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.