Billy Hamilton’s speed in context

Billy Hamilton’s performance this season has earned him as much attention as any prospect in baseball, if not more. By now, anyone who has heard of Hamilton knows that he is fast. He put himself on the mainstream prospect map last season when he stole 103 bases at Single-A Dayton, the 12th 100-steal season in minor league history and the first since Chris Morris did it in 2001.

Hamilton has fared even better in 2012 at Cincinnati’s High-A Bakersfield club; questions about his hit tool have been answered and he is stealing bases at a blinding rate, even for him: He is just two steals shy of his 2011 total in 55 fewer games. If he continues to steal bases at this rate and matches his games played total from last year, he will have stolen 170 bases.

The minor league record for stolen bases in a season is 145 by Vince Coleman in 1983, but he did it in just 113 games. Coleman’s stolen base rate was just a tick higher than Hamilton’s is at the current moment, but taking context into consideration, Hamilton’s speed is probably more impressive. Teams finally started realizing that allowing opposing players to steal bases whenever they wanted isn’t a very good idea, and the era of the triple-digit stolen base man has long since disappeared—nobody has reached the 80 steal mark in a season since 1988.

When looking at the respective major league stolen base totals from 1983 and 2011, the change in the way the running game is controlled may not be apparent. There were a total of 3,322 stolen bases in 1983 and 3,279 in 2011, but that doesn’t mean that stealing a base in today’s game is just as easy as it was in 1983. And it does not mean that elite stolen base men like Coleman and Rickey Henderson were demonstrably faster than present-day speedsters.

This, instead, is more of a contrast in eras. Stealing bases in the 1980s was easier, but the average player was slower. In today’s game stealing bases is more difficult, but since more teams are realizing the value of defense, more and more speedy players are earning more at-bats at the expense of the more cumbersome power hitter who loses as much value on defense he produces on offense—or something close to that effect.

Highlighting this point, we can look at the standard deviation from average in stolen bases for all qualified hitters from 1982-1985, which was 17.70, and from 2008-2011, which was 12.72. In the 1980s the fast guys stole tons of bases and the slower guys stole very few. Today, there are far more fast players who steal bases, but even the fastest players struggle to reach 50 steals.

This is why Hamilton’s accomplishment is much more impressive than Coleman’s, assuming that catcher defense in the minors today represents the same quality in relation to the major leagues today as it did in 1983.

Coleman stole a pro-rated 173 bases (assuming 135 games) in 1983, or 8.98 standard deviations from major league average. Hamilton’s current pace would put him 12.48 standard deviations away from major league average. Not only is Hamilton’s stolen base output more impressive than Coleman’s, it isn’t really close.

Using minor league equivalency, Hamilton is on pace for the equivalent of 117 stolen bases, and if you adjust for 162 games (I know, nobody plays that many games these days), his pace soars to 141. MLEs certainly have their detractors, but when an objective measurement is telling us that a 21-year-old kid is on pace finish the season with a performance equivalent to breaking the major league stolen base record, it is pretty impressive. Hamilton is probably never going to get on base at his current clip of .413 in the majors, so making a run at the all-time stolen base record, rather than a hypothetical one, is going to be difficult, but the fact that it is worth talking about is exciting.

Scouts/scouting reports put 80 grades on Hamilton’s speed (on the 20-80 scouting scale)—probably the easiest grade they have ever given—but that does nothing to differentiate Hamilton’s 80-grade speed from others receiving the same grade, and in this case, the difference is probably not negligible. More publicized measurements of players’ run times on the bases against the stopwatch might help us better compare Hamilton to other 80-grade runners, but perhaps recording a 100-meter dash time would put his speed in a more appropriate class.

Aside from speed, Hamilton is developing nicely at the plate as well, upping his walk rate (8.5 percent to 12.8 percent), lowering his strikeout rate (21.8 percent to 16.8 percent), and showing better power (.118 ISO) than he did last season. He is hitting .322/.413/.439 and with all the extra value generated on the base paths, he has a 150 wRC+, so the bat, at least at this point, doesn’t look like a major hindrance between him and advancement toward the major leagues.

Speed is something easy to measure, much easier than power, hitting, or fielding, yet we still don’t have very good ways to compare speed between eras, or even within eras. Most “whose faster?” debates end without the presentation of qualitative evidence, and a true resolution is difficult to reach. Since this is the case, we have to rely on methods of measurement that are less than optimal. But this also gives us a chance to talk about a player like Billy Hamilton, almost certainly the fastest player in professional baseball, and quite possibly the fastest player to ever play the game. His performance, in a somewhat depressed era for steals—at least for extremely high stolen base totals—is making that argument and it quite compelling.

How fast is Billy Hamilton? Incredibly fast, but we don’t really have the objective measurements to quantify it. Would he look out of place running against the likes of Usain Bolt and the world’s top sprinters? Again, we don’t know, but probably not. What we do know is that Hamilton likes to steal bases and he does it a lot, and once he reaches the majors he is going to be a must-watch.

We don’t know if the Reds will curtail his running at all, but if he stays healthy and is successful enough that the team benefits, then there should be no reason why they should. And, if he can get on base at a decent rate, we could be looking at the first triple-digit stolen base man since 1986, and maybe, just maybe, the game’s last legitimate contender for Rickey Henderson’s modern day stolen base record.

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Comments

  1. David P Stokes said...

    I’m not sure that I buy the arguments presented here as to why stolen base totals for the top base stealers have gone down.  I thought that it was more that teams are just having players pick their spots to steal more selectively.

  2. Jackalope said...

    The world’s top sprinters look out of place running against Usain Bolt.  Hamilton certainly would as well.

    Perhaps if he devoted his life to training as a sprinter, there is a chance he might be able to compete on a national or international level, but as a baseball player, no chance.

  3. Doug C. said...

    Stealing a base requires running about 27 yards.  Usain Bolt is not particularly good over this distance.  He’s routinely behind at this point in his sprint events.  My guess is that at least 100 athletes could beat him—Hamilton among them.

  4. Doug C. said...

    Questions about hitting ability don’t really get answered at the level of high A minor league ball.  They begin to be answered in AA.  So while Hamilton is doing fine with the bat, he has a ways to go.

    Too, there’s more to be learned about what position he can handle in the field.  Many are dubious about his ability to play shortstop.  If he ends up at second or especially CF or LF, his ability to hit will be assessed against a higher standard.  If Joey Gathright had the ability to play a decent shortstop, he’d be a major league regular right now.  He wasn’t even a good defensive outfielder, so he’s still bouncing around in his early 30s.

  5. Jesse Sakstrup said...

    @Jackalope:
    Perhaps you are correct, but I have done a bit of research to try and get a better comparison of speed between the two sports.

    In 1929 a “fastest inside the park home run” competition was held. A man named Evar Swanson circled the bases in 13.3 seconds. Using the linear distance around the bases, that equals 109.7 meters. Which, assuming constant speed throughout, would give him a 100m dash time of 12.1 seconds.

    This, however, does not take into account the circular path that base runners travel when rounding the bases, which is 121.6 meters. Using the same principle as before, this equates to a 10.9 second 100m dash time.

    Now, we can assume that running a circular 100m dash would be slower than running a linear one, and Evar was probably wearing baseball equipment and running on dirt, both of which are hindrances to optimal sprinting. Maybe the route he traveled was in between the linear and circular distances around the bases, though, and his circular 100m dash time would end up between 10.9 and 12.1 seconds. In any case that is very fast.

    At the 2008 Olympics there were plenty of sprinters who posted times worse than 10.9 at the—granted many of them were from smaller nations—and a time of 10.46 was the worst time that managed to qualify for the quarterfinals.

    Maybe Billy Hamilton isn’t as fast as Evar Swanson was over 100m, but assuming he is just equally as fast, and no faster, then he probably has the potential to post a 100m dash time that could earn his way into an Olympic quarterfinal heat, at least according to the numbers.

    Link to the articles: http://speedendurance.com/2009/03/16/fastest-baseball-inside-park-home-run-world-record/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_2008_Summer_Olympics_–_Men’s_100_metres

  6. Jesse Sakstrup said...

    @Doug C:
    “Answering questions” is a subjective term, so I will say that he is striking out much less and hitting for more power, which were two things that could have hung him up if he failed to improve. He is also walking much more, which is good too. He will be “asked more questions” at higher levels for sure, but he is in a much better place at the plate now than he was this time last year.

    As far as defense goes, he should have range wherever he goes. That doesn’t mean he will make good jumps, have good positioning, and take good routes, but his speed should make up for some of his frailties in the other areas.

  7. Fletch said...

    How does his speed compare to say, that of Dee Gordon, Brett Gardner, or Michael Bourn?

    I know he rates as an “80” on the scouting scale, but would he be dramatically faster than the guys in the group above?

  8. Jesse Sakstrup said...

    @Fletch:
    I really don’t know. I have heard scouts say that the scouting scale doesn’t have the required height to appropriately grade his speed—or something to that effect. Scouting information is pretty proprietary, so any quantitative data on the speed differentials between players is not available. I have never seen him run in person, but I am guessing that his speed is noticeably faster, maybe a tier higher than the fastest players the MLB has to offer. I could be wrong though.

  9. Doug C. said...

    Jesse, the wash out rate for hitters between A+ and AA ball is quite high.  Before making much of his stats in 2012, I’d want to know about the league and park factors that are in play for Hamilton this season.  And even then I’d lean towards under-interpreting his improvement as a hitter.

    Regarding Hamilton’s presumed range if he moves to the outfield (as many believe will be necessary), all you have to do is take a look at Joey Gathright.  He was the fastest player in MLB by all accounts a few years ago.  However, his range in CF was below average, as I recall.  The ability to read the ball and run good routes is just not there for every player with speed.  Since Hamilton is coming up as an infielder, if he moves to the outfield he’ll have little experience at playing fly balls.  No one has a clue right now how he’ll do.

    It’s exciting to see a young player piling up stolen bases.  But let’s face it—he’s doing this against pitchers and catchers who are far from having major league skills in combating the running game.  Hamilton has got a long way to go to even reach the base-stealing level of the non-legend Gathright. 

    Hamilton is young, has at least one plus tool, and has a chance to be good.  I hope he makes it.  But the odds are probably well under 50% that he ever attends a single all-star game without a ticket.

  10. Jesse Sakstrup said...

    @Doug C:
    I agree with most of what you are saying, but you can’t say that an improved approach at the plate at a higher level isn’t a positive. It is certainly better than what he did last season. This isn’t to say that there won’t be much tougher tests, there will.

    And yes, he is stealing bases against less skilled pitchers and catchers, but nobody else is coming close to his stolen base totals—I know stolen base totals are a product of attempt frequency—and I am comparing his season to Vince Coleman’s record breaking season; I doubt Coleman saw many pitchers/catchers that could control the running game very well either. And its not like pitchers aren’t throwing over and slide-stepping and varying their timing.

    I know it sounds like recency bias, but we really can’t rule out that Billy Hamilton is the fastest player to ever play the game and that is exciting.

    He, like you said, has a low probability of being a star, but so does everyone in the minor leagues with the exception of maybe Profar and a couple of others.

  11. lisa gray said...

    jesse,

    big difference between “might could be” and “IS” when you are talking about being THE fastest baserunner.

    and again,
    stealing a lot in A ball is great, but the vast majority of guys’ SB totals decrease over the next 2 levels.

    billy, by the way, is not the first to have SB totals in triple digits since vince coleman – the last guy to do so was esix snead, back in 2000. And he went from 109 SB with 35 CS and 72 walks at A+ to 65 SB with 23 CS and 44 walks at AA the very next year. Both years with 582 PA, by the way. I remember all of the “next vince coleman” talk, seeing as how he was a st louis minor leaguer.

    I also know that “the fastest” does not necessarily translate into “the best” when it comes to stealing bases at higher levels.

  12. Jesse Sakstrup said...

    @lisa gray:
    Yes, for sure, I am saying “might be”. And I did mention Chris Morris in the article. The difference with Hamilton is that he is on pace for 170 bases and that scouts agree that his speed is beyond 80-grade. I am just rising the point, in what I believe to be an interesting way, that Hamilton’s speed—or at least the way his speed plays in games—could be something special, more special than your average “80-grade” runner. But, of course, I am writing about the ceiling.

  13. booond said...

    @Jesse

    A 10.9 100 meters won’t win many high school championships, let alone get him into the Olympic quarters.  And getting into the Olympic quarters doesn’t make him one of the top-32 in the world as countries can only place 3 people per event.  Last year 30 men ran 10.12 or better.  I suspect there were close to 100 at or near 10.50.  Obviously, running 10.5 makes him very fast but not world class .

  14. booond said...

    @Doug.

    While Bolt isn’t always the quickest guy out of the blocks, he’s usually very competitive due to his stride length and stride turnover.  Plus, he’s running against the fastest men in the world, not quick baseball players.  Hamilton likely is 8th out of 8 in that class of runner even at 27 yards.

  15. booond said...

    @Jesse,

    It is recency to crown/nominate Hamilton as fastest player ever.  Let’s try these three instead:

    Jim Thorpe – Olympic Gold Medalist/Professional Football player

    Herb Washington – World record holder in 50 and 60 yard dashes.

    Willie Wilson – Ran handheld 9.4 100 yards in high school and holds post 1950 record for inside the park home runs. 

    Hamilton may well be the fastest but we have little evidence beyond his being a great basestealer in A ball.

  16. Track speed is fast said...

    No, Hamilton would be much slower than elite sprinters. A lot of people look “fast” but they don’t dedicate their lives to it.

    For example, to my knowledge, Andres Torres is the fastest current major leaguer. He ran 10.37 in HS, which is WORLD’S slower than the ~9.8 that the fastest people in the world run. If he trained hard and had consistent improvement like most people with 10.37 HS personal bests, he might break 10. However, that itself is world-class. As a point of comparison, the fastest man in France is just barely sub 10.

    I believe that Deion Sanders was the fastest guy ever, and he was also only clocked at like 10.3.

  17. booond said...

    Torres ran 10.37 at Dade CC.  That’s fast but the difference between that and World Class is like the difference between Rodeo Drive and the rodeo.

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