Sports

Friday, May 04 2012 09:35 PM

Blaze's star shortstop steals bases at amazing rate

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    Michael Fagans / The Californian Standout Blaze shortstop Billy Hamilton warms up with a teammate before a home game against the Lancaster JetHawks on Tuesday night in Bakersfield.

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Blaze shortstop Billy Hamilton shares a laugh with teammates and a coach before a home game against the Lancaster JetHawks on Tuesday night in Bakersfield.

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Blaze shortstop Billy Hamilton fires a throw to first base during a Bakersfield home game against the Lancaster JetHawks on Tuesday night.

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    By Rod Thornburg / Special to The Californian

    BLAZE VS. RAWHIDES BASEBALL Visalia's Mike Freeman #1 misses the toss as the Blazes #12 Billy Hamilton safely slides into second base.

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BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer zewing@bakersfield.com

Billy Hamilton is going to steal second base, and there's really not much you can do about it.

Maybe you're an opposing first baseman on a California League team facing the Bakersfield Blaze, and Hamilton just straight-up told you he was stealing second. Or maybe you're an opposing pitcher or catcher, and nobody told you anything but Hamilton's dancing off the base like he just drank a case of Red Bull.

Point is, you're probably not stopping Hamilton anyway.

"He's tough to compare," said Blaze manager Ken Griffey Sr., who stole 200 bases in a 19-year major-league career. "You look at Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Joe Morgan, myself, all the guys that can run. And I haven't seen anybody who's that quick and that fast."

The Blaze's 21-year-old shortstop -- and, according to Baseball America , the No. 2 prospect in the Cincinnati Reds organization -- leads all of affiliated professional baseball with 31 stolen bases entering Friday. Second place on that list has just 19 thefts.

And, even though everyone from the first baseman to the ushers knows he's running, Hamilton has only been caught seven times.

"I talk to the first baseman all the time," said Hamilton, who will miss this weekend's games while he attends a family member's funeral. "He says, 'We know you're gonna go. What pitch you going on?' I'll tell him, 'OK, I'm going now.' Nothing a first baseman can do about it."

But Hamilton uses his speed for more than the common stolen base.

He is perhaps the most dangerous baserunner in baseball: He has scored from third base on a grounder back to the pitcher, twice scored when the catcher threw to first base following a dropped third strike, and even scored on a sacrifice fly that the second baseman caught just two feet onto the outfield grass.

"He gets in position, and as soon as they cock the throw, he's gone," Griffey said. "And most of them haven't even been close.

"Most of these guys would be standing next to me (on the bench) if they did that. But he's got such great instincts."

The Reds drafted Hamilton in the second round of the 2009 MLB Draft from the local high school in Taylorsville, Miss., a town about the size of Maricopa that's southeast of Jackson, Miss., and two and a half hours from New Orleans.

Hamilton could always run, but he said he's only been timed once. He ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash in high school, a time that would make many NFL wide receivers happy.

Thing is, Hamilton clocked that as a freshman.

"That's the only time I've been timed," he said. "I'm faster than that now."

He passed up a football scholarship with Mississippi State to sign with the Reds. This is where it might be apropos to say Hamilton hit the ground running, but that's not exactly true.

"In high school, I really didn't steal too many bases," Hamilton said. "I really didn't even try that much. I guess it was a learning process. I wasn't worried about it."

When he reported to Reds Spring Training in Goodyear, Ariz., Cincinnati quickly went to work on that.

"The first thing, obviously, is his physical ability," said Jeff Graupe, the Reds' assistant director of player development. "He's a tremendously gifted player ... and an organizational philosophy of ours is to be aggressive on the bases. If we're going to err, we're going to err on the side of aggression."

Hamilton credits Delino DeShields, a coach in the Reds organization, with helping him to think aggressively. DeShields stole 463 bases in a 13-year big-league career that included a stint with the Dodgers from 1994-96.

"He just got my confidence up," Hamilton said. "He told me, 'Don't be afraid of being picked off, thrown out. That's gonna happen.' It's just grown from there."

After stealing 14 bases in 43 games in his draft season, Hamilton exploded. He swiped 48 in 69 games in 2010 and led all of affiliated baseball with 103 last year at low Class-A Dayton (Ohio). This year, he's on an even faster pace, with those 31 steals coming in Bakersfield's first 26 games.

And Hamilton, who had a combined .277 batting average in the lower levels, is hitting at a new rate, too. Through Thursday, he was leading the Cal League at a .382 clip. He had struck out just 18 times (vs. 133 in 135 games last year) and is walking more.

"That's where he's made the most progress," Griffey said. "It's more of a confidence thing for him. He knows what he's got to do."

He has reached base in 23 of the 26 games he's started.

"I'm being more patient on the plate; I have the thought in my head that no pitcher can get me out," Hamilton said. "I just want to get on base however I can."

All of it is enough to make you wonder how long Hamilton will be a Class-A player. There are a couple of complications. The Reds have young, productive shortstops at Class AA and Class AAA, plus rookie Zach Cozart at the position in the major leagues. Hamilton has committed eight errors, and most scouting reports list defense as his biggest weakness. Baseball America predicts an eventual move to second base.

"It's a process," said Griffey, who said he had no plans to move Hamilton from shortstop. "It's something you have to do every day to get comfortable with it, and he's doing that."

No matter where he ends up, Hamilton seems destined to make an impact. He's on pace for 161 stolen bases, which would shatter the minor-league record of 145 set by Vince Coleman for the Macon Redbirds in 1983. The Bakersfield franchise record was set in the same year: 144 from Donell Nixon for the Bakersfield Mariners.

Put it all together, and Hamilton is a clear candidate for Cal League MVP -- if, that is, he stays in the Cal League all season. A promotion to Class-AA Pensacola (Fla.) seems inevitable.

Griffey said he thinks Hamilton will stay in Bakersfield through the season's first half, which ends June 16, and hopes it will be longer than that.

"We're not letting him go," Griffey joked. "I've already put my foot down. I'm making it my call. He's not going, hopefully."

As for Hamilton, this is another area where he's trying to practice patience.

"I'm gonna be patient," said Hamilton, but then he laughs. "It'll be hard. I do everything quick. I'll just settle down, and hopefully it'll work out for me soon."

In the meantime, he'll keep on running: from first base to second, second to third and all over the Cal League, soaking it in as he goes.

Dan Besbris, the Blaze's broadcaster and director of media relations, said that on road trips, Hamilton usually chooses to room with young Latin players. As a result, the Southern boy from Mississippi is picking up a lot of Spanish to go with his Creole.

"Man, it's amazing being out here with these guys," he said. "We're basically just having a lot of fun."

And though he misses the cooking back home -- he could go for some of his mother's seasoned fried chicken and macaroni about now, thanks -- Hamilton is moving way too fast to look back.

"I'm seeing different places, different states, basically just having fun, meeting new people," Hamilton said. "I'm always going to make stuff happen on the bases. Most guys say I'm crazy, but I just have that confidence. I'm just having a little fun, being aggressive."

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