The Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout leads the American League with 16 stolen bases. Tony Campana of the Chicago Cubs leads the National League, and all of baseball, with 23. Billy Hamilton, a 21-year-old prospect in the Cincinnati Reds organization now has more than double their combined total this season. He also has more than every team in baseball, as well as more than the Tigers (28), Red Sox (26) and Orioles (22) combined.
With five more stolen bases on Saturday, Hamilton upped his total to a whopping 80 steals through 66 games this season. Over the course of a 162 game season, that projects to 196, which would shatter the major league record of 130 set by Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson in 1982. Hamilton, of course, is still refining his overall skills at class-A advanced Bakersfield, not quite the competition Henderson was competing against. He is, however, no fluke.
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A second-round draft pick by the Reds out of Taylorville High School in Mississippi, Hamilton was a three sport star who had a commitment to play football at Mississippi State. Scouts loved his speed, and the fact that he was a switch-hitter, but questioned his ability to hit enough to be able to capitalize on his best tool. The bat speed was there, but his approach at the plate needed some serious work. As an 18-year old in the rookie league, he hit just .205 over 43 games with 11 walks, 47 strikeouts and a .253 OBP. He did steal 14 bases, mostly relying on his shear speed.
He had a breakout season in 2010, showing the hard work and dedication he put into becoming a better hitter. Over 69 games, he hit .318 with 13 doubles, 10 triples, two home runs, 24 RBI and a .383 OBP. He was 48-for-57 in stolen bases, and rather than just relying on his speed, he showed the ability to steal bases on instincts and reading the pitchers moves. Being fast will help you steal some bases, but you have to know how to steal bases to be among the best.
He came into 2011 with one goal in mind: steal 100 bases, something that hadn’t been done in the minors since Chris Morris stole 111 in 2001 with class-A Peoria of the Midwest League, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate. Over 135 games at class-A Dayton, also in the Midwest League, Hamilton hit .278 with 18 doubles, nine triples, three home runs and 50 RBI. He also stole an amazing 103 bases, surpassing the goal he had set. His .340 OBP was still something that a future lead-off hitter would need to continue to work on if he wanted to have success at the next level.
He got a promotion to class-A advanced Bakersfield of the California League to start the 2012 season. With an off-season spent working on his approach at the plate, the results have been remarkable. Through 66 games, he is hitting .322 with a .408 OBP. His speed also allows him to beat out routine balls hit to infielders who field and throw them cleanly. A single is often as good as a triple as he will steal third as easily as he does second. He is hitting .337 from the left side, .292 from the right. Over 16 games this month, he is hitting .333 with 13 walks and 23 stolen bases. He is getting better as the season goes on, as well as more aggressive.
Vince Coleman holds the minor league record for stolen bases in a season with 145, set back in 1983 while playing for class-A Macon of the SALLY League. Coleman did it in 113 games, for a 1.28 steals-per-game ratio. Hamilton sis currently at 1.21 per game. With about 70 games to go, he is on pace for about 166, a mark that would obliterate Coleman’s mark. He plays shortstop now, but may make a transition to second base down the line. With Zack Cosart playing well at shortstop for the Reds, and Brandon Phillips locked in at second, the Reds are in no need to rush the young phenom. With Coleman’s record in sight, look for Hamilton to take it down. He usually achieves his goals.