He’s been my mentor, I can call him; he’ll watch film and tell me what I’m doing wrong, what I need to do. He gives me the confidence. He tells me about what he used to do a little bit. He doesn’t tell me exactly what to do. He talks to me about my game and about his game and how to bring the two together.”
The real fun is watching Hamilton be something more than a slappy/speed guy. Take Tuesday’s game against the Cubs: Hamilton stepped in to lead off the seventh with the Reds down by four runs, while Chicago’s Jake Arrieta was throwing a perfect game. Looking at the situation, Twitter was already alive to the possibility that Hamilton might lay down a bunt single -- to get on base, to get something started, and no doubt enrage those who think there’s an obligation not to do so with a no-hitter at stake. It was easy to expect from the guy with game-changing speed. Hamilton didn’t bother -- he just lined a single to center.
Whether it's fastballs or fast men, or planes, trains and automobiles, speed is a likable commodity. And a lot of us love what it does for the game, whether we’re talking tactics or triples. So being fascinated with Hamilton is entirely understandable. Just as he seems to be turning into a different hitter than expected, if he can keep getting on base one third of the time across a full season, never say never about the possibility of him stealing 100 bases someday. But keep in mind that Hamilton faces a very different challenge on the bases today than Henderson or Coleman did. Most pitchers today are more attentive to holding runners close. More managers are following Earl Weaver’s advice about being careful with their 27 outs, and the risks of the running game are much more carefully assumed. Today's average stolen base success rate is 73.6 percent, right around the break-even clip where the risk is worth the reward. It was 66.2 percent in 1982, the year Henderson stole 130 bases. Teams then averaged 1.1 attempted steals per game; they average less than 0.8 today.
Whether Hamilton ever reaches 100 steals, it'll be more interesting to see if he keeps showing power as well as speed. At 24, he’s still young enough to grow into something very different from what was expected. More impressive than game-changing foot speed might be the speed at which Hamilton continues to evolve.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.