Gradually, the art of the stolen base has seemed to fade from baseball. Cincinnati Reds shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton appears intent on making it commonplace, at least when he is on the basepaths.
On Friday, the 21-year-old switch-hitter swiped two bags for Double-A Pensacola (Fla.) giving him 135 on the season. Hamilton now has 13 stolen bases in his last six games. The single-season minor league record is 145, established by Vince Coleman in 1983.
When asked if the Reds would consider summoning Hamilton to the parent club when rosters expand on September 1, manager Dusty Baker told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “Possibly. Speed’s always an asset. Speed kills. I remember the Cardinals with Willie McGee, Vince Coleman and Ozzie (Smith). Man. That was their slogan, speed kills.”
Coleman and the Cardinals, and Henderson (who played for a carousel of teams), defined the glory days of the stolen base, at least in the modern era.
In the 1980s, Henderson and Coleman eclipsed 100 steals multiple times. Henderson swiped 130 in 1982, breaking Lou Brock’s single-season record. Coleman stole more than 100 bases from 1985-1987.
From 1985-1990, Coleman led the National League in steals, including 110 in 1985 and 77 in 1990.
From 1980-1991, Henderson led the American League in stolen bases in all but one season (1987, when Seattle’s Harold Reynolds topped the list with 60). In 1980, Henderson swiped 100 bases. By 1991, his league-leading total was down to 58.
Indicating how the stolen bases has not been emphasized as much in the last two decades, the most swipes in a season since over the last 20 years is 78, accomplished by Montreal’s Marquis Grissom in 1992 and then New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes in 2007.
Last season, Coco Crisp and Brett Gardner tied for the American League lead in stolen bases with 49, less than half of what Henderson and Coleman produced in their best years. Michael Bourn paced the National League in 2010 with 50.
Perhaps the terror that Hamilton causes for opposing pitchers and catchers on the basepaths will spark a resurgence in teams emphasizing the stolen base.
A second round pick out of high school in 2009, Hamilton can do more than swipes bases in bunches. He was No. 27 on Baseball America’s 2012 Mid-Season Top 50 Prospects List. Last season, for Single-A Dayton in the Midwest League, Hamilton recorded 103 steals while hitting .278 with three home runs, 50 RBI, 19 doubles and nine triples.
In 2012, the Mississippi native batted .323 with 104 stolen bases and a .413 on-base percentage at advanced Single-A Bakersfield before earning a promotion to Double-A Pensacola, where he has 31 swipes and a .395 OBP.
Hamilton is still a work in progress, especially on defense. He committed 25 errors in 82 games at Bakersfield and has four errors in 28 games with Pensacola. He is no Ozzie Smith, at least at shortstop. Yet, since the Reds are having a breakout season atop the National League Central with a 67-46 record and a 3.5-game lead over second place Pittsburgh, adding a pinch-running presence like Hamilton could help the club secure a division title.