In an era in which, even in a depressed offensive run environment, the stolen base has become something of a lost art, the introduction of Billy Hamilton to the baseball world two years ago (though he was drafted in 2009) was been a breath of fresh air. Always a threat to steal, Hamilton has become a throwback to a previous era.
Despite his blazing speed and second place Rookie of the Year finish in 2014, Hamilton also led the league with 23 times being caught stealing in 2014. His 29.1% caught stealing rate was actually slightly higher than the 28.3% rate in the entire National League. According to Fangraphs Hamilton still provided the Reds with 7.6 Baserunning Runs Above Average, good for fourth in the National League, but clearly his caught stealing percentage need to go down in 2015 for him to become a truly elite baserunner.
And as it turns out, he has managed to do just that. Through 10 games, Hamilton has stolen 8 bases without being caught. While he will have to find a way to post an OPS much higher than .559 to truly remain a valuable offensive player, the early signs of Hamilton’s 2015 season point to him being much smarter on the basepaths.
Hamilton’s 2014 season was not unprecedented, though a season like it had not been seen in nearly twenty years. Going back to 1974, there have now been a total of just 11 seasons in which a player was caught stealing twenty or more times in his rookie season. While stolen bases and stolen base attempts have both been in a general decline for years, this still seems like a relatively low number and could reflect rookies generally not yet being trusted by their managers to take risks on the basepaths often enough to be caught stealing twenty times.
Interestingly there hadn’t been any such seasons in nearly twenty years before Billy Hamilton last year, which largely speaks to the league-wide aversion of stolen base attempts starting in the 1990s when offense started to increase and teams didn’t want to risk running into an out on the basepaths.
Using these players as a baseline what can we expect from Billy Hamilton going forward? Here are some final career statistics for all of these players:
None of these players went on to superstar-level careers, though players such as Ray Lankford, Delino DeShields, Vince Coleman and others did have lengthy and productive careers. (Vince Coleman’s career WAR of 12.2 stands out as possibly underrepresenting his total value, given his career-long reputation as a constant basestealing threat, though posting a career OPS+ of 83 and having just two seasons with an OPS+ of above 100, will limit a player’s total value no matter how much speed he brings to the basepaths.)
Their stolen base percentage as a whole did go up from a collective 69.5% in their rookie seasons to a collective 73.8% over their entire careers. Five of them finished with more than 200 career stolen bases, though just three of them finished with more than 300. On the whole they did get slightly smarter on the basebaths, though expecting a significant jump in Hamilton’s career base stealing percentage based on these players’ past might be a bit much.
Going forward, a Vince Coleman (213 plate appearances per home run) or Delino DeShields (83 PA/HR) type career for Hamilton may be a best case scenario going forward. Ray Lankford had a higher career value, though he displayed significantly more career power than other speedsters on this list (24 PA/HR). Billy Hamilton so far has just 97 PA/HR in his young career, and doesn’t project to show much more power than he has so far.
However, while fans of Hamilton can rest comfortably, at least early on this year, that he’s getting smarter on the basepaths, in the end this going to matter much if he can’t get on base. Early in the season Hamilton’s getting on base just 27% of the time in 2015, and that’s simply not going to be good enough unless he steals second, third, and home every time he does reach base.