If Billy Hamilton has a Mountain Dew in one hand and a bottle of ketchup in the other he is one happy hombre.
A person who spent a lot of time with Hamilton last season at Class AAA Louisville said, “I’ve never seen a person put as much ketchup on so many different things as Billy Hamilton.”
Anybody who has wrestled with a new bottle of ketchup knows that getting the flow started involves pounding the bejabbers out of the bottom, but Hamilton has it flowing as soon as the cap comes off.
That’s because Hamilton does everything fast. He admits he talks fast, dresses fast, walks fast, eats fast, reads fast and sleeps fast.
And, man oh man, can he run fast.
Hamilton was asked if first basemen ever ask him about his speed when he gets on and Hamilton smiled and said, “No, because I don’t stick around long enough for any conversation.”
Hamilton stole 155 bases in 2012, an all-time minor-league record. When he arrived in Cincinnati last September he stole 13 bases, the most in the majors in September. And that was in 13 appearances, many mere pinch-running assignments. He batted 19 times.
That was a warm-up for him, a rehearsal, just a taste of life under the big top. Now it is his time. Hamilton will be the leadoff hitter and the center fielder for the Cincinnati Reds, replacing Shin-Soo Choo, who departed for Texas via free agency.
“I’m so excited because it is like a dream come true,” said the 23-year-old, a second-round draft pick in 2009. “Coming up last September and doing what I did gave me a lot of confidence, showed me what it’s like to be up here every day and motivated me to get to this level and stay here.”
Hamilton hit .256 at Louisville last year with 75 stolen bases in 90 attempts. In 13 games with the Reds he hit .368 and was caught-stealing once in 14 attempts.
To hone his skills, Hamilton came to Arizona from his Mississippi home in January and worked with Class AA Pensacola manager Delino DeShields, for whom he played in Dayton and Pensacola. DeShields was a bunter, a base-stealer and a lead-off hitter during his 13-year major-league career.
Hamilton has continued the process this spring, working nearly every day on laying down bunts.
“We want Billy to keep his eyes and his ears open,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “We have some great people, some great instructors. But that is who he already is. He was out here in January working on bunting theories, his approach and understanding of batting leadoff and his center-field play.
“Billy just needs to continue to evolve because the work ethic is there and his work repetitions are there,” Price said. “He is going to get better simply by being in this camp and being around all the good people we have. He just needs to let the evolution of his physical and emotional maturity take him to the next level.”
Asked about working on his bunting so he can get on base more and disrupt the defense with his base-stealing acumen, Hamilton said, “I’m working on bunting, but I work on my all-around game and that includes defense. My main job is to get on base and that’s what will help the team the most.
“Delino DeShields taught me all the stuff he knows about bunting, about being a legitimate leadoff hitter. He was a great player and it is hard to go against anything he says, being the great guy he is.”
DeShields, who played for five major-league teams, hit .268 with a .352 on-base average and stole 463 bases.
“I am looking so forward to using the stuff he told me because it has stuck in my head,” said Hamilton. “It was mostly face-to-face, guy-to-guy talk, the mental approach.”
And the bunting? “Of course that is going to be a big part of my game,” he said. “I have to use that to take some pressure off myself so there will be a lot more bunting than I’ve done in the past.”
Hamilton’s talent creates a special electricity in the ballpark. It is like when Reds closer Aroldis Chapman comes out of the bullpen and the crowd reacts to the prospect of seeing hitters flailing futilely at his 102-mph fastball. With Hamilton it occurs when he gets on base and fans sense he is going to steal second and probably third, too.
“I notice it,” he said. “I don’t let it distract me. But it does motivate me, pumps me up a little bit. It makes it fun. It’s unreal and very nice.”
There are those who believe this is too much, too soon for Hamilton after 19 major-league at-bats. He signed as a shortstop and has played center field a couple of years and was transformed into a switch-hitter during his minor-league career.
Price, though, doesn’t believe too much is being thrown at him while he continues to develop his skills.
“I’m not worried about that,” said Price. “We are not going to ask anybody to carry too much of a load. If we are going to be the team we think we can be we have to disperse the responsibility throughout our lineup. We can’t just worry that Hamilton can handle the leadoff spot, but we have to hope to get production from the other seven guys in the lineup.”
Reds at Indians, 3 p.m., 700, 1410