With just six days left until Cincinnati Reds pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, thoughts of Reds fans everywhere are turning toward how the 2015 team will shape up. One player who will have a direct hand in the club’s fortunes this season is second-year center fielder Billy Hamilton, Number 6 on our Countdown Team.
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From the time Hamilton came out of Taylorsville High School in the second round of the 2009 draft, it’s been no secret that he can fly on the base paths. In his second pro season, at Pioneer League Billings in 2010, Hamilton swiped 48 bases in 69 games, and then, in 2011, the legend really started to roll. That summer, Hamilton stole 109 bases in 145 games and the comparisons to Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman started in earnest.
In 2012, Hamilton set a professional record with 165 SB spread over three minor league stops, and Reds fans began wondering when he would make his Major League debut. As great as Hamilton was on the bases, and as flashy as he was in center field, though, he still had work to do at the plate, as his 125 strikeouts attested.
Still, Hamilton was downright exciting and entered the 2013 season at just 22 years of age, and he proceeded to steal another 86 bases, including 75 at Triple-A Louisville. That performance earned Hamilton a September call-up, and he thrilled Cincy fans with 13 stolen bases in 14 attempts, and slashed an impressive .368/.429/.474 in 22 plate appearances.
Questions remained about how his bat would hold up in the Majors, but it appeared that Hamilton’s time had come.
Indeed, Spring of 2014 was kind to the youngster, and he broke camp as Cincinnati’s starting center fielder at the ripe old age of 23. While Hamilton struggled to find his groove at the plate in April, he started to get the hang of things in May, and his OPS improved every month through July. For his efforts, he picked up Rookie of the Month honors in the National League for June.
By the All-Star break, the Reds were charging toward first place in the NL Central, and Hamilton was the clubhouse leader for Rookie of the Year honors after stealing 38 bases in 53 attempts, popping a somewhat surprising five home runs, posting and OPS of .743 and playing very well in center field.
As the second half got underway, though, injuries to star players like Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, and poor performance by Jay Bruce, began to weigh on the Reds, and the team sputtered. Chief among the sputterers were third baseman Todd Frazier and Hamilton, both of whom had helped keep the offense afloat during challenging times.
The season wore on, and pitchers seemed to gain the upper hand on Hamilton, whose second-half slide to .200/.254/.257, one homer and 18 stolen bases not only spoiled his ROY chances but also helped doom the Reds’ title hopes.
With the dawn of 2015, the Reds expect Votto, Phillips and Bruce to be back, if not to full force, then at least to a level somewhere north of where they ended 2014. The same goes for young Hamilton, though his Major League track record is short enough that no one is really sure what to expect from him this summer.
Can he continue to build on the success of last year’s first half, or is his hitting fundamentally flawed? If the answer lies in between, just how much improvement can he muster in his second season?
The answers to these questions won’t be known for awhile, but they will help determine the fate of the 2015 season and Hamilton’s trajectory as he embarks on an uncertain sophomore campaign.