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Keep Running, Billy, Keep Running

Speed, slowly but surely (ironically enough), is returning to baseball. Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon sprints to second most times he gets on first. I liked his speed so much I made him my opening day fantasy shortstop, but that's another story.* Juan Pierre continues to make a living swiping bags. Chone Figgins came to the Mariners as a noted thief on the basepaths. Speed didn't die, but it was one of the few things that steroids shriveled up in baseball.

*Gordon hit fantasy free agency a few weeks ago. His speed wasn't nearly as exciting to watch since he uses it mostly to retreat from the batter's box after his latest putout.

The tide is shifting back towards speed in Major League Baseball, but mark my words: when Billy Hamilton makes the majors, he will usher in a new generation of speed. I've struggled all season with when (or if) to post about Hamilton, but today is the day. His speed is the best story going in all of Minor League Baseball, and quite frankly, more exciting than most MLB stories if you ask me.

Hamilton signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 2009 as a second round draft pick out of high school. He is a shortstop, which helps his prospect status, but his speed is what got him drafted. There hasn't been a guy like him in the majors in at least a generation.

I doubt the Reds realized what kind of base stealer they drafted. Hamilton made his pro debut in the summer of 2009, and stole a commendable 14 bags in 43 games. That pencils out to roughly 50-55 stolen bases over the course of a 162-game schedule (assuming some days off). It turned out that Hamilton was only getting his feet wet though.

In 2010, Hamilton took a major step forward. He stole 48 bases in just 69 games. That projects to roughly 100 steals over the course of 162 games. Last season, Hamilton got his first chance to a play a full season, and proved that he could keep up his frantic pace on the basepaths. He stole 103 bases in low-A, getting caught 20 times.

Hamilton's stealing prowess caught my attention over the winter, and it's about time I come and admit that I make sure to check his box scores before anybody else's - Mariners, and all their minor league affiliates included. Part of the problem is that Hamilton is so, so good at what he does.

Unbelievably, Hamilton has taken his base-stealing to an even higher level. His team, the Bakersfield Blaze, hit the halfway point of the high-A season. Billy already has 80 steals in just 69 games. That projects to roughly 180 steals over the course of a 162-game season.

We haven't seen someone run the bases like Billy Hamilton in 25 years. The last player to steal 100 bases in an MLB season was Vince Coleman in 1987. The highest single season total in the 1990s was Marquis Grissom's 78 in 1992. Jose Reyes owns the highest total this millennium, with 78 in 2007. In case you are wondering (like I was), Reyes never stole more than 58 bases in a season in the minors. Grissom topped out at 40.

Vince Coleman seems to be the first good comparison to Hamilton. He topped 100 steals in the minors twice, which includes a whopping 145 steals as a 21-year-old in A-ball. Hamilton is 21 years old currently, and in A-ball as was already mentioned.

Hamilton should be at least one season away from the majors, and in all likelihood has at least two more seasons left in the minors. He's hitting for a good average and on-base percentage this season, but in the hitter-friendly California League. Hamilton is a long, long way from the Majors.

Still, Billy Hamilton is up to something special, and it feels like he's building to bigger and better things. If you believe in omens, you'll love this. There is another Billy Hamilton in baseball history. He played from 1888-1901, and now resides in the Hall of Fame...thanks to his incredible ability to steal bases. Fun fact: old-school Hamilton is credited with 914 steals in his career, good enough to still be third all-time. It was his record that Lou Brock broke before Rickey Henderson ran past everybody.

It is always unfair to compare prospects to Hall of Famers, but that's what the modern day Billy Hamilton forces with the incredible season he is accumulating. That isn't to say that Hamilton will be a Hall of Famer, but I don't think the crazy comparisons are all that crazy. How many prospects have done something in the minors that clearly suggests they could do something in the majors that hasn't been done in a quarter century? This is an incredible season we are talking about here.

The Mariners and Reds don't cross paths all that much, even in the minor leagues. They do right now (Bakersfield and High Desert are in the same league), but Hamilton will never play in Tacoma and should rarely play in Safeco. I don't expect to see him in person anytime soon, but even the vicarious thrills in his boxscores are more than enough to enthrall me.

Billy Hamilton, if nothing else, is putting on a display for the ages in the California League right now. He could be lots more than that though. Hamilton could be the poster child for an era that quite literally runs by the muscle-bound sluggers of the not-so distant past. I hope he keeps finding ways to first base so that he can keep getting himself to second (and third) with exhilarating frequency.

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