The results of our first Prospect of the Year poll are in, and Reds fans came out in full force to make their voices heard. With over one hundred forty votes pouring in from all corners of the country, the selection was not just a victory, but a mandate.
With that said, I am proud to announce that Billy Hamilton has been awarded the 1st Annual BlogRedMachine.com Prospect of the Year Award. Winning 74% of the popular vote and an unanimous 7-0 decision by the FanSided/BRM Executive Board, the shortstop-turned-outfielder took a quick lead and never surrendered it. The 2012 campaign wasn’t the first for Hamilton, and likely not the last, but this season was by far his finest on the farm.
His numerous honors include his selection to the California League Mid-Season and Post-Season All-Star squads as well as Most Valuable Player, Futures Game selection, Arizona Fall League Rising Star, Southern League Best Hustler, Baseball America Minor League All-Star, and Baseball Digest Minor League Player of the Year — the first player to earn that final distinction. But just why is he BRM’s top prospect?
There is, of course, the obvious reason that Hamilton stole the show (pun intended). After annihilating the Reds’ organizational record for stolen bases in 2011 with 103, the highly-acclaimed prospect born out of humble circumstances began to pop up on the national radar. However, some supporters quietly expressed uncertainty over a skillset largely seen as one-dimensional while detractors questioned his long-term viability in the Reds system. With this in mind, fans expected greatness after Hamilton joined Jonathan Mayo’s Prospect Watch. Few could have anticipated his record-breaking quest arriving in such a fashion as it did in 2012.
His whirlwind year ended with a stunning 155 thefts in 132 games, and it took him twelve fewer than that to tie and break Vince Coleman’s 1983 mark. Passing his personal best in only eighty-two games in the California League — over fifty games ahead of his 2011 pace — the long-awaited promotion to Double-A Pensacola hardly slowed him down. An additional fifty-one stolen bases with the Blue Wahoos was enough for Hamilton to claim an unheralded two league titles in 2012.
According to game logs supplied by FanGraphs, Hamilton had more games with two or more swipes (42) than none at all (41), including twenty-two stolen bases over eleven straight games with the Bakersfield Blaze. In addition to that statistic, he recorded nine three-steal games, five four-steal games, and an unfathomable five steals on June 16.
There’s more to Hamilton than speed alone. Critics noted his high strikeout rate a year before (21.8% with Dayton) and aggressiveness at the plate, adopting the motto that one can’t steal first. Yet the 2012 season demonstrated that the switch-hitting phenom was able to do more with less: specifically, thirty-eight fewer plate appearances and three fewer games. Hamilton struck out less often this season, shaving three percentage points off last year’s mark in over six hundred plate appearances. He also saw increases in totals for runs, hits, and extra-base hits while drawing more walks.
The most impressive change, however, may be his OPS, which measures on-base percentage (OBP) in addition to slugging percentage (SLG). Improving his OBP from .340 to .410 and SLG from .360 to .420, Hamilton elevated his ability to hit for power while maintaining and possibly strengthening his presence on the basepaths. One major factor for a higher OBP comes as a result of higher walk totals; developing a great degree of patience at the plate, Hamilton acquired the fourth-highest amount of walks on the Blue Wahoos, trailing full-season players Ryan LaMarre, Josh Fellhauer, and Brodie Greene by over fifty games.
My first memory — at least, the first meaningful memory — came on July 9 with the 2012 All-Star Futures Game. Leading off for the United States squad, the nationally televised game was understood to be the stepping stone between the Blaze and Blue Wahoos; indeed, Hamilton would leave Kansas City for Pensacola days later. In his first at-bat, he sliced a fastball into right field for a hit. As the outfielder finally caught up to the ball and threw towards the infield, I was stunned to see that Hamilton was already rounding second base. The slide into third base was more show than anything else, with the throw never coming close. His two RBI bolstered the U.S. team in a four-run frame en route to a 17-5 win.
The Blue Wahoos were playing at home that day, and I drove over to the ballpark shortly after. The result wasn’t pretty, as Pensacola lost by seventeen runs in a largely forgettable game. But the game sparked an unforgettable memory in the Wahoos’ clubhouse and workout room. Along with relief pitcher Drew Hayes and strength and conditioning coach Jon Berdanier, I watched Hamilton give an interview to ESPN in which he explained his eagerness to help out the team in Pensacola in pursuit of the single-season stolen base record. It was a surreal moment to say the least, and the day that every Pensacola fan became a Hamilton believer as well.
There are certainly a few plays that demonstrated his incredible athleticism: an inside-the-park home run in 13.8 seconds, the triple-turned-round-tripper I witnessed from behind the plate, or his everyday ability to stretch squeeze bunts into singles and singles into doubles or triples. Nothing defines Hamilton more than August 21, the first game of a doubleheader against the Montgomery Biscuits. Every man, woman, and child understood the gravity of the day, as did the front office: second and third bases were stealthily marked with Blue Wahoos logos in the event of shipment to Cooperstown.
With two outs in the third inning and nothing to lose, Hamilton sprinted towards second base and slid underneath the throw for the tying theft. After a minute of applause from the crowd, he took a comfortable lead and lingered for a few seconds. On the pitcher’s first movement and 0-2 count, he ducked and began pumping his arms as he took stride after stride and slid head-first into third base. The moment lingered for a while, a capacity crowd cheering as players and coaches from both teams congratulated him on the field. Soon he found his mother on the third-base side and shared an emotional embrace. The native of Taylorsville, Mississippi, a small town of 1,350 citizens, would remember the moment forever, and visitors to the Baseball Hall of Fame will do the same for countless more.
Given the debate on this blog and others of Hamilton’s role with the Cincinnati Reds in the near future, it’s easy for the intangibles like August 21 to be swept up in statistics and projections. But there’s something incredible about Billy Hamilton the man compared to the image of Billy Hamilton the player. He’s humble, soft-spoken, and appreciative of the opportunities he’s had; willing to sign autographs for adoring fans at the fence until each person had left; and driven to do even more in 2013. One could excuse a prospect, much less the best in the organization, for having an ego and turning down those requests. But he’s shown himself to be different — a new wave of energy, a fresh breath of selflessness in a baseball environment that demands a role model.
For that reason, and so much more, Billy Hamilton is our Prospect of the Year.