By Joe Kay AP Baseball Writer
February 22, 2014
GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) — Billy Hamilton is a very impatient person.
“I do everything fast,” Cincinnati’s speedy outfielder said, not wasting a moment before launching into an answer. “You can tell I talk fast. I eat fast. I want to get everything done. I feel like I’ve got to be moving every time I’m doing something.”
Only 13 steals into his big league career, the 23-year-old center fielder has run all the way to the top of the Reds order. Hamilton will be getting everything started for Cincinnati this season. He takes over for Shin-Soo Choo, who had one of the best seasons by a leadoff hitter last year and left as a free agent.
The Reds considered other options for the top spot, but none panned out. So Hamilton — with only 13 major league games on his statistics sheet — gets a chance to show he can do some record-setting things while covering the 90 feet that separates the bases in blink-of-an-eye times.
“It’s like more of a dream come true, something I’ve really wanted,” Hamilton said.
Back in Cincinnati, they’re already wearing “Run Billy Run” shirts and waiting for the first time he reaches base and gets the entire ballpark on its feet and focused on his feet. Fans got a preview of what he can do during one blur of a month last season.
Hamilton got his first promotion to the majors in September. The Reds decided to use him as a pinch-runner late in games to try to steal a big run. He’d already led five minor leagues in stolen bases and set a professional record by swiping 155 bases in 2012 at Single-A and Double-A.
He quickly became a sensation, helping the Reds reach the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. He led the majors with 13 steals in September, getting caught only once. He was thrown out in his final attempt by Mets catcher Juan Centeno.
That month showed him he could outrun even the best catchers in the majors.
“That helped me out a lot,” Hamilton said. “That gave me much confidence. It showed me what it would be like to be up there every day. So it gave me a little motivation to want to get to that level and stay there. My confidence this offseason has been great.”
Last September, he started three games and went 7 for 14 with a pair of doubles and six steals. He swiped four bases in his first career start in Houston.
The question is whether he’s ready to handle major league pitching on a regular basis. Hamilton has played only one season at Triple-A. He batted .256 and had an on-base percentage of only .308 last season at Louisville. (By comparison, Choo’s on-base percentage was .423.) He also stole 75 bases in 90 attempts.
Ready or not, it’s his job.
“Right now, we’re going to start spring training and Billy will lead off,” manager Bryan Price said, adding, “There’s a long way to go before we make season-long commitments to anything.”
Hamilton played winter baseball in Puerto Rico, working on getting on base. He spent part of the winter in Arizona working with Delino DeShields, who manages the Reds’ Double-A team in Pensacola and stole 463 bases during his major league career.
The main subject: bunting.
“That’s going to be a big part of my game,” Hamilton said. “I have to use that to get a little pressure off myself. This year there’s going to be a lot more bunting than in the past.”
Price will try to lessen the pressure on Hamilton by keeping the focus on other parts of the lineup.
“We’re not going to ask anybody to carry too much of the load,” Price said. “If we’re going to be the team we think we can be, we’ve got to disperse the responsibility in our lineup and we’ve got to improve — not just hoping Billy can handle the leadoff spot but hoping to get more production form the other seven guys who are going to be in lineup on a regular basis and also asking our bench to give us energy and performance.”
That’s all well and good, so long as Hamilton can get on base at an acceptable rate.
Before one workout this week, Hamilton walked through the clubhouse wearing a gray t-shirt that pretty much summed up what he’s hoping to show during the season. There were two words on the front of the shirt.