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Billy Hamilton: First Major League Start Provides Reminder That Speed Still Kills

This much is known. Exciting Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton made his first Major League start Wednesday night in Houston. The result? History, as Hamilton went 4-for-4 in stolen bases, making him the first player in the live ball era to accomplish such a feat in his debut. It apparently didn’t impress some fans in Houston, who fell asleep during the game.

More importantly Hamilton went 3-for-4 with a pair of walks in the No. 9 spot in the lineup, scoring the go-ahead run in the top of the 13th as the Reds pulled out an important 6-5 victory. Okay wait, the most important part of Hamilton’s night is he stole four bases and avoided sliding into the derriere of any Houston players in the process.

Hamilton, a September call-up who stole 155 bases in the minors last season, now has more stolen bases (9) than at-bats (7) and games played (8).

Barring a total collapse over the next week and a half, the Reds are probably going to end up playing the Pirates in the National League Wild Card playoff game. Hamilton’s speed in the late innings could end up being a big factor, be it his ability to steal a base, score from second on a single or from third on a shallow fly ball via a sacrifice. Should this happen it’ll be as close as we’re ever going to get to a reenactment of the final sequence of “Major League” minus a swinging Jake Taylor bunt. (It’s doubtful Hamilton would go full Willie Mays Hayes and leapfrog an opposing team’s catcher, but I digress.)

Two of Hamilton’s four steals came with the score knotted at 4-4, including a pitchout. That’s the sign of a true base-stealer, when you can still swipe the bag when the opponent knows you’re taking off.

Cincinnati Reds v Houston Astros

Long term, into 2014 and beyond, I’m curious to see if there will be more pure speed guys like Hamilton used in the Majors. The Tigers got a nice run ouf of Quintin Berry in 2012 going 21-for-21 in steals, but his lack of hitting ultimately led to a DFA notice, although he’s now clapping it up as the Red Sox designated September runner.

During the juiced up Steroid Era of the 90s and 00s, it didn’t make much sense for managers to use the running game when you had guys blasting home runs at an alarming rate. Stealing second didn’t hold much cache when you could simply trot around the bases. Stolen bases were left to the Joey Gathrights, Scott Podsedniks and Willy Taveras of the world and probably had more value for your fantasy baseball team than in real-life.

You’d think the Steroid Era would be the lowest ebb for steals in baseball, but the leanest years came right after World War II. In 1955 Jim Rivera and Bill Burton led baseball with 25 steals apiece. By 1962 Maury Wills swiped 104 for the Dodgers, setting the running game in motion, which peaked in the 1980s when Ricky Henderson, Tim Raines, Vince Coleman, Willie Wilson, etc. rewrote the record books. Coleman’s 107 stolen base total in 1987 remain the last time anyone in the majors topped the 100-steal threshold — something for Hamilton to target next summer.

In the 21st century only three guys have cracked 70 steals in a single season, topping out at 78 by Jose Reyes in 2007.

Sabermetricians and baseball theorists haven’t been able to come to an agreement over the value of stolen bases. Take Hamilton: in his brief career he’s piled up a 0.5 WAR with only nine trips to the plate. If anything, Hamilton’s speed might kill off the increasingly hard-to-defend sacrifice bunt practice … at least in the Reds’ dugout.

If we step away from the formulas for a second, we can probably agree it’s going to be exciting as baseball fans to sit back and watch Hamilton on the basepaths these next couple weeks — and for the rest of his career. I’ll apologize in advance for having the audacity to enjoy something in baseball without assigning a numerical value to it.

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