- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin is very good at what he does, an executive with an old-school background but with an eagerness to absorb new-school thought. And as I watched young speedster Billy Hamilton take batting practice in the Reds' camp here Wednesday, I thought of something Melvin said last year, in reference to Carlos Gomez: Sometimes the speed guys take a little more time to develop.
Hamilton surged his way toward the big leagues last season, racking up a record 155 stolen bases between high Class A and Double-A, compiling a .410 on-base percentage and generating speculation about whether the Cincinnati Reds might promote him for some specialty duty in September and the playoffs. Hamilton is 22 years old and earned his place as the No. 30 overall prospect on Keith Law's top 100 prospects.
But he also is a player who only started switch-hitting in the past couple of years, and he is still learning. On Wednesday, he hit in a group that included Brandon Phillips, with first-base coach Billy Hatcher serving as the BP pitcher, and with hitting coach Brook Jacoby and manager Dusty Baker watching from behind the batting cage. There were lessons imparted.
Hamilton's right-handed swing was crisp, quicker, with a direct path to the ball, and when he hit a hard grounder through the middle, one of the coaches who was watching laughed and said something to Hamilton about the fizzing sound the baseball made as it cut through the grass.
But when Hamilton stepped in to hit from the left side, well, the response was different. His swing had a loop, which seemed to start with his tendency to drop his back (left) shoulder. Hitting left-handed, he repeatedly fouled the ball off into the top of the cage or hit looping fly balls to left field.
Hatcher fired the ball inside, which is exactly what major league pitchers will do the first time they face Hamilton, except with a lot more velocity. Hamilton is rangy and thin, and pitchers tend to challenge smaller hitters inside, challenging them to show they are strong enough to fight off fastballs that crowd them.
After Hamilton's first series of swings as a left-handed hitter ended, Baker stepped from behind the cage and, with his consistently positive demeanor, used his hands to demonstrate the place where Hamilton needs to get to: Rather than having his hands curl inside, Baker encouraged him to take a direct, downward path to the ball.
Hamilton kept hitting fly balls, and twice more Baker gestured to him to encourage him to attack with his hands going on a slightly downward plane. When Hamilton's batting practice was over, Baker and hitting coach Brook Jacoby approached him again and chatted briefly, and Hamilton walked away nodding his head. Lessons given and heard, in one batting practice session in late February. There is still plenty of time before the end of spring training, and you hear stories about how driven Hamilton is, with a healthy and necessary dose of competitive arrogance. He is taking in so much this spring, learning how to play the outfield at the same time he is perfecting his swing.
Hamilton may or may not be the fastest player in the game, and he might be the sport's best base stealer. But there is work to be done with his swing. As Doug Melvin said, sometimes speed guys take a little more time. So far this spring, Hamilton is 1-for-8 with four strikeouts.
Hamilton came into spring training looking to improve, as he said.
Gattis turning heads
Atlanta Braves outfield/catcher prospect Evan Gattis has opened the eyes of one rival NL evaluator -- although there are no jobs available in the Atlanta outfield, and Brian McCann is expected to be their starting catcher again, after he comes back fully from his shoulder surgery. McCann and the Braves have agreed to table any contract talk until after the year is over, and the full expectation within the industry is that McCann is probably going to move on from Atlanta after this season.
The NL evaluator: "Gattis has been really impressive. You get to the game early and watch him take BP and it's better than the Uptons or Heyward -- he has that much power. He's looked good in spring training, but it's really early and he played winter ball so he has something of a head start. All of that being said, he's definitely a prospect and he's going to impact the Braves in 2013. He cannot play third base and, having seen him in the minors, he isn't very good at first. He's not a bad outfielder and he's actually not a bad catcher, either. He continues to improve behind the plate and I could see him getting an opportunity there with Atlanta."
At age 26, Gattis is not your typical prospect. He was set to go to Texas A&M out of high school, but issues with anxiety and drugs forced him to quit the game for a few years. The Braves drafted him in the 23rd round in 2006 out of University of Texas-Permian Basin, and his journey to the cusp of the big leagues has been anything but typical.
More on collisions (see yesterday's column)
If a talented young outfielder -- say Mike Trout, or Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras -- repeatedly ran headlong into fences in pursuit of fly balls, what would his manager and general manager tell him?
Stop running into fences. And why? To avoid the risk of injury.
If the Rays' David Price had 120 pitches through seven innings on Opening Day and a runner reached base to start the eighth against him, would Joe Maddon walk to the mound and ask him to work to 140 pitches, to save that particular run? No, he wouldn't. And why? Because the team would value assuring the health of the pitcher over the effort to prevent that particular run from scoring.
If David Wright or Joey Votto started making a habit of leaping over the railing in pursuit of foul pops, what would their managers tell them?
Stop doing it. Because getting that one out is not worth losing the player from the lineup for an extended period of time.
This is why some club officials don't understand why that cautionary line of thinking shouldn't extend to catchers and blocking the plate, because is the injury risk really worth it in attempt to register one out in one game in one season?
More on PED penalties
Brad Ziegler explained on our podcast the other day how the players are talking about two tiers of penalties, according to the severity of the violation, as they consider increasing the penalties for PED violations. Michael Weiner, the head of the Players Association, talks about that within this piece.
Dings and dents
4. Ned Yost was happy with a couple of his pitchers.
Moves, deals and decisions
2. White Sox GM Rick Hahn is looking to build depth, writes Mark Gonzales.
4. Mike Trout is about to become the sport's most underpaid player, writes Jeff Fletcher.
5. The Braves' TV deal is changing.
The fight for jobs
1. A Tigers' youngster is making a strong impression, as Lynn Henning writes.
• A couple of young Seattle pitchers are growing up fast.
• Change is good, say some Rangers.
• Max Scherzer says he's ready to go. I talked to him recently and asked him to name a pitcher from another team whom he liked to watch work, and he talked about Josh Johnson, and the angle he creates -- everything going downhill.
• The Twins can thank Ronald Reagan for one of their prospects.
• A member of the Blue Jays got a push from a friend, writes John Lott.
• Kelly Johnson looked comfortable in left field. Before the Rays signed him, they asked if he would be able to move around -- and, as we know, creating roster flexibility is one of the things that Tampa Bay does really well.
• Don Mattingly is pleased with Hanley Ramirez's extra work at first base.
• The Padres are finally able to test a new shortstop, writes Corey Brock.
• A.J. Burnett's switch in preparation paid off, writes Bill Brink.
• A top prospect reminds Mike Matheny of another highly touted St. Louis pitcher.
• A Marlin has some serious juggling skills, writes Clark Spencer.
• A new Marlins shortstop is drawing praise for his glovework, writes Joe Capozzi.
• A sudden bout with cancer left Rafael Belliard feeling scared ... and lucky, as Shawn Windsor writes.
• The Red Sox's season-ticket holders are fleeing, writes Amalie Benjamin.
• A former trooper was indicted for the crash that killed the wife of Braves trainer Jeff Porter.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney takes you inside a batting practice session with Reds phenom Billy Hamilton as Dusty Baker and others Reds coaches tell him how he must adjust his swing.