In 2012, Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton stunned the baseball world by shattering a record considered close to unbreakable.
Hamilton set a new professional baseball record by recording a whopping 155 stolen bases between Advanced Single-A and Double-A ball, shattering the mark held by Donell Nixon and Vince Coleman. He went on to steal another 75 bases at the Triple-A level last season, and would steal another 13 bases in 13 games after being called up the Reds in early September.
However, the Reds already had a center fielder in Shin-Soo Choo who was putting up a pretty terrific season himself, hitting .285 at the top of the batting order with a .423 on-base percentage. Shoo added 21 home runs with 20 stolen bases as well.
But now, Hamilton will get his chance to succeed at the big league level. Choo signed a free-agent contract this offseason with the Texas Rangers, opening the door for Hamilton.
The Reds are hoping that Hamilton can live up to the hype.
This spring, Hamilton is in camp working under the tutelage of former Reds great Eric Davis, who knows a thing or two about hype. When he made his debut in 1984 with the Reds, he was being touted as the next Willie Mays.
Davis told Jerry Crasnick of ESPN that the most important thing he can teach Hamilton is to simply be himself.
"I try not to put labels on people," Davis said. "When I came to the big leagues, I weighed 165 pounds. I was lucky that I had people in my corner who wouldn't let other people do certain things to my game. When you try to turn somebody into what you want them to be, it's very difficult.
"The most important thing for Billy right now is to just let him play, and not put emphasis on him seeing 13 pitches per at-bat, or whatever. The whole league knows he can run. When you steal 155 bases, you can't sneak up on nobody."
Everyone in baseball knows how fast Hamilton is. The biggest concern is in his bat. Reds hitting coach Don Long has worked extensively with Hamilton already, instilling in him the importance of hitting down on the ball and concentrating on ground balls and line drives. Hitting too many fly balls completely negates Hamilton’s biggest asset—his speed.
Hamilton has the type of speed that can turn ordinary ground balls into infield hits. And Long sees the ability for Hamilton to be able to drive the ball on a line.
"Billy's stronger than you think," Long said. "He has the ability to hit the ball hard on a line. If he mis-hits it and gets a little bit on top of the ball, it will be on the ground but it won't be a rollover ground ball."
It’s a lot of pressure for Hamilton as the Reds seek to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. And not everyone is convinced that the Reds are doing right by Hamilton. A rival major league executive told Crasnick that Hamilton simply isn’t an impact leadoff hitter.
"I think he's a lot closer to Dee Gordon than he is Kenny Lofton or any other type of catalyst leadoff type," the executive told Crasnick. "In fact, I think they are really doing him a disservice trying to hit him leadoff. It's hard enough for rookies to adjust to life at the major-league level, but this is a guy who just recently changed positions, and now he is on a team expected to be in playoff contention and hit leadoff? I think he has a better chance of being in Louisville by June than he does of posting an OBP better than .320."
The Reds will give Hamilton time at the beginning of the season to see if can successfully transition his skills at the big-league level. But it could also be a short leash if he struggles as well.
It may a bit of a gamble for the Reds in putting Hamilton in such an important role this early in his career, but the dividends could be sweet if that considerable potential is realized as well.