Billy Hamilton offers a straight face and a slight grin when asked if he was a base stealer in high school.
Like many playing high school, seeing how far a ball might travel over the wall with an aluminum bat was significantly more alluring.
“I didn’t steal bases at all,” Hamilton said. “I stole maybe three bases. Who wants to steal bases in high school? In high school you want to hit a home run like everyone does. You have the aluminum bats and you want to try and hit a home run, that’s what I tried to do even though I was the smallest guy on the team.”
Five years after being a three-sport star in Taylorsville, Mississippi, Hamilton may still be the smallest guy on the Cincinnati Reds but he’s certainly the biggest speed threat after getting 395 minor league steals.
Opposing catchers and pitchers have watched Hamilton steal 38 bases so far and that’s after he had 13 in 13 games last September during the stretch run.
They’ve also watched his immense speed coming out of the box, especially during one specific instance against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 11.
He opened a game by dropping a bunt down the first base line on the game’s first pitch. For most players that’s a poorly executed play since the first baseman simply has to meet him down the line and apply the tag.
That’s what Gaby Sanchez attempted to do but, by then, Hamilton was off the ground after executing some kind of swim move. Stopping short led to Sanchez overrunning him and by the time he recovered Hamilton re-started his running, went to the left, avoided the tag and was safe.
Just call it the baseball equivalent of the football juke move used to elude defenders.
“When you play football you don’t practice stuff like that, it’s your instinct knowing something bad is about to happen and you have to figure out a way to get out of it,” Hamilton said. “I know that’s going to be an easy play for him, so I have to figure out a way to get out of that and the only thing I thought about was football.
“If I can make a juke move, they don’t make too many juke moves in baseball. It came to me like super fast. In baseball you got a bit more extra room, I’m skinny so I had to squeeze in but it was a fun play.”
It was the first time that Hamilton tried it in baseball and plans on doing it again.
“You kind of lost your breath a little bit,” Cincinnati third baseman Todd Frazier said. “It was absolutely amazing and he didn’t go out of the base line. When he gets on, great things will happen.”
Both broadcasts were amazed at the play.
On the Cincinnati broadcast: “That is extreme agility by the former football player. He looked like he was heading into the secondary and avoided the free safety. You can’t even do that in a Mercedes.”
On the Pittsburgh broadcast: “This is about a hard a way at going about a bunt single as you will see.”
As for his base stealing, speed automatically doesn’t make someone good at it. There’s a lot more that goes into it even for someone with the immense natural speed that Hamilton possesses and could have used playing football at Mississippi State.
“Up here, you got to know who’s hitting behind you,” Hamilton said. “You got to know what kind of move (the pitcher has). In the minor leagues, it was tough for me to watch a pitcher before the game but now they have all these all these videos and you can watch a pitcher and that’s what we do.
“I do a lot of studying. To be a great base stealer, speed is a plus. You can be slow and still steal bases but speed is something that God blessed you with but you still got to read pitchers, you got to know when to go and you got to know what kind of hitter is behind you.”
The stolen bases have started coming once Hamilton began hitting. He batted .368 in 19 at-bats last September and then started this year 6-for-43 with two steals and 10 strikeouts.
Since then he is batting .297 with 36 steals and his impact dictates the wins and losses of the Reds, especially while Jay Bruce struggles and Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips remain sidelined with injuries.
“Ever since they told me that I’ve been having fun, I’ve been relaxed,” Hamilton said. “I’m just playing the game. I’m not worried about trying to prove my skills to anybody else who’s watching. Now I’m relaxed.”
Hamilton did not steal this weekend at Yankee Stadium and had one hit as the Reds were swept. The Reds have lost 23 of 33 games in which Hamilton has not gotten a hit.
“He’s huge and I tell Billy, I know you’re a rookie but we’re leaning on you,” Frazier said. “We need you to get on base and he understands that. He doesn’t mind that little extra pressure on him and we keep telling him, Billy you go, we go, that’s basically our motto this year.”
Hamilton isn’t even the first speedster with the same name. If you type in “Billy Hamilton” on baseball-reference.com, the other player with his name is “Sliding Billy” Hamilton, who made it to the Hall of Fame.
From 1888-1901, according to Baseball-Reference, he stole 914 bases in 1594 games, though the Hall of Fame credits him with 937. That Billy Hamilton had four seasons with at least 100 steals in an era when stolen bases were credited differently.
One thing we know is there is not any evidence of a juke move on a bunt single from the 19th century Billy Hamilton.