Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. Jesse Sanchez contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
KANSAS CITY -- The roving instructor from the Class A Stockton Ports remembers what it was like when Billy Hamilton came to town earlier this season. "Every time he touched the base, he was off and running," the instructor said. "We tried everything we could possibly do to stop him, but there was no stopping him."
The instructor smiled at the thought, because it sure brought back memories. Rickey Henderson, after all, knows a good thief when he sees one. And he sees one in Hamilton. "To me," Henderson said during Sunday's SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, "it's amazing." And if you've amazed Major League Baseball's all-time stolen base king, you must be doing something right. Maybe Hamilton, who got the start at shortstop and the leadoff spot for the U.S. team, wasn't the top prospect at this annual glimpse into baseball's bright future, but he was undeniably the most intriguing one, what with the 104 steals he's already logged in half a season with the Class A Bakersfield Blaze. He didn't swipe another one on this day, but he did drive in a pair of runs with a triple -- his lone hit in three at-bats. Still, it's the steals that attract the interest. "He's nuts," said Kyle Lotzkar, Hamilton's fellow Reds prospect and Futures Game participant. "He's totally changed the complexion of the game. I play with him, and it makes the whole team better, especially the guy who hits after him. Pitchers are focused on Billy instead of the other hitters." That Hamilton played in High A for a team named the Blaze -- emphasis on the past tense, because he'll be promoted to Double-A Pensacola this week -- is appropriate, given his fleet feet. Hamilton even talks as fast as he runs, the words sputtering out in rapid fire. "I've got a bunch of guys following me, talking about my stolen bases," he said. "It's crazy." No, what's crazy is what Hamilton is accomplishing on the field. It seems he's just a few average weeks away from breaking Vince Coleman's record of 145 steals, set in 1983. "People have been talking about it, big-time," Hamilton said. "But I haven't been stressing myself out about it." He's more concerned with becoming a complete player who can shoot up the Minor League ladder. His speed alone could earn him a September callup, if the Reds want to use him for the playoff push. As far as the development of other areas of his game is concerned, Hamilton has improved his on-base percentage drastically this season by increasing his walk totals. And though he is a natural-born right-handed hitter, he now bats from the left-hand side, as well, to take better advantage of his speed out of the box. He claims he can get to first base in 3.4 seconds and, watching him in action, it's difficult to doubt him. "What he's doing is unbelievable," said Anthony Gose, a member of the Toronto organization and a fellow member of the U.S. roster in the Futures Game. "I don't know how many people have seen anything like that in all of baseball. To have 100 stolen bases at the halfway point is incredible. It's unheard of." What's not unheard of is slotting Hamilton into the leadoff position, and U.S. manager George Brett took the obvious bait. Hamilton, after all, is a natural for the role, and he takes great pride in working opposing pitchers into a tizzy so as to help those batting behind him. Last week, an opposing pitcher threw to first base eight times between pitches. Eight times. And you know what happened when he finally delivered a pitch to home plate. Of course you know what happened. "I stole," Hamilton said, matter-of-factly. "If he's going to go that many times, that means he wants to get me out. So I'm just going to let him try to get me out." Not many people can get Billy Hamilton out. He's been caught just 21 of the 125 times he's taken off, and you don't notch that many swipes at the professional level without equal parts intellect and athleticism. "You've got to have speed," he said, "but you also have to have attention on what the pitchers are trying to do, what kind of move he has if he slide-steps, what kind of pickoff move he has." This wasn't always the way Hamilton played the game. Growing up in Taylorsville, Miss., he, like so many of us, wanted to be a home-run hitter. "That," he said with a laugh, "didn't work." But when Hamilton arrived to the Reds' rookie league team in Billings, Mont., in 2010, a conversation with Delino Deshields, then the manager of the Mustangs, changed his course completely. A former 13-year Major League veteran with 463 stolen bases of his own, Deshields saw the ability in Hamilton. It was Deshields who instilled that confidence in the youngster, and it was Ken Griffey Sr., manager at Bakersfield, who helped him refine it this year. "Both of those guys," Hamilton said, "have been a big part of my stolen bases." Obviously, because of all those stolen bases, Hamilton has made himself a focal point in the opposing scouting report, but nobody has shown an ability to stop him with consistency. And in the past week alone, he's forced opposing pitchers into balks four times. "I feel like I'm making them rush, making them do things they don't want to do," Hamilton said. "That helps the guys behind me get mistakes and pitches to hit." On Sunday, Hamilton had new teammates to help out. And on Monday, he'll take his talents to Pensacola. Another level, another stage on which to let his speed shine. "I'm wondering if he is outrunning the ball or if they can't throw him out," Henderson said. "But the success he's having is amazing. And it reminds me of the time I was playing and the desire to be a base-stealer. All he wants to do is run. And with that mentality, I think he's going to be a fantastic base-stealer. It shows he loves what he's doing out there."