There's the old story about Cool Papa Bell being so fast that he once bunted the ball and was tagged out at third base.
You get the idea that Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton is even faster than that. After he set the all-time minor league stolen-base record with 155 -- in just 132 games -- the Reds moved Hamilton from shortstop to center field in the Arizona Fall League, and he's resuming his minor league career in center this spring.
While Hamilton has played just 50 games above Class A, the Reds might need that transition to center field to develop quickly. The Reds are counting on either Shin-Soo Choo or Jay Bruce to man center field, a position neither has played the past four seasons, except for one game Choo played there in 2009. I had ESPN Stats & Information look this up: During the divisional era, only one outfielder has played at least 300 games in the outfield over a four-year span but fewer than 10 in center, and then played 100 games in center. That was Tim Raines with the Expos in 1984.
But is Hamilton ready for the majors? He hit .323 at Class A Bakersfield and then had a line of .286 AVG/.406 OBP/.383 SLG in Double-A, at age 21; being a switch-hitter will certainly help. He doesn't have much power -- two home runs -- but he used his speed to leg out 14 triples. Importantly, he drew 86 walks, although he did strike out 113 times. The total package put him 30th on Keith Law's top prospects list, with Keith writing: "At the plate, Hamilton has plenty of bat speed and has become strong enough to avoid having pitchers light him up inside; he drifts over his front side and probably won't ever hit 10 homers in a season, with a little more rotation in his swing when he hits right-handed."
It was Coleman's record of 144 steals that Hamilton broke. Coleman did that in the Class A South Atlantic League in 1983, at age 21, in just 113 games. He hit .350 but had even less power than Hamilton, with eight doubles and seven triples. Pushed up to Triple-A the following year, Coleman hit .257/.323/.334 but had added a little strength with 21 doubles and four homers.
Like Hamilton, Coleman was a switch-hitter and his build was similar to Hamilton's: 6-0, 170, whereas Hamilton is listed at 6-1, 160. Coleman stole 110, 107 and 109 bases his first three years in the majors, but he was never a great player due to mediocre on-base percentages. Despite his speed, he never hit .300, and his career average was .264. His career-best WAR was 2.9.
Hamilton's advantage here is that he projects as a center fielder; Coleman played left with Willie McGee in center for the Cardinals. It does appear that Hamilton has more skill with the bat than Coleman, but the big question is how Hamilton's minor league walk rates will translate if he's not a big power threat at the plate.
Nixon swiped 107 bases between Double-A and Triple-A in 1982, hitting .282/.412/.304. Nixon was also a switch-hitter but had even less power than Coleman, as witnessed by that slugging percentage. What he did well was draw walks: 108 in '82, his third straight year of 100 walks in the minors. Nixon never got much of a chance with the Yankees and then the Indians. After three years as a backup with the Expos, the Braves acquired him in 1991 and he had his first good season at age 32, hitting .297/.371/.327 and stealing 72 bases, although a drug suspension forced him to miss the postseason.
Nixon had zero power -- 11 career home runs -- but ended up playing until he was 40. The comparisons between Coleman and Nixon are interesting, but it does appear Hamilton has more upside: He has Nixon's eye at the plate but has shown a little more extra-base hit ability in the minors than either one.
Otis' younger brother, Donell swiped 144 bases for Bakersfield in the Mariners' system in 1983. (By the way, if you get the idea that everyone was running in the early '80s, you're right. Five of the top 10 minor league stolen-base seasons occurred from 1980 to 1983.)
More powerfully built than his brother, Donell still didn't have much pop, and his line that year was very similar to Hamilton's: .321/.391/.408, also at 21 years old. For the sake of comparison, Donell ranked 19th in the Cal League in OPS that year (minimum 139 at-bats, via Baseball-Reference) -- Kirby Puckett's OPS in the same league was only nine points higher -- while Hamilton ranked 32nd last year. In other words, in 1983, Donell looked very much like Hamilton looks now.
Anyway, things never worked out for Donell. He stole 102 bases in 116 attempts in Double-A in 1984, hitting .269 and posting a .353 OBP, but then broke his leg in spring training in 1985 and missed all but 12 games over the next two seasons. The Mariners being the Mariners of those days, he then made their Opening Day roster in 1987. Shockingly, after hardly playing for two years, he didn't hit and was sent down and his career never developed.
Stone was another of these early-'80s guys, stealing 123 bases and getting caught just 13 times for Class A Spartanburg of the South Atlantic League in 1981 at age 20. Unlike Coleman and Otis Nixon, Stone had some power, knocking 44 extra-base hits at Double-A Reading in 1983 for a .317/.379/.463 line (with 90 steals). After hitting .362 in 185 at-bats for the Phillies in 1984, some predicted batting titles in his future, but he played just 372 games in the majors.
What happened? Here's a good story on Stone from 2004, by Andrew Miller of The Pitch. "To be honest, he couldn't absorb a lot of instruction," said Bill Giles, the team's president at the time. There were stories that Stone allegedly asked a minor league teammate if the moon was the same one that shined back home in Missouri. Paul Owens told Sports Illustrated in 1992, "People thought he was dumb, but he wasn't. He was naive, but beautifully naive." Bill James said, "Not often does a young player take one step back after another after another. This was what was unusual about Stone's career."
Seems a little strange to write off a player's disappointing career because he was naive. Stone didn't walk much and was never good in left field, despite his speed. In the end, he remains one of those players that longtime Phillies fans will always remember.
In 1983, Dykstra had one of the great minor league seasons, hitting .358/.472/.503 with 105 steals for Class A Lynchburg (Mets) of the Carolina League. You can see big differences between Dykstra and Hamilton, however: Dykstra was a year younger and had 46 extra-base hits, including eight home runs. He drew 107 walks while striking out just 35 times. The next year he hit .275/.372/.389 at Double-A, and in 1985 he was in the majors. There are similarities, and Hamilton is faster than Dykstra, but Dykstra's control of the strike zone in the minors foretold a guy who would be a good major league hitter.
I thought I'd look up Wilson, maybe the fastest major leaguer I've ever seen -- him or Deion Sanders. Wilson was a bigger guy -- 6-3, 190 -- and his minor league stats are unimpressive. In 1977, at Triple-A, he hit .281/.323/.349 with 74 steals, 24 walks and 106 strikeouts at age 21. Two years later he hit .315/.351/.420 with the Royals, stealing 83 bases. From 1979 to '82 he hit .320, and he won a batting title in 1982. He was only 27, but would hit .300 just one more time (supposedly, he started thinking he could hit more home runs and developed an uppercut; indeed, his ratio of fly balls increased starting in 1983).
Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines
Let's not even go here. Henderson was in the California League at 18, hitting .345 with a .466 OBP and 11 home runs. Raines is a more reasonable comparison, although he hit .354/.439/.501 at Triple-A Denver in 1980 at age 20.
So who is Billy Hamilton? His minor league résumé so far is more impressive than the résumés of Coleman or Otis Nixon or Wilson (or Esix Snead!), but less impressive than those of Dykstra or Henderson or Raines. As long as Hamilton stays within himself, draws his walks, hits the ball on the ground and hustles out his doubles and triples, he should develop into a better player than Coleman. I think the upside here is the young Wilson, who learned to hit at the major league level. Wilson had the advantage back then of playing on turf, so I don't know if Hamilton will contend for batting titles, but he's not just a speed guy. He can play baseball.