He hasn't had a Major League at-bat, nor has he played an inning defensively. But there's no question Billy Hamilton is wreaking havoc in the National League Central.
It really doesn't matter what Jim Callis has to say about Red Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts, this one is no contest to me. And the fact that Hamilton is making, and will continue to make, that kind of impact without setting foot in the batter's box or the outfield is truly amazing.
Hamilton, the No. 16 overall prospect and No. 1 on the Reds' Top 20, is known, of course, for his plus plus speed, which gets an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Most are familiar with his 155 stolen bases in 2012. He did that while hitting .311 with a .410 on-base percentage across two levels. Hamilton also did it as a shortstop. Then he went to the Arizona Fall League and worked on his transition to center field (while stealing another 10 bags).
Hamilton's 2013 season, at least statistically, was seen as a dropoff. He still swiped 75 bases (in 90 attempts), but he saw his walk rate drop from 86 in 132 games in 2012 to 38 in 123 games. It should be noted, however, that he turned things up in the later stages of the season. After Hamilton admitted to trying to do too much early on and posting a .243/.300/.331 in the first half, he upped his production to .283/.324/.367 after the break. He finished second in the Minor in steals, behind White Sox prospect Micah Johnson's 84, breaking a two-year run of leading all Minor Leaguers. Still, Hamilton's 333 steals over the past three seasons (he had 103 in 2011) is a total difficult to believe.
Of course, how he hit in 2013 isn't really relevant right now. A debate over just what kind of big leaguer Hamilton can be -- Will he hit enough? Can he gain enough strength so he doesn't wear down? -- is interesting but can wait for another day. That's because, for the short term, Hamilton is the greatest pinch-runner the game has ever seen.
Too grandiose a claim? Take a look at what Hamilton's done so far. He made his Major League debut on Sept. 3, entering the game in a scoreless tie against the Cardinals as a pinch-runner for Ryan Ludwick. Everyone on the planet knew what he was going to do -- steal second -- and he did it anyway, even with Yadier Molina behind the plate. Todd Frazier doubled, Hamilton scored, and the Reds won, 1-0.
The same scenario played out last Wednesday, though it didn't result in a win. Cincinnati trailed, 5-4, in the bottom of the 14th inning. Ludwick singled, Hamilton replaced him, stole second and scored on a Zack Cozart single. The Reds went on to lose in the 16th.
Hamilton stole base number three on Friday, against the Dodgers, running for Brandon Phillips, though he didn't score that time around. That "drought" ended the next day, also against Los Angeles. He's become Ludwick's late-innings legs. Ludwick walked in the 10th inning of this contest; Hamilton came in, stole second and once again scored on a Frazier base hit. If game-winning RBIs were still a highly coveted stat, Frazier would owe Hamilton for helping him pad his stats.
Four games, four pinch-running appearances, four steals, three runs scored. Hamilton is the first player in Major League history, at least dating back to 1916, to steal a base in each of his first four games.
Cincinnati fans may not get to see Hamilton patrol center field or hit atop the lineup any time soon. They may not care. The battle for postseason positioning with the Reds, Cardinals and Pirates is a dogfight, and Hamilton might be able to help Cincinnati literally run past the other two to a division crown and, quite possibly, home-field advantage in the NL playoffs.