Billy Hamilton, in the lineup Tuesday for the first time since March 2, wasted no time showing off his speed at Goodyear Ballpark.
He bunted the first pitch he saw from Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy and beat it out for a hit. He tagged up and took second when Zack Cozart fouled out to right field, then took third when a pitch deflected off the mitt of catcher Tony Cruz and rolled a few feet away.
Hamilton was at third before Cruz could retrieve the ball.
No, there’s nothing wrong with his legs.
“I love to run,” said Hamilton, who had been held out of action with soreness in his surgically repaired throwing (right) shoulder. “If I can get on base, I can make things happen. My job is to get into scoring position, like on the ball to the outfield. I’ve got to run.”
Hamilton’s scoring position is farther from home plate than most players. The 25-year old from Mississippi was leading the National League in stolen bases when his season was cut short by in September by the shoulder injury.
It was the converted shortstop’s second stint on the disabled list after he was initially injured making a diving catch against Kansas City in August. He sat out 19 days and aggravated it by making throws. He had surgery in late September.
Hamilton, Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees and Mike Trout of the Angels had perfect fielding percentages last season. Hamilton had no errors in 281 chances and erased eight baserunners with throws.
“Billy is a major-league defender and a game-changer defensively,” Reds manager Bryan Price said.
The issue continues to be Hamilton’s offense, especially his on-base percentage and where he best fits in the lineup.
“We need to find out if he is a leadoff man,” Price said.
Hamilton hit .226 and walked 28 times in 412 at-bats for a .274 on-base-percentage in 2015. Once on base he stole the next open base 88 percent of the time.
Hamilton worked with coach Billy Hatcher on his offense over the winter.
“We believe he has a much higher ceiling offensively and that he needs to address it aggressively,” Price said. “I think he’s done that.”
“I was working to hit the ball better to get on base,” Hamilton said. “I was working on different setups and thought processes. There are all kinds of different things that I learned from Hatch being around the whole offseason.”
The Reds would like to see fewer balls in the air and a better eye at the plate.
“We talked about what I wanted to do as a hitter,” Hamilton said. “We talked about what I did last year and what I could’ve done better. We talked about situations and what I did and how pitchers were going to pitch me. We had a lot of cameras set up to show me what I was doing last year and how to handle it better.”
But old habits die hard. Against the Royals, Hamilton hit fly balls in his next two at-bats as the designated hitter.
“He was that offensive weapon that makes pitchers force pitches and lose their patience,” Price said, reflecting on Hamilton’s earlier sequence. “It was a beautiful bunt. Now we have to get him in the field. It will be soon.”