The Return Of The Stolen Base (Which Never Really Left)

Billy Hamilton (courtesy Dayton Dragons)

The stolen base isn't dead, but there's one prospect in the Reds' system who just could make it popular all over again.

I'm thinking about creating a graphic novel with Billy Hamilton as the protagonist. He'd be sojourning through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to bring the stolen base back to baseball. He'd be escorted by the ghost of this Billy Hamilton. And possibly a talking dog. Haven't smoothed out the rough edges yet.

But in case you missed it, the present-day Billy Hamilton is a 20-year-old shortstop prospect in the Cincinnati Reds' system. Here's what he did this year:

2011 20 MIDW A 135 610 103 20 52 133 .278 .340 .360
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/6/2011.

That stolen-base column is obscene. It doesn't mean that much -- getting a triple-digit stolen base mark doesn't make him a great prospect on its own -- but danged if that isn't pretty to see. And I'm a new-generation baseball fan for sure. Never met a three-run homer I didn't like, so long as they happened for the team I was rooting for. The allure of the stolen base, though, brings out the kid in all of us. It's been far too long since a player threatened the triple-digit mark in the majors.

But that part up there about "bringing the stolen base back" is a bit misleading. The stolen base never went away. In the past ten years, 15 different players have had seasons with 50 or more stolen bases, and the league leader usually cracks 60 or 70 to earn the top spot.

There's a sense that once Moneyball and performance-enhancing drugs hit, baseball lost its Golden Age roots, forgoing the art of the stolen base. Take a gander at the stolen-base leaderboards throughout baseball history, though. In the '30s, a player could lead his league with 20 stolen bases. Dom DiMaggio lead the AL in 1950 with 15 stolen bases. Pete Reiser led the NL with 20 in 1942, but only because most of the stolen bases were shipped across the Atlantic to help fight Jerry.

So the stolen base isn't dead, certainly compared to what it was in the days before Maury Wills and Lou Brock. But what Hamilton gives us hope for, then, is another player who goes absolutely insane with stolen bases. Someone like Wills, Brock, Vince Coleman, or Rickey Henderson. Someone who tries to steal when it's not really imperative, just for the fun of it. Someone who tries to steal when it is imperative, and the other team is doing everything possible to keep the player from stealing before he steals it anyway.

I'm not a stolen-base fetishist, really. But the thought of a player pushing for 100 stolen bases in today's game is just as exciting as a chase for 60 home runs. As Hamilton advances through the minors, he'll face better pitchers and catchers, and it won't be so easy to break the century mark. It's a long-shot.

Run scoring is down. It might stay down. When that happens, the game evolves. The game always evolves. I think you all know what that means: Hunter Pence could grow a tail at any second. But there's also a chance that the stolen base comes back in vogue. I'd sure like to keep most of the home runs around, but if a couple of prospects could come up and reboot the Coleman/Henderson wars in the '80s, it would add something that baseball has missed for a while. Here's hoping Hamilton is the start of something new and old-fashioned at the same time.

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