Billy Hamilton at the Arizona Fall League, races, crossroads

Michael Chang

Is Hamilton the first 100 SB threat in the majors since '87? And what does that mean?

The Arizona Fall League runs until its championship game on November 17 - because that's when Billy Hamilton is projected to steal the last base in America's Strategic Base Reserve.

Actually, Billy Hamilton isn't even leading the AFL in stolen bases. He has 9, while Carlos Sanchez - who stole 27 bases (128 less than Billy Hamilton) in the minors last season - is leading with 10. It should be noted that Sanchez has played in 4 more games. It should also be noted that all of these numbers, with the exception of 155, are meaningless.

With Donald Lutz having made an early exit with a broken finger, Hamilton and Didi Gregorius are the two high profile Reds' prospects out there. But Hamilton is the one with his Twitter handle perma-posted on the Arizona Fall League homepage.

While the numbers are a lot of noise, I do think there are a few things to pull out of Hamilton's off-season labors. First of all, it's this:

Just a reminder that Hamilton's speed is not the kind of speed that's often dismissed when we talk about a "slap-hitting speedster." It's generational, legendary speed. Like rust, it does not sleep. Any time the ball is not the hands of the guy one base in front of Hamilton, he's a threat to advance.

We've heard some normally pretty sober guys gush about Hamilton.

John Sickels:

He's the fastest guy I've seen on a baseball field since Vince Coleman or a young Rickey Henderson... Some scouts still wonder if he'll hit enough for his speed to be a genuine difference-maker, but he does a decent job controlling the strike zone and making adjustments. He's not punchless and doesn't get the bat knocked out of his hands, unlike many speed-only players. Count me among the optimists.


Keith Law (on the "Baseball Today" podcast):

(Billy Hamilton) might be the fastest ever... It's game changing speed. Not as a cliche. Just the fact that he's on base alters what's going on on the field.

The speed is an offensive weapon, not just a party trick. Of course, Billy has to reach base regularly to use it. He's gotten on base at a .356 clip in the AFL and .364 as a minor-leaguer, including an above-.400 rate across two levels last year.

If Sickels is right about Hamilton controlling the strike zone, there's evidence in numbers. His walk rate has improved since 2009, up to 14% last season (and nearly 17% in AA). By comparison, Drew Stubbs peaked at 14% in A+ and hasn't been above 9.4% in the majors.

Let's say Hamilton can get walk around 10% of the time in the majors and that it might be good for a .360 OBP. Last season, Hamilton stole a staggering 155 bases in 246 times on the basepaths. That's an average of a base every 1.5 times reaching. Knocking that down to a base every two times aboard and Hamilton would still steal 109 bases (per 600 PAs).

This is purely speculative - and contingent on Billy reaching base at a Hanigan rate and not a Heisey. But I don't think it's at all a stretch to say that Hamilton is a 100+ SB threat in the majors if he continues to "control the strikezone" and, we assume, not "let it control him." Even if he doesn't, we can recall that Vince Coleman was able to steal 100 bases in a season where he reached base at a .301 clip.

There have only been 8 players since 1901 who have stolen 100 or more bases (all between '62-'87). All of these were at least 2.0 WAR players except for Coleman.

Talking about Hamilton's overall value on both sides of the ball brings us to the last thing worth saying about Hamilton at the AFL: he's trying out his new position. I think it's too early to know how good he'll be in CF, but we can be pretty sure he has the range. Neutral defense there, >.350 OBP and no leg injuries will make Hamilton an elite leadoff hitter.

But since we don't really know how he'll judge fly balls, how sure-handed he'll be and how his arm will be (probably not great), I'll just share this thing about how outfielders catch fly balls from David Eagleman's Incognito:

Scientist and baseball fan Mike McBeath set out to understand the hidden neural computations behind catching fly balls. He discovered that outfielders use an unconscious program that tells them not where to end up but simply how to keep running. They move in such a way that the parabolic path of the ball always progresses in a straight line from their point of view. If the ball's path looks like its deviating from a straight line, they modify their running path.

This simple program makes the strange prediction that the outfielders will not dash directly to the landing point of the ball but will instead take a peculiarly curved running path to get there. And that's exactly what players do, as verified by McBeath and his colleagues by aerial video.

And because this running strategy gives no information about where the point of intersection will be, only how to keep moving to get there, the program explains why outfielders crash into walls while chasing uncatchable fly balls.

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