In one of my first jobs after college I worked at a small Internet start-up -- "boutique" seems too capacious an adjective to describe how small it was -- on the East Side of Manhattan. Most evenings around six we would knock off for the day and journey to a nearby Chinese chain restaurant. There were several hundred nearby places that had a more legitimate claim on authenticity than this pre-fab spot specializing in faux-Asian reconstituted chicken and Styrofoam rice, but this was the place the owner preferred. We would sit in front of the big storefront windows -- a hundred years earlier, those windows probably showcased the latest in horse collars -- dream our petty dreams of world conquest, and await the moment, every day, at 6:20 on the dot, when a naked guy would jog by.
He wasn't totally naked, of course; he wore just enough clothing to avoid arrest. His typical attire was a white baseball cap, which was perched atop long, flowing black hair, sneakers, and a pink dental-floss thong. Regardless of the weather, that was it. The guy looked to be about 35. He was in excellent shape, and apparently quite proud of it. No matter how many times I saw him -- and I averaged two nights a week at that fake Chinese joint for most of two years -- no matter how many times I thought, "Well, that's New York City in a nutshell" and then chastised myself for the word choice on "nutshell," he still came as a shock to the system.
The best kind of baseball can have a similar impact. It has been observed many times that the best kind of baseball is always that which was played when you were 12 years old. I refuse to accept that because that would require me to be besotted with some cross between the 1982 Cardinals and 1983 Orioles, with a bit of the Gorman Thomas-era Brewers thrown in. Pass. For me, the best baseball was played just after that, when the game's players became versatile. There were high-average hitters, low-average power hitters, and players who could combine either of the above with high-volume base-stealing. It was a game that had room for anything to happen on offense. The Reds, who begin a key series with the Pittsburgh Pirates this evening, are on the verge of achieving that kind of everything-bagel offense now that Billy Hamilton has been given a chance to play, and just in time.
Jacoby Ellsbury (Jim Rogash)
Hamilton is baseball's 2010s equivalent of my be-thonged East Side jogger. Baseball today has its speed threats, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Gomez among them, but with the power explosion of the post-strike era we lost touch with prolific basestealing. From 1977 through 1992, the leading basestealer in the National League never had fewer than 65 steals and the average was 83. The American League had a bit more variation, but with Henderson and Kenny Lofton kicking around they kept the level up longer; from 1978 through 1998 the annual league leader had 60 or more steals in 19 of 21 seasons, with an average of 76. In this century, though, the AL league leader has averaged 55 steals, ranging from a low of 41 by Alfonso Soriano in 2002 to a high of 70 by Ellsbury four years ago, and the NL has averaged 60, with a low of 48 by Everth Cabrera last year and a high of 78 by Jose Reyes in 2007. With Ellsbury injured, it looks as if he'll be the 2013 AL leader with 55. Jean Segura leads the NL with 44.
Looked at more broadly, after a long period on low simmer, stolen base attempts jumped up in the mid-70s, climbed gradually into the 1980s, and peaked in 1987 at 5114. Despite a couple of expansions since then, they begain to drop off again, hitting a 30-year low of 3635 in 2005. They climbed back over 4000 in 2009 and have stayed there as home-run production has ebbed. In the so-called steroids era, scouts simply weren't looking for the kind of speedy players who were prevalent in the '80s -- it was go yard or go home.
With his incredible speed, Hamilton can help sustain the revival of the stolen base. He's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. Drafted in the second round of 2009's amateur draft, Hamilton has averaged 154 stolen-base attempts per 162 games played. That breaks down to 127 steals and 27 caught stealing. He hasn't always hit with great authority -- he has but 13 home runs in 502 minor-league games -- and his work at Triple-A this year was disappointing (.256/.308/.343 in 123 games). As the cliché goes, you can't steal first base, and so Hamilton was limited to 75 steals in 90 attempts because he just wasn't on often enough to pile up the kind of gaudy stolen base numbers he did in 2012, when he stole 155 bases in nearly 200 attempts.
The Reds brought Hamilton up when rosters expanded, but until Wednesday, manager Dusty Baker had used him as if he were Herb Washington, Charlie Finley's designated pinch-runner, who played 105 games for the A's without ever getting an at-bat. When Hamilton finally did start, he was a revelation, going 3-for-4 with two walks and stealing four bases:
Hamilton is obviously not going to be that good every night, but if he can get on base at a decent clip in the majors he's going to be a game-changing weapon, a player whose impact is disproportionate to his actual hitting ability because of the way he drives the opposition to distraction.
It's important for the Reds to exploit Hamilton now if they can. While they would seem to have an unshakeable hold on a postseason berth, their season is not totally safe. Six of their final nine games are against the division- and wild-card rival Pirates. The Nationals are five games behind them entering play on Friday. They also close the season with a difficult road trip to St. Louis and Arizona, so even if the Pirates are able to knock the Reds back in some concerted way (and the way the Pirates have played of late that seems like a long shot), they could plummet towards Washington. Given the traffic on the Beltway, that's an even worse fate than it sounds like.
Alternatively, with a strong showing the Reds could leapfrog the Pirates and challenge the Cardinals for the division lead. It won't be easy -- the Cardinals will be playing the Brewers and the Cubs in addition to the Nationals -- but the point is that the Reds have a lot on the line in their six games with the Pirates.
It's a risky time of year to be tolerating weakness. The Reds have an ongoing one in left field. With the early injury to Ryan Ludwick, they've been patching in the portside corner all year long, with the result that they've received .246/.306/.373 rates from eminences like Chris Heisey and Xavier Paul. Ludwick, who returned from the shoulder he dislocated in the first game of the season on August 12, has struggled since returning, hitting .233/.273/.340. Always a highly variable player who has alternated all-star-level campaigns with mediocre ones, Ludwick might not be worth waiting for.
While Hamilton doesn't have anything like Ludwick's (theoretical) power, he does give a station-to-station team that ranks 14th in the NL in stolen bases another dimension. In addition, putting him in the lineup pushes Shin-Soo Choo, stretched to cover center field, back into a more comfortable corner spot. Hamilton, who was drafted as a shortstop, only made the move to center this year, but has been solid there.
Ryne Sandberg(Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE )
The all-around offense of the '80s had always been possible, but managers largely hadn't allowed it to happen. You had the odd Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Bobby Bonds, but mostly your basestealers and your home run hitters were neatly divided into separate piles, George Case on the left and Ted Williams on the right. Had players like Ryne Sandberg, Eric Davis, and Rickey Henderson come along in earlier decades, their basestealing would likely have been restrained in favor of a conservative one-base-at-a-time approach. When Earl Weaver came around in the '60s preaching the gospel of the three-run homer, the revelation was his emphasis of on-base percentage, not the value of the sudden scoring stroke. Managers had thought of little else since the advent of Babe Ruth nearly 50 years before.
If Baker plays Hamilton, the Reds have a chance to get away from all of that. His team has a lot going for it on offense -- terrific on-base threats in Choo and Joey Votto, an all-around power threat in Jay Bruce, who has 41 doubles and 30 home runs, a second baseman who thinks he's having a good year because he has a lot of RBIs -- but they lack an East Side Jogger. In a way, Hamilton would be the least-surprising player on the field, if only because if he gets on it's inevitable that he's going to run. But teams have known that throughout his career and they haven't been able to catch him anyway. At the very least that's a psychological advantage. We'll know in just a few hours if Baker will try to use it.