In 2001, Chris Morris hit .294/.398/.367 with 111 steals in 584 plate appearances in the Midwest League, which is still the record for most steals in the Midwest League. In 1983, Donnell Nixon hit .321/.391/.408 with 144 stolen bases in 620 plate appearances, which stands as the California League record to this day. That same season, Vince Coleman hit .350/.431/.399 in the South Atlantic League in 513 plate appearances while stealing 145 bases for Macon. Esix Snead hit just .235/.340/.282 in 582 plate appearances for Potomac in the Carolina League in 2000, but also stole 109 bases that season.
Of that entire group, Coleman is the only one to have any success at the major league level as he went onto have a 13-year career in the big leagues and stole 752 bases in that career and led the league in each of his first six seasons in the major leagues. Nixon suffered a series of unfortunate leg injuries and only managed 438 plate appearances t the big league level, Snead saw 14 plate appearances across two different seasons for the Mets, and Morris never got out of Double-A baseball.
I bring all of this up because Reds shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton became the most recent player to steal 100 or more bases in a minor league season as he swiped eight bases over the final three games of the season to finish with 103 steals in 123 attempts for the Low-A Dayton Dragons in the Midwest League. Fantasy owners' radars start going off when a prospect steals 40 bases or more bases, but the radar gets completely obliterated with a performance like Hamilton's.
Hamilton was one of those phenomenal do-it-all type athletes in high school who excelled in football, basketball, and baseball in high school. The Reds took in him the 2nd round of the 2009 draft and threw enough money at him for him to decline a full ride to play wide receiver at Mississippi State University and SEC defensive coordinators continue to send fruit baskets to Walt Jocketty each season. Hamilton went straight to the Gulf Coast Rookie League and stole a modest 14 bases in 43 games for the Reds. In 2010, he went from Sarasota, Florida to Billings, Montana and played in the Pioneer Rookie League and in 69 games, was 48-for-57 on the basepaths while hitting .318/.383/.456. The most impressive part about this run is that he was hitting well despite being forced to learn how to hit left-handed by the Reds.
Hamilton is a natural right-handed hitter and many teams will attempt to get premier speedsters such as Hamilton to learn how to hit lefty to take more advantage of their speed. Jose Reyes is quoted as saying 3.8 to 3.9 seconds down the first base line is what he does when he is fully healthy; that is what Hamilton has been clocked at from the right-handed batter's box. Hamilton has also been clocked as low as 3.5 seconds from the right side which essentially means that if a ball takes a third hop on the infield, the fielder should not even bother making a throw over to first base. Here is some of that 3.5 speed on display:
Hamilton was not crazy about switch-hitting when he went to camp in 2010, but stuck with it with encouragement from the Reds and had that solid season in Billings. The numbers have not been as encouraging this season overall as his slash line fell to .278/.340/.360 while he struck out 133 times, but the fact he is still learning how to switch-hit makes his slash line and his struggles making contact a bit more palatable. Also encouraging was his growth within this season.
Overall, Hamilton hit just .255/.292/.342 from the left side in 173 plate appearances while hitting .290/.362/.371 from the right side in 418 plate appearances. You would hope that a guy as fast as Hamilton from the left side would bet getting on base more frequently than just 29 percent of the time, but Hamilton does not show as much discipline from that side of the plate as he does his natural right-handed side. His walk rate from the left side is five percent this season while it is double that from the other side of the plate while his strikeout rate is nearly identical from both sides of the plate. Still, the in-season growth is there when you dive down and take a look his splits.
Hamilton did have contact issues this season as he struck out 132 times, but 90 of those came from his un-natural left side in 418 plate appearances while he struck out 40 times from his natural right-handed side. Looking at his batted ball data from the left side, the work in progress is painfully evident. He hit just one-third of his batted balls on the ground while hitting some form of a flyball nearly 45 percent of the time including a 14 percent infield flyball rate. His rates from the other side were just 31 percent overall and he had just a five percent infield fly rate.
When looking at Hamilton's numbers throughout the season, Darren Ford came to mind because he was another blazing speedster with contact issues that became worse as he climbed the ladder in the Milwaukee and San Francisco farm system. On the surface, Hamilton's contact issues are going to scare people off, but consider that after he struck out in 25% of his plate appearances in April and 27% of the time in May, he lowered those rates to 23%, 16%, and 22% over the final three months of the season giving him an overall K% of 22 percent on the season with a nine percent walk rate.
Hamilton is far from a finished product as he still needs to master hitting from the left side. There is also some concern that pitchers at the advanced levels are going to be able to knock the bat out of his hand as he has just 64 extra-base hits in 1,106 plate appearances in the minors but if he can cut down on his strikeouts a bit more, he could be a fantasy dynamo at the top of the Reds' order as soon as late 2013.
He is the classic type of prospect that retains more value to fantasy baseball players than major league teams which makes him a volatile player to roster now because his career could go either way at this point as he makes the leap to the advanced levels of the minors in 2012. Let others be discouraged by his strikeouts and feed the flames of the failed speedster comps that are tossed around while you focus on the in-season growth and him growing into his switch-hitting role.