Hamilton a threat to have impact in NL Wild Card Game
Pirates must minimize presence of Reds' speedster on the bases
PITTSBURGH -- He's barely gotten his big league feet wet. He likely won't get an at-bat in Tuesday night's National League Wild Card Game. But there's no question Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton has the potential to have a huge impact on the postseason futures of the Pirates and Reds, who will square off at PNC Park at 8:07 p.m. ET live on TBS.
Hamilton's resume as a speedster was fairly well known even before he received his first callup to the big leagues on Sept. 2. The No. 15 prospect on MLB.com's Top 100, Hamilton received national attention by stealing 155 bases in the Minor Leagues in 2012. His 2013 season wasn't quite as absurd, but he still finished second in the Minors with 75 steals, giving him 333 over the past three seasons.
Hamilton made his presence felt immediately, pinch-running for Ryan Ludwick on Sept. 3, stealing second off of the Cardinals and Yadier Molina and scoring the lone run in a 1-0 victory. His first four appearances were all of the pinch-running variety and all resulted in stolen bases. Twice, Hamilton scored the go-ahead run. One other time, he tied the score to send it to extra innings.
Hamilton swiped four against the Astros in one game, outrunning pitchouts in the process. He finished the year with 13 steals in 13 games. That was good for second on the Reds, and Hamilton was the only player other than Shin-Soo Choo to reach double digits in thefts. He picked up just 19 at-bats during his debut, not getting the chance to swing the bat until his fifth game. That's not particularly relevant given Hamilton's likely role on Tuesday, when the Reds hope he can continue to be the best game-changing pinch-runner anyone has seen.
"He's pretty explosive; it doesn't seem like it takes him a long time to get to full speed," Pirates catcher Russell Martin said after his team's workout at PNC Park on Monday. "That's the biggest thing when you're stealing bases. You're not running a long distance. Your first step has to be pretty good, and he has as good of a first step as I've ever seen."
"I haven't seen anybody this dynamic since Vince Coleman, Willie Wilson, those types of players, the impactful basestealer," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
"The kid is incredibly fast," Bucs All-Star closer Jason Grilli said. "He's probably the fastest guy in Major League Baseball right now. Everybody knows that."
How do the Pirates neutralize a guy like Hamilton? How do they, as Grilli put it, "fight speed?" There are a number of tools at a team's disposal. They are far from guarantees -- just ask the teams that tried to keep Hamilton at first base this September -- but rest assured, Pittsburgh will pull out every stop to keep Hamilton's legs from taking over the game. Hurdle said the coaching staff from Triple-A Indianapolis, which faced Hamilton when he was in Louisville a dozen times, was with the big league club in September and shared whatever information collected over the course of the Minor League season about trying to combat Hamilton's speed.
It becomes vitally important given when Hamilton is likely to enter a game. It will be late and it will be close, when the Reds need to get someone into scoring position. Unless Francisco Liriano, the Pirates' starter on Tuesday, is lights out, there's likely to be a reliever on the mound. Whoever it is will have to keep a close eye on Hamilton.
"Pick over a lot, first off," said reliever Bryan Morris, who faced Hamilton in Triple-A at the beginning of the year. "He's a guy who's going to run, it doesn't matter who's on the mound. Hold the ball, that would be a big key. Probably use a quick step to the plate, change up the timing, but he's going to run."
"I'll do what I've always done: Keep the runner close, try to get the guy at the plate," Grilli said. "Try to minimize damage. You try to prevent the situation from happening. That's really how to solve it, ultimately. If he's in there, make sure he knows he's not going to get that good jump off of you. We're not going to slow him down."
That's been the most remarkable thing about what Hamilton has done during his brief time in a big league uniform. When he enters the game late, as a pinch-runner, everyone in the ballpark knows exactly what he's going to do. And Hamilton has been successful regardless, stealing 13 in 14 attempts, finally getting caught in his final attempt of the regular season against the Mets last Wednesday.
"I saw he got thrown out the other day, so it's possible," Martin said. "Knowing that it's possible is good enough for me. I'm going to do the same things I always do. My job is to get my feet in a good position and hopefully throw a strike down to second base. That's all you can do.
"We've done a good job this year of mixing our looks and varying our times to the plate, pitching out when we need to. You don't want to overthink anything, but with him in mind, you might have to throw over a bit more, keep a closer eye on him. At this point, I don't think I'm going to have nightmares about it."
Perhaps the best course of action is to keep Hamilton's game-changing speed from changing the game. If the Pirates have a larger lead, or if they can keep any candidates to get pinch-run for off the bases, then Hamilton will be kept where he can't do any damage -- in the Reds dugout.
"The best way is to just keep him off base," Hurdle said.
"That's the best plan you can come up with," Grilli agreed.
"He's going to run," Morris added. "Just get the next three hitters out, then he can't score. That's what it's all about, keeping him from crossing the plate."