Prospect of the Day: Billy Hamilton, SS, Cincinnati Reds
Cincinnati Reds shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton generates a wry joke in scouting circles: on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale, his speed rates as 90. He's most likely the fastest runner in professional baseball and one of the best overall athletes, and he's stolen 35 bases in 35 games this year for the Bakersfield Blaze in the High-A California League. Do the rest of his skills match up with the speed, and what does his future look like?
Billy Hamilton was drafted by the Reds in the second round in 2009, from high school in Taylorsville, Mississippi. His amazing speed made him a top recruit as a wide receiver for Mississippi State, but he chose baseball instead; a $623,000 bonus helped with that decision. He hit just .205/.253/.277 in 43 games in the Gulf Coast League after signing, but demonstrated his speed with 14 steals in 17 attempts. Moved up to Billings in the Pioneer League for 2010, he hit .318/.383/.456 with 28 walks and 56 strikeouts in 283 at-bats, swiping 48 bases in 57 attempts.
Promoted to the Low-A Midwest League for 2011, he hit .278/.340/.360 last year, with 52 walks and 133 strikeouts in 550 at-bats. Most impressively, he stole 103 bases in 123 attempts. He has been on fire at Bakersfield this season, hitting .345/.413/.521 thus far with 16 walks and 27 strikeouts in 142 at-bats to go with the 35 steals. He's stolen 138 bases while being caught just 29 times in his last 170 games.
Hamilton is a 6-1, 160 pound switch-hitter, born September 9th, 1990. His speed is tremendous and he's adept at using it on the bases; unlike many speedsters, he has good technique, and he's so fast he often outruns any mistakes he does make. The rest of his hitting game is steadily coming along. He doesn't have home run power and probably won't develop much, but he has ability to lace the gaps, making him a threat for more doubles and triples as he matures. His plate discipline is gradually improving, and he's done a good job reducing his strikeouts this year. He's still learning finer points of the game like bunting, but he understands that anything he does to leverage his speed and get on base more frequently is to his advantage.
Defense has been an issue. His range up the middle plays well, but his arm and hands are marginal for shortstop and he needs to do a better job with routine plays. Many scouts think he'll wind up at second base and he did play 55 games there in 2010, although he's been a full-time shortstop since. It makes sense to leave him at short as long as possible to see how much he improves, but even as a second baseman (or an outfielder), his disruptive speed and improving on-base skills would be highly intriguing.
Some people have compared Hamilton's ability on the bases to that of Rickey Henderson, although I doubt he'll develop the kind of power that Rickey did. A comp with less power development would be Vince Coleman, who had his weaknesses but also led the National League in stolen bases six times. Hamilton's overall ceiling is certainly higher than Coleman's turned out to be, although for all of his ability to disrupt the defense, Hamilton's long-term value will likely depend a great deal on where he ends up with the glove.