An Average Day for Billy Hamilton on the Basepaths
Sunday, July 15th, 2012
Sam Evans: Dark shadows cast over a luminous sky at Municipal Stadium in San Jose, California. A crowd of just fewer than four thousand people bask in the early June sunlight, some of them unaware of the history they are about to witness. The San Jose Giants are hosting the Bakersfield Blaze, and Billy Hamilton is hitting leadoff for a Bakersfield team centered around their 5’11” 160 pound shortstop. Never before in professional baseball have we seen a player like Billy Hamilton.
Hamilton dug into the plate in his black Bakersfield unbuttoned just enough to show an Under Armour shirt underneath, with a huge grin on his face, appearing to be laughing to himself. Of course, he does have something to smile about. He’s hitting over .300 with fifty-seven steals in just over two hundred at bat’s. The pitcher, Jack Snodgrass, a 6’6’’ lefty digs in for the sign from Andrew Susac. Susac is no slouch either. His raw power and strong-arm made him the Giants second-round selection out of Oregon State in the 2011 draft.
The weather is sunny, but you can tell that the shadows are playing with hitters eyes. Hamilton squints at a first pitch fastball right down the middle. Snodgrass is moving quickly, as he fires a changeup that just misses the outside corner. The third pitch is a fastball which Hamilton reaches out and lines foul down the right-field line. The San Jose announcer notes that Hamilton is a guy that the Giants want to keep off the bases. Oh really? The fourth pitch Hamilton lines into center field for a leadoff single to start the game.
Despite hitting from the right side of the plate half of the time, Hamilton still gets out of the box faster than most lefties. At this moment in time, Hamilton had nineteen more steals than the next player, Rico Noel. As Hamilton took his lead his eyes never left the pitcher. He showed tremendous concentration, to the point where he forgot that his batting gloves are unstrapped and still on his hands. Snodgrass obviously knew what Hamilton can do, but he pretended to ignore him as he delivered his first pitch. Bad choice. Susac handled the pitch, a fastball, perfectly and fired a strike down to second base. Hamilton was safe, and it wasn’t even close. The camera flashed to a shot of Hamilton sprinting towards second base. The camera was in very slow motion, but Billy Hamilton still appeared faster than Bengie Molina. If you take a freeze-frame of Hamilton and an Olympic sprinter, the only real difference you’ll find, is that Hamilton keeps his head down. For as great raw speed as Hamilton has, he’s an even better base-runner. He has amazing reflexes, and he can read the pitcher as well as any player in the game. As Hamilton stood up, he brushed off the dirt on his kneecaps, and started to stare longingly at third base.
You could tell Snodgrass could no longer ignore Hamilton, now that he was on second base. Hamilton danced off of second base, never once looking off-balance or like a deer in headlights. The next pitch Snodgrass bounced to the plate and Hamilton darted towards third base. Susac didn’t even look at Hamilton, because he knows there’s no way he’d even have a chance. Now, just like that, Bakersfield has a runner on third with no outs. That’s the kind of effect Billy Hamilton’s speed can have on a team. Hamilton crossed home plate when the next batter grounded out to shortstop.
Fast-forward to the top of the third. As Billy Hamilton stepped into the box, another huge smile broke out across his face. I find it interesting that in the batter’s box, Hamilton is always smiling, but when he gets on-base, he’s all business. You’ll almost never see Hamilton joking around with the first baseman, as some players like to do. Hamilton drew a walk, flaunting his plate discipline that has dramatically improved since Hamilton was drafted in 2009.
After the walk, Snodgrass immediately threw back to first base. Hamilton got back far before the tag. The next pitch, Hamilton took a huge lead off of first base. Snodgrass threw back to first, and Hamilton took off. San Jose first baseman Ricky Oropesa fired a bullet to shortstop Joe Panik, who applied a questionable sweeping tag on Hamilton at second. The umpire called Hamilton out, and the camera cuts to a shot of Ricky Oropesa taking a deep breath as if he were in a Swedish sauna. If anything, Billy Hamilton makes for great television. When he’s on-base, players don’t play the game the way they normally do. Everyone on the field knows what Hamilton wants to do, and they know they have little chance at stopping it. However, in this particular occasion, the Giants got lucky, and kept Hamilton off the bases.
It’s the fifth inning, and Bakersfield was behind 4-2, when Billy Hamilton hit again. The sun had dipped down behind the hills, and now the wonderful, but short-lived moment when the ballpark is covered in a cool shade began to evolve. Two consecutive singles gave Hamilton the chance to drive in a crucial run for his team, which sat one game behind San Jose in the standings. The infielders crept in, expecting Hamilton to lay down a bunt. Hamilton got a 2-1 fastball from Snodgrass, and bounced it back up the middle. Despite a desperate attempt by Joe Panik, the ball sprung into center field and Billy Hamilton was on at first with his second hit of the night.
Then, with runners on first and third, the Giants once again started to worry about Hamilton. Snodgrass threw back to first without even faking to third initially. As annoying as it is, how many times do you see pitchers fake to third, and throw to first? With Billy Hamilton on-base, it’s a better idea to skip the fake. Before the next pitch, Snodgrass threw back to first, again without even checking the runner on third. The player on third, Theo Bowe, sprinted home and just beat the tag, while Hamilton reached second. Giants’ catcher Andrew Susac showed some frustration by loudly shouting an obscenity and doing a weird “I might look happy, but I’m actually very angry” fist pump. Hamilton stood on third, never letting his eyes dart from whoever had the ball.
The very next pitch, Hamilton took his lead off second base to the point where he was right behind the umpire. When Snodgrass made his first movement towards home plate, Hamilton bolted towards third. Susac knew he would have to get rid of the ball quickly, so his attention naturally diverted from catching the ball first to making the throw and as a result, the ball bounced back to the backstop. Like I’ve been saying, when Hamilton is on the bases he affects every player on the field.
In the seventh inning, Bakersfield held a 5-4 lead over San Jose. The sun had disappeared completely behind the defined mountains the background, and the only thing keeping the field lit up was the shining moon, and of course, the light poles around the ballpark. Billy Hamilton, once again showing off his new and improved plate discipline, drew a walk against Snodgrass, who seemed tired of having to face Hamilton.
Hamilton didn’t steal this time; instead he waited patiently over at first base. When Devin Lohman hit a grounder to Panik at shortstop, Panik knew he had to act quickly. So instead of settling his feet, and making a relaxed on-target throw, he fired it into right field. After Billy Hamilton slid into second base, he didn’t get up. He laid on his back on top of second base, until the trainer and third base coach came to see him. It turn out he had twisted his knee, sliding into the base. Hamilton turned out to be well enough to stay in the game; however, it was a serious reminder to how quickly injuries can happen to even the best of players. Hamilton had two at bat’s later in the game, in which he drew a walk and grounded out to second.
Obviously, Billy Hamilton doesn’t get on-base five times every single game. However, he does have plenty of games like this one, in which he completely takes over the game. Billy Hamilton is a lot of fun to watch right now, and he’ll be even more fun when he gets to the majors. Billy Hamilton is becoming must watch television, unlike any player we’ve seen for a long time. Whether you watch to admire his speed, or to see him work on the other aspects of the game, you don’t want to miss Billy Hamilton.
***Today’s feature was prepared by our Baseball Writer, Sam Evans. We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers. You can also follow Sam on Twitter. (@RJA206)***
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Posted on July 15, 2012, in On the Verge: MLB Prospects and tagged bakersfield blaze, baseball, BIlly Hamilton, California League, fast, High-A, minor leagues, minors, mlb, NL Central, san jose giants, shortstop, speed, steals, stolen base. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.