KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A hundred stolen bases? That’s so 2011. Today, Vince Coleman’s minor-league record of 145 stolen is the goal for Cincinnati minor-leaguer Billy Hamilton.
“Yeah, last year I didn’t get to 100 until the last couple of games of the season. Then when I hit 100 this year, it didn’t feel the same. Last year it was intense. This year it was just another stolen base,” Hamilton said Sunday before the All-Star Futures Game. “I guess 145 will be like 100 was last year. It is the record, 145, so last year when I got to 100 it was pretty intense — so this year it will be 145. Well, 146 — 145 would tie it. I don’t want to just tie it.”
And it’s more than possible that Hamilton can break the record, set in 1983 while Coleman was a member of the Macon Redbirds. In 82 games for high-Class A Bakersfield, Hamilton recorded an amazing 104 stolen bases. For a bit of perspective, he needed 135 games at low-Class A to steal 103 bases and become the first minor-leaguer in a decade to eclipse the century mark.
However, Hamilton’s task became a bit more difficult this week, as he left the game’s showcase of the best minor-league talent at the All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City to his new posting in Pensacola, Fla., home of the Reds’ Double-A affiliate, the Blue Wahoos. As a Blue Wahoo, Hamilton will face more advanced pitchers and catchers, who will no doubt be paying him plenty of attention. While Reds fans may want to see him in Cincinnati sooner than later (and perhaps as just a pinch-runner for the late-season charge and playoffs), there’s still quite a bit of development the team needs to see from the 21-year-old. The move up the minor-league ladder is just another step — and not one near the top.
“Every year it gets harder, they get better — the catchers, the pitchers — you start facing veteran guys, especially at the Triple-A level, they know how to hold runners,” said Anthony Gose, a speedster for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A team in Las Vegas.
Gose stole 76 bases in low-Class A as an 18-year-old in 2009, 70 bases last season at Double-A New Hampshire and has 24 in Triple-A this season.
“At the lower levels — and not taking anything away from those guys — it’s a touch easier,” Gose said.
“Pitchers don’t have as much command, putting it where you want it has a big effect. Catchers don’t have to reach around so they’re out of position to make a throw. But it’s definitely not easy. Some guys have never had to hold guys on before and as they go up, they make adjustments.”
During the nationally televised game in K.C., Hamilton didn’t get a chance to challenge some of the minors’ best pitchers and catchers. He went 1 for 3 and his lone time on base was a third-inning triple, which might have been an inside-the-park home run had he not thought the ball was going to be caught in center field.
“[Team USA manager] George Brett told me I should have stopped at first and stolen second and third,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton did show off his speed, not only on the triple but on the next play, when Reed’s error allowed him to score. With Hamilton on third, St. Louis prospect Kolten Wong hit a comebacker to the mound, Reed picked it up, looked over at Hamilton several times, and then threw the ball wildly, allowing Hamilton to score and Wong to advance to third.
“I saw he was nervous a little bit, he kept watching me,” Hamilton said. “There’s a few times this year where a pitcher would get the ball, give me one look and I’d go. So I was thinking about that. I saw he got so close to first base that I was — not scared — but thought it’d be better to stay at third and he rushed his throw over there.”
Wong said he was busting down the line, knowing Hamilton could make any fielder nervous if the ball went to them.
“Knowing Billy’s here, he’s so fast that no matter what he does they’re going to be conscious of him,” Wong said. “I sent a Twitter out when I found out I was going to be behind him in the lineup: I said jokingly that I knew I’d have to hit with two strikes, because he’d get on and steal first and then steal second. ... When you’ve got a guy with 104 stolen bases, you’ve got to worry about him, you’ve got to be cautious.”
And, so too should be the optimism from Cincinnati. Minor leaguers are in the minors for a reason. Hamilton has improved his strikeout and walk rates, but there are still concerns whether he can get on base at the necessary clip to be successful in the big leagues. Only time can tell those things and, even with Hamilton, that’s not something you can speed up.
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