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Billy Hamilton is a pretty lousy base-stealer. He doesn’t read pitchers particularly well, he gets bad jumps, and his slides go from smooth to awkward to downright disastrous. So it’s pretty amazing that he has 63 stolen bases through the first 57 games of the California League season.
He’s doing it on pure speed. There’s not much technique there. The man is just fast. Ridiculously, historically, ludicrously fast.
He’s dominating the California League with an OBP over .400 and, as of Tuesday, 50 runs scored. I suspect he’s not going to be in High-A much longer, so I made a point of going to see him when the Blaze came to San Jose to play the San Jose Giants. The Blaze swept the three-game set against the Little Giants, thanks in large part to Billy’s five hits, five walks, five runs scored, and six stolen bases.
This is an account of what I saw during the last game of that set, on the evening of June 1, 2012.
First plate appearance; first inning Result: Single, SB, advances to third on passed ball, scores
On the hill for the Giants was junkballin’ lefty Jack Snodgrass. His fastball topped out at 89 mph, and mostly sat at 84. He gets by on excellent control and mixing speeds to keep hitters off balance.
Hamilton stepped in against Snodgrass, and this is what happened.
Defending against Billy Hamilton is a losing proposition. His BABIP is .398. In April,Sam Miller and I watched Hamilton go 3-for-3 on three infield choppers. All three should have been routine groundouts. Hamilton beat out all three, and they weren’t even especially close.
“Infielders are playing Billy in a lot,” according to Blaze announcer Dan Besbris. “And not just at the corners. We’re seeing middle infielders playing at double-play depth with no one on.”
Hamilton’s chopper up the middle here probably would’ve been a hit no matter where the middle infielders were playing. So he’s on first, and everyone in the park knows he’s going.
“I’ve got the green light at all times,” Hamilton told me. “It’s helping me learn a lot. If I go and get thrown out, the coaches tell me what I did wrong.”
[:25] He takes off on the first pitch with a lefty on the mound, virtually no secondary lead, and a pretty lousy jump, and steals it easily.
[:35-1:03] Hamilton disrupts the opposition just by being on base. San Jose Giants shortstop Joe Panik is focused entirely on Hamilton, and Snodgrass and Giants’ catcher Susac may be, too -- we have no way of knowing if he helped “induce” the passed ball that allows him to advance to third, but it’s certainly possible.
[1:22-1:30] Hamilton scores easily on a 6-3 groundout.
Second plate appearance; third inning Result: Walk, CS.
You can skip this video, frankly, or just fast-forward to 1:50 if you want to see Hamilton get picked off. It’s pretty impressive, because he almost makes it to second safely on speed alone.
If you choose to watch the entire video of this plate appearance, here are some highlights.
[:00-:08] Stadium announcer mispronounces “contest” and I make fun of him.
[:22-:30] Guy one row behind me (GORBM) tells his friends about Mr. Hamilton. “This guy right here? He’s fast as crrrrraaaaap. He’s got like 40 steals in a 50-game season already.” The next time he would tell his friends about Hamilton, he’d stolen 50 bases. The next, 67.
[:50-:1:02] GORBM tells his friends about Turkey Mike’s barbecue. “Phenommmmmmmmmmmenal.”
[1:18-1:22] Hamilton takes ball four, GORBM tells friends “You don’t want this guy on base!”
[1:50] Hamilton is picked off but almost beats it out.
Third plate appearance; fifth inning Result: RBI single, takes second on a steal of home (SB), steals third, scores.
This was a bona fide Billy Rally.
Runners on first and third, and Hamilton singles up the middle to score James Ewing.
Snodgrass throws over to first to check on Hamilton and Theo Bowe steals home. Hamilton steals second. Giants skipper Andy Skeels does his best Lou Piniella.
Hamilton steals third on the next pitch. Andrew Susac is so focused on trying to gun down Hamilton at third that the Snodgrass pitch gets away from him. Absolute mayhem!
Until someone develops a metric for “completely disrupting a defense while on the basepaths,” I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to measure Hamilton’s true impact.
Hamilton says he doesn’t watch much tape, but he does prep for games by reviewing the tendencies of the battery.
“I know who has a good move, who slide-steps,” he says. “And the coach gives me times when I’m at first, so I know how fast a guy is to the plate. I know these guys [Giants’ catchers] have good arms, so I’ve gotta get good jumps.”
Fourth plate appearance; seventh inning. Result: Advances to second on E4, injured, stranded.
[:09] GORBM reprises his earlier performance of “You don’t wanna let this guy on base.”
The rest: Joe Panik fields a hard grounder and goes to second to force out Hamilton, but second baseman Carter Jurica just flat-out misses the throw. Hamilton lands on second in a crumpled heap.
On the video you’ll hear me misdiagnose this; I thought the throw hit Hamilton, and I saw him clutching his head, so I assumed it had hit him. Turns out he just hit the bag awkwardly, as if he couldn’t decide whether to break up the double play or just try and beat the throw. He lay on the ground for a while, trainers from both teams came out to tend to him, and he eventually ended up staying in. At 1:17, you can hear me say “I’m not sure we’ll see any more steal attempts.”
Oh, ye of little faith.
The next hitter, Bryson Smith, hit into a double play and Hamilton was stranded.
Fifth plate appearance; eighth inning. Result: Walk, advances to second (defensive indifference), stranded
You can probably skip this video, too. It’s boring.
This is Hamilton’s first plate appearance against a righty; Chris Wilson walks him on four pitches. This was probably one of those unintentional intentional walks: guy on third, two outs, figure you walk Hamilton and let him take second base. Not a bad idea: if Hamilton puts the ball in play, he’ll probably beat it out, and the run will score.
I scrambled back to my camera position just in time to record this:
I had him at about 3.9 from the left side, and he clearly wasn’t going all out. He’d hurt himself earlier, the Blaze were piling on (it was already 10-4), and it was late, and cold. Clearly the umps wanted to go home too, because Hamilton was pretty obviously safe. I said so on the video, and this image
and this video
show that he probably beat the throw. If it’s the third inning of a close game, Hamilton probably makes it easily. But the official game record will show that the Giants were finally able to retire Hamilton, holding him to a 1.500 OPS for the game instead of the 1.667 to which he was truly entitled.
His final line was still eye-popping: 2-for-3 with three walks, three stolen bases (one caught stealing), two runs scored, an RBI, and a clean shortstop.
Some writers and scouts don’t feel like Hamilton has the skills to stick at short, and that his speed would be wasted at second base. “They haven’t talked to me specifically about playing center field or anything,” he says, “but I’ll play anywhere they want me to. I just want to contribute.”
I asked Hamilton if he agreed with the old saw that “speed never slumps.”
“Sometimes my legs feel better than other times, but no, my speed doesn’t slump. Speed is my game, and I’m having a lot of fun.”