- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Billy Hamilton can't remember ever running on a track, so he has no idea what his time in the 100 meters would be. There was a day, he said, that he was asked to run a 40-yard dash at a football camp in Mississippi.
"I ran a 4.5 flat," he recalled Thursday evening. "I was in the ninth grade."
That's a respectable time for NFL running backs. But that was six years ago and Hamilton, 21, is faster now, as he wrecks stolen-base records in the minor leagues. Not long after that conversation, he went 4-for-5 and stole two more bases for the Class A Bakersfield Blaze, bringing his season total to 82 -- in 67 games.
His next attempt will be his 100th -- he's been thrown out 17 times -- and Hamilton is swiftly approaching benchmarks established by previous generations of minor-leaguers. According to records maintained by Baseball America, Otis Nixon stole the most bases for any player in Triple-A since 1962, swiping 94 in 1983. Donell Nixon swiped 102 for Chattanooga in 1984, the most in Double-A.
If Hamilton remains in Class A for the rest of the season, he would appear to have an excellent shot at breaking the record for most steals for any player, at any level, since 1962 -- Vince Coleman's 145, set in 1983 for Class A Macon.
But Hamilton has given the Reds a lot of reason to think about promoting him, given his improvement at the plate. Hamilton is hitting .331 and, more importantly, has raised his on-base percentage to .416. He has 53 walks and could be on his way to 100 for the season.
If he walks, or gets a hit, he's going to run. The pitchers with the fastest mechanics deliver the ball to home plate in about 1.1 seconds, a time that will persuade almost all baserunners to hold their ground. But Hamilton says he will still run on a pitcher with a time of 1.1 seconds, after gauging the pitcher's pickoff throw. On anybody slower, he is always running, always looking to be aggressive. The faster the pitcher is in delivering the ball to home plate, the bigger the lead he will get, Hamilton says; if the pitcher is slower to the plate, there isn't a pressing need for a long lead.
Hamilton met Delino DeShields after the Reds drafted Hamilton in 2009, and DeShields, who had 463 stolen bases in a 13-year career, long before his current role as a manager in the Reds' farm system, gave Hamilton some advice: Never be afraid of getting thrown out; never lose being afraid of getting picked off.
That has not been a problem. There is now good-natured dialogue between opposing first basemen and Hamilton. "When are you going to run?" they ask. "I bet you're going to run on this pitch."
It's because Hamilton is fast that he slows the game these days. There has been a more concerted effort to slow him this year, he said. Opposing pitchers will try to hold the ball, or slide step, and they will throw to first base ... a lot. A couple of weeks ago in Modesto, Calif., he recalled, a pitcher threw to first base seven times without throwing home. Hamilton knew the pitcher was trying to wear him down physically and test his concentration. When the pitcher finally threw to home, Hamilton broke on the pitch.
Opposing catchers will chat with him, too Recently, a catcher who Hamilton knew from past years greeted him cheerily. But in a matter of a few innings, Hamilton had stolen five bases; before his final at-bat, the catcher said nothing.
So far, Hamilton is doing stuff in the minors that none of them did.
By the way, Hamilton preferred not to talk about being actually robbed earlier this week.
• The number that hovers over everything that the Colorado Rockies will do with their pitching is not four or five, as in the size of their rotation. It's not 75, the number of pitches their starters will be limited to, for the time being.
It's 5,280, the number of feet about sea level at which the Rockies play.
After years of trying to squeeze conventional baseball tactics into the limits and conditions created by the elevation in Denver, Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd has decided to build a pitching blueprint around the circumstances that the team faces.
"We cannot think traditionally, because that's not what we're dealing with," he said. "After 20 years of evidence, we have to change."
O'Dowd acknowledges that he does not know precisely what the new parameters will be. While the Rockies' big league team has started on a path of a four-man rotation, with each starter limited to 75 pitches, Colorado is maintaining a standard development plan for its minor leaguers.
"This is just the start of the process," said O'Dowd, who is searching for answers that may be completely out of the box of conventional thinking.
Major League Baseball planning is essentially designed with math formulas these days, and there are many factors contributing to this result, including:
1. The games played in Colorado have always involved significantly higher scoring, with greater physical and emotional stress on pitchers. Initially, after the Rockies installed a humidor to preserve the moisture within the baseballs, the offensive numbers were depressed. But over the past two years, the offensive production has again significantly climbed. O'Dowd said the environmental conditions have something to do with that -- the air has been drier in Colorado, the temperatures warmer.
2. The Rockies know there is a physical toll on pitchers competing at a higher level, where there is less oxygen, and O'Dowd said it's not a coincidence that Colorado has never been able to count on a bedrock No. 1 starter, whether it's someone developed within the organization (Jason Jennings, Ubaldo Jimenez, etc.) or acquired (Pedro Astacio, Mike Hampton, etc.).
3. Historically, pitchers have fared better with shorter outings in Colorado. Rather than asking pitchers to give a typical 110-115 pitch outing, then, the Rockies are going to use four starters and ask them to attack with their best stuff for a shorter period of time. In a sense, starting pitchers are marathoners, but the Rockies think their starters may be better off being 10K racers.
"We're going to increase the number of times they pitch but decrease the number of pitches they throw," O'Dowd said. "Is the right number 75 pitches? I don't know. Maybe it's 65. Maybe it's 60? We're going to find out. ... We've got 20 years of evidence that tells us that the way we were doing it hasn't been working."
Generally, the plan is for manager Jim Tracy to have two pitchers available to throw 120 to 130 pitches for the early part of each game, rather than one starter prepared to throw 110 pitches. If this doesn't work, O'Dowd will try other variations.
"We haven't hit on a formula for our ballpark yet that will allow for consistent success," he said.
Colorado's alignment worked Thursday.
The Rockies' rotation depends on the team's young pitching.
• Speaking of owners who want to win, Mike Ilitch hasn't lost faith in the Tigers, writes Drew Sharp.
• I heard some speculation -- and that's all it is right now -- from one corner of the industry that the best thing for the Tigers to do is trade Rick Porcello while he has some value. Porcello is a sinkerballer who generates a lot of ground balls, and he is not a good fit for the Tigers' subpar infield defense, which is not going to get better any time soon. If Detroit landed a veteran fly-ball pitcher, then trading the 23-year-old right-hander would make sense.
Porcello could be an excellent fit for a team such as the Braves, which will have shortstop Andrelton Simmons manning that position for years to come, Reds or Cubs. You wonder if some deal could be built around Porcello and Matt Garza.
Sharp writes that Porcello could be a trade commodity.
• The Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets are among the teams that will wait before diving into the trade market. Both teams want to see more from their players before deciding whether to invest in upgrades.
The Jays' emergency starter was hit hard the other day.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. The Royals are expected to activate catcher Salvy Perez in time for today's game. Kansas City enters play today 4.5 games out of first place.
2. There hasn't been any progress in the contract talks between the Phillies and Cole Hamels, who is about 100 days from free agency.
4. Arizona GM Kevin Towers is mulling over trade options.
6. Gord Ash has one regret in his time as GM of the Jays, writes Richard Griffin.
Dings and dents
2. Brandon Beachy's surgery went well, writes David O'Brien.
3. The Padres have been hit by a monsoon of injuries, writes Bill Center, as they lost another starting pitcher.
By The Numbers
As Buster Olney writes, Cincinnati Reds prospect Billy Hamilton is on pace to break several minor league stolen-base records. He may soon be called up by the Reds.