Can Hamilton Reinvent Baseball?
In a time where offense is supposedly dying, is Billy Hamilton’s speed the key to changing the game?
Written by Jake Elman
Offense is dying, they say. The game of baseball is becoming even more boring with the lack of monstorous home runs, they say. Well, if you’re someone who thinks baseball is becoming ‘even more boring’ in a time where offense is dropping, I recommend you turn your attention to Cincinnati.
Before we became a society that loved upper deck home runs and shots that would go further than the eye could see, baseball loved small ball and when I say that, I don’t mean shifts and sabermetrics. Home runs were cool and all — sexy, if you will — but there were few things better than pure strategy, where your leadoff hitter would get on base, steal second, steal third, and advance home on a base hit by the next batter. The art of strategy has definitely been revived over the past few years with the addition of shifts, sabermetrics, and LOOGYs, but stolen bases seemed to be a dying art.
Sure, there were players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Reyes, and Juan Pierre that would consistently come close to swiping 70 bases a year, but we were in the age of power. Instead of your leadoff hitter being a guy that would get on, steal second and third, and find his way home, there were teams that instead chose to put a hitter in the leadoff spot who would get on base and set the table for the rest of the order. Yankees manager Joe Girardi, for example, had outfielder Nick Swisher hit leadoff during parts of the 2011 season due to an injury to shortsop Derek Jeter instead of, say, Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson (two much faster players than Swisher) because Swisher had a .374 OBP in 2011.
In the six games leading off, Swisher hit .316, but I still find it interesting that so many teams went with pure OBP over speed at the leadoff position. That definitely played a role in the decrease of stolen bases, and remember, it was only three years ago that Padres shortstop Evereth Cabrera stole a measley 44 bases to lead the National League. What happened to all of the stealing?
Anyways, it looks the art of stolen bases is back, thanks to Cincinnati Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton. After stealing 56 bases last year, but also being caught 23 times, Hamilton has stolen 7 bases in 7 attempts in his first five games this year. Though Hamilton’s hitting remains low, as he’s currently hitting .222/.364/.222 to start the season, the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year runner-up has improved his patience (four walks to four strikeouts after a 34-117 ratio last year) and is looking like the type of feared leadoff hitter we all expected him to be for Bryan Price’s Reds.
For what it’s worth, when I say feared leadoff hitter, just watch what he did in the opening series against Pittsburgh on a pitch-out.
I’m sorry, Josh Harrison. That is the baseball equivalent of having your ankles broken.
Hamilton is the first player since Vince Coleman in 1987 to steal six bases in his first three games, and Coleman finished with 109 stolen bases. Now, that number has jumped up to seven in five games, When Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases for the 1982 ‘Billy Ball’ Oakland Athletics, he had five through seven games, so Hamilton is on pace to beat the stolen base king. What’s caused this change in Hamilton’s game?
“It’s something me and Hatch [coach Billy Hatcher] have been working together with since I’ve been here. It’s different from last year,” Hamilton told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon earlier this week. “We have Joey [Votto], who is hot right now. I feel like now, I don’t have to steal right away. I don’t have to steal on the first pitch or second pitch. I can wait around a little bit and go whenever the right time is so I feel confident over there.”
With offense in the drought that it is, maybe Hamilton’s stolen base prowess is going to help revive the stolen base game to a level we haven’t seen in years. The same way that we’re seeing heavier cleanup hitter bunt when they have the entire left side of the infield open, there’s a chance we’ll see more players take more chances on the basepaths.
With all of the brilliantly fast players there are in Major League Baseball right now, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see more and more players follow in Hamilton’s footsteps and record anywhere from 35 to 55 stolen bases a season. It may sound like a high number range, but players are going to have to compensate for the offensive power outage we’re in right now.
Now, is Hamilton going to break Henderson’s record? I don’t necessarily think so, but I do think Hamilton is going to be baseball’s first player to steal 80 bases in a single season since…both Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson back in 1988.
Do you think that Hamilton’s success with stolen bases to start the season can ‘reinvent’ baseball and help fix the offensive drought? Make sure to chime in on the conversation by tweeting me at @JakeElman