Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Billy Hamilton is Baseball's Usain Bolt

 By Matt Fisher on August 7, 2012

On July 15th, Cincinnati Reds shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton crossed home plate in the bottom of the seventh inning. His home run increased the Blue Wahoos' lead to 4-1, and he jogged back to the dugout -- his jersey stainless white.

13.8 seconds before he scored, he hit a low fly ball to deep right center that was botched by the right fielder.

That's right - 13.8 seconds.

By the time the ball hit the right fielder's glove, he was rounding second. The next closest inside-the-parker in the majors this season was Peter Bourjos' 14.26 second trot on April 11th.
But Bourjos slid into home plate full speed. Hamilton slowed at the end and jogged in standing up.

Billy Hamilton might be the fastest man baseball has ever seen, and he's not even in the majors yet. And we've seen plenty of burners -- Rickey Henderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, Michael Bourn, Lou Brock, and even Deion Sanders, considered by some to be the greatest athlete in NFL history -- but none of their wheels compare to this 20-year old phenom's.

Set to blow away Vince Coleman's 29-year old minor league single-season record of 145 steals, the Taylorsville, MS native already has 127 steals in 107 games. The Angels' Mike Trout leads the majors with 36 steals.

But let's really put in this perspective. What if we took Hamilton and placed him on the Olympic sprinting team?

A trip around the bases is roughly 360-380 feet. Usain Bolt set the 100 M dash Olympic record in London two days ago at a blazing 9.63 seconds. 100 meters is 328 feet. Justin Gatlin was the fastest American in the race, finishing in a personal-best 9.79 seconds. If Hamilton ran at least 360 feet in 13.8 seconds, then he should be able to challenge some of the USA's runners.

What about football?
Tennessee Titans Running Back Chris Johnson is regarded as the fastest player in the sport, running the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds. Hamilton ran a 4.5 40-yard dash as a sophomore in high school. But this man of steal's 360+ foot water-walk around the bases, when reduced to the length of a 40-yard dash, is about 4.6 seconds. That's without factoring in the extra yards he used to bend on the basepaths and the fact that he ran a distance three times as long as Johnson's, while also slowing down at the end.

Sports fans, you can't say you haven't thought about it - you know, putting our country's best athletes in other sports. Think of the quick-footed 6'10" Kevin Durant and his 7'5" wingspan in goal for the U.S. men's soccer team. The 6'5", 205-pound Usain Bolt catching passes from Peyton Manning. Or if we put 5'9" high-flying dunk-artist Nate Robinson in men's gymnastics. But the reason we should be more appreciative of Hamilton is that you can't just place a great athlete in baseball and expect success.
Where the 6'6", 280 lb. Adam Dunn, a.k.a. "Big Donkey" can lead the league in home runs.
 Or where the 5'8" 'Laser Show' that is Dustin Pedroia can win an MVP.

That's because baseball requires skill moreso than athletic "run-jump" talent. Michael Jordan might be basketball's greatest athlete of all time, but he hit just .202 in his one-year minor league stint with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. (Granted, that's pretty good for a 31-year old man who hadn't played baseball since high school, but it still obviously takes plenty of practice.)
Hamilton boasts good plate discipline (69:91 walk-to-strikeout ratio) and solid contact skills (.312 batting average between A+ and AA this year), but his athletic gifts can't overshadow his problems defensively at shortstop. He has the athletic part covered -- his range is outstanding -- but scouts say his lack of soft hands may confine him to second base or a spot in the outfield.

But all that aside? His speed still kills.

With runners on base, he currently bats .375 compared to his .226 average with the bases empty. If he can just get the ball on the ground with a runner on base, they almost always have to take the force, because before they know it, he's walking safely back to first after securing his hit. And when on base, he's like a bee buzzing around the pitcher's head. No matter how many times you throw over, he's more than likely going to steal second. Then third. And then home, just like he did on July 12th.

Hamilton should be called up the majors in September to back up Zack Cozart at short, but he will likely be utilized in a Dave Roberts-type pinch-running role in the playoffs by the Reds, who sit 3.5 games ahead of Pittsburgh for the lead in the NL central.

Billy has already made a name for himself without playing a game at Great American Ballpark in a Reds uniform. But he'll likely always be overshadowed by (if not Billy Hamilton, the surfing legend or William Hamilton, the man who shot at Queen Victoria in 1849) "Sliding Billy" Hamilton, the hall-of-famer who ranks 3rd all time in stolen bases with 912. But at just 20 years of age, there's no lid on young Billy's potential.

He might get to 913, and he will certainly add more inside-the-park homers to his resume. And we know how he'll do it - at full tilt.
Just not in 13.8 seconds.

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