The full extent of Billy Hamilton‘s baseball talents was on display last night as the Cincinnati Reds took down the Los Angeles Dodgers 10-3. The Reds’ centerfielder went 4-4 with four runs scored, a home run, and recorded his 53rd stolen base of the season. He went first to third on a throwing error by Dodgers’ pitcher Mat Latos. Clearly, Hamilton has wheels. He stole 165 bases in 2012 in the minor leagues, for crying out loud. Hamilton stole 56 bags in his rookie year last season in 152 games. He’s well ahead of that pace in 2015, having played in just 103 games. Even so, he’s still well off the pace required to record a 100-steal season, one of the rarest accomplishments in baseball history.
It’s now been 28 years since the last 100-stolen base season. Vince Coleman and Ricky Henderson spent the 1980’s swapping 100-steal seasons, with Henderson setting the all-time record of 130 in 1982. In league history, there have been just eight 100-steal seasons since 1900 — the same number of 60-home run seasons. Coleman and Henderson own six of them. The closest anyone has come since they retired was Jose Reyes who swiped 78 in 2007. It’s an incredibly difficult accomplishment, especially with the stolen base falling out of favor around the league.
If anyone is going to do it in this day and age, it will be Hamilton, the fastest player in the game hands down. The problem with Hamilton is his putrid on-base ability. This year he has a .276 OBP. It wasn’t much better last year — .292. When Henderson recorded his last 100-steal season in 1983, he had a .414 OBP and led the league with 103 walks. Coleman was not quite as good as Henderson, but he did have a .324 OBP. Both put themselves in position to steal much more frequently than Hamilton.
Perhaps that’s what makes the stolen base numbers Hamilton has put up even more impressive. This year, Hamilton has had 103 stolen base opportunities (counted as the number of times he has been on first or second base without a runner ahead of him). He’s converted over 50% of these opportunities into a steal. In Henderson and Coleman’s 100-steal seasons, they also converted over 50% of opportunities into steals, but both had far more opportunities to steal than Hamilton will get this year and were caught much more often. For example, in Henderson’s 130 steal season, he was caught 42 times for just a 76% success rate. Hamilton has only been caught seven times this year, good for an 88% success rate. Hamilton has stolen third base 16 times this year without being caught. When Henderson stole third 34 times in 1982, he was caught 13 times. The Cincinnati speedster has only been picked off twice this year, opposed to the 16 times Henderson was picked off when he set the record. Coleman was also picked off more than ten times in two of his three 100-plus steal seasons.
Hamilton is far more efficient on the bases than the two most prolific base stealers in history, but he lags far behind when it comes to the rest of the offensive game. His .230/.276/.296 slash line is the only thing holding him back from stealing 100 bases in a season. When Henderson stole exactly 100 bases in 1980, he set himself up for 343 stolen base opportunities thanks to his 179 base hits and 117 walks. It becomes a matter of simple math at this point. In 268 career games, Hamilton has given himself 292 stolen base opportunities. Henderson gave himself 5,411 opportunities to steal in only 3,081 games. To equal the number of opportunities Henderson had to steal, Billy Hamilton would need to play roughly 4,966 career games, or 30 years.
The question becomes then, can Billy Hamilton fix his game to get on base more frequently. For starters, Hamilton could work on seeing more pitches per at-bat. He’s seeing just 3.67 each time up, which ranks 108th out of 155 qualified hitters. That’s not the cure-all many think it to be, however, as Hamilton ranks above MVP candidate Buster Posey (3.53). Jose Altuve ranks dead last (3.23). Hamilton’s problem is twofold. He does not walk and he hits the ball in the air far too frequently. A 6’0″, 160 pound player should not have a nearly 1:1 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. On all of those weak flies, Hamilton is batting just .097 with a .153 slugging percentage. Yikes. He’s much better when hitting the ball on the ground and has beat out 13% of his infield grounders. That’s putting your speed to work.
As far as plate discipline goes, Hamilton does not chase an exorbitant number of pitches outside the zone. It’s working the count where he struggles. Hamilton has gotten to just 73 three-ball counts this season. One-hundred-twenty-five of his 415 plate appearances have ended after two pitches or less. Forty-five have also ended after an 0-2 count. Just over 40% of his trips to the batter’s box have ended without really working the count.
In reality, it may be difficult for Hamilton to improve on either of these aspects. He very well could be out of his depth at the big league level. His lone season in Triple-A resulted in a .252 batting average. It may be unrealistic to expect him to be much better than that at the Major League level. That being said, there is a very good chance that Billy Hamilton will record a 100-steal season before the end of his career. The Reds are currently 49 games away from the end of the season. If Hamilton maintains his pace, he will conclude 2015 with the 78 steals that Reyes notched in 2007. With an OBP well below .300, that is a feat in and of itself. A rise in OBP to just .315 — still below average — will result in roughly 205 stolen base opportunities for Hamilton, neglecting times he reaches via fielder’s choice. He’s already converted over 50% of his opportunities to steal to date. Getting over 200 opportunities should allow Hamilton to break through the 100 plateau.
The difference between a .275 and .315 OBP is not that significant — only 30 times on base in a 650 plate appearance season. For a player like Hamilton, 30 extra times on base can be accomplished quite easily. If he can swap 50 fly balls for grounders, speed alone could create an extra 10 hits. Hitting more groundballs also creates more fielder’s choice opportunities with men on base. Good luck trying to double Hamilton up. Even without walking, Hamilton could set himself up for 200 stolen base opportunities. The potential is there, and with a few tweaks to his game, Billy Hamilton could be well on his way to giving baseball its first 100 steal season in nearly three decades.