GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It's striking how far apart both the hype surrounding Billy Hamilton and the role the Cincinnati Reds are handing him are from the numbers he put up last season in the minor leagues.
Generally speaking, hitting prospects force their way to the big leagues with big numbers on their way up. For instance, Miguel Cabrera had a 1.038 OPS at Double-A when the Marlins called him up in 2003. And while we all know it is Hamilton's absurd speed, rather than his hitting, that has everyone so excited about him, he only posted a .651 OPS at Triple-A Louisville last year. He walked just 38 times in 547 plate appearances, hit the ball in the air too often and struggled with his bunting.
But neither the Reds nor Hamilton seem particularly concerned with Hamilton's 2013 stats. And they make an awfully compelling case that you shouldn't be, either.
"With Billy, we have to look at the time from the end of last season to the beginning of our next season," Reds manager Bryan Price told me as we chatted in his office on Sunday morning. "He did go to Puerto Rico, it wasn't a great statistical season for him, drained him a little bit. We got him home, took a couple days off, came out here, worked with Delino DeShields, went back home, came back here, made a commitment to be out here several weeks before camp started to work on all areas of his game. He just doesn't seem to be overwhelmed by anything that we throw at him."
What the Reds are throwing at Hamilton -- a likely spot atop their lineup, playing centerfield and being asked to replace Shin-Soo Choo and his 143 OPS+ -- is anything but easy, particularly for someone with 22 career major league plate appearances at age 23.
Then again, perhaps a window into how well Hamilton adapts can be found in his conversion from shortstop to centerfield after the 2012 season, despite no previous experience at the position at any level.
"Of course, when you've got a coach like Eric Davis, who's there with you from day one, it makes it easier for you," the deferential Hamilton told me while we chatted next to the Reds' Sunday lineup in their clubhouse. He talks about as fast as he runs, that Mississippi drawl coming at you like Hamilton speeding up the first base line, making a close play on a routine grounder to short. "He explained it to me, the different ways it was just baseball. But it's way harder than what it looks like from the infield. How hard it is to track a fly ball, when you finally get out there, it's tough.
"The sound of the ball on the bat helps me out a lot. But if you don't know that sound, it's kind of hard to tell. But I learn fast."
The results, from in-game work and endless shagging of fly balls in batting practice, have allowed Hamilton to be more than a fast person stationed in centerfield. He's very much a centerfielder already.
"Baseball aptitude is one of those things, I think, that's a tool that isn't in the five tools, you know what I mean?" Price said. "So he has great baseball aptitude. From moving from shortstop to [centerfield] -- not just being able to physically do it, but like that throw -- he threw a guy out at third base the other day. And it wasn't because he overthrew the cutoff man, on a line to the third baseman. He threw right through the cutoff man. So we could have cut off that ball, and gotten the trail runner, or we could have let it go, which we did, and got the lead runner. When he fields the ball, he knows exactly where he needs to go with it."
Hamilton also knew he needed to change his bunting style, and said his time with DeShields has done that in a fundamental way.
"I've been here early, bunting all the time," Hamilton said. "Working on getting the ball down, taking my time, making sure I get a perfect bunt down."
The import for Hamilton to bunt well is even more significant than for other fast players. His speed is so otherworldly, his manager is happy to see him bunting, even with two strikes on him. The percentages inherent in Hamilton laying one down are worth the potential strikeout.
"He's much improved with his bunting, much improved," Price said. "He bunted and struck out against the Dodgers over in Glendale the other day, on a two-strike bunt attempt. But it just showed to me an understanding of, if I can get this ball down, two strikes, he can walk to first base, with where their defense was in a two-strike situation. So he gets it. You know, no one told him to bunt with two strikes. He just thought, I'm gonna give it a shot."
Or as Hamilton put it, reflecting on that decision, "That's just what I do. I could tell that the third baseman is in. Those first two strikes, he's all the way in. Third strike, he backs up. I've got the confidence now, I know I can just get the bunt down, the way he's back, it will be easy for me. I have the confidence I can bunt with two strikes. It just didn't happen that one time."
Hamilton also pointed out the advantage he'll gain from successfully doing that. "If I bunt with two strikes a few times, the third baseman will have to stay in, it'll help me get more ground balls through the infield," Hamilton said. "Just like it's no strikes, just like it's one strike. And if he stays in, it's easy to get a ground ball through, or a line drive over his head."
About that: Hamilton's commitment to hitting the ball on the ground, vital for anyone with even close to his speed, is apparently based on real estate as much as sound baseball ideas.
"They laid it to me on the table," Hamilton said. "They said, 'Do you want to live in an apartment? Or do want to live in a mansion? Apartment, hit the ball in the air. Mansion, hit the ball on the ground. So, I mean, when they put it to you like that, you know which one you want to live in. You don't want to live in an apartment."
The spring numbers are encouraging, though they are ultimately useless, simply spring numbers. Hamilton's on-base percentage is up over .400 in his first 12 spring games. Despite his intentions to keep the ball on the ground, Hamilton did hit his first homer of the spring on Thursday. Ultimately, if he matches the .320 on-base percentage from the last 100-steal player, Vince Coleman, in Coleman's rookie year, he will fall short of what the Reds are hoping for out of the leadoff spot. Dan Szymborski's ZIPS expects more than that from Hamilton. So do the Reds. And so does Hamilton himself.
"We've seen the improvement in putting balls in play, and strike zone awareness, and putting more balls on the ground," Price said. "So his growth, just from the end of 2013, beginning of 2014, has been significant. And a lot of that is because of his commitment, and his makeup."
Even as he works hard to develop, Hamilton has been enjoying himself. I asked him what it's like to get from home to first, or first to third, faster than anyone now, and perhaps anyone ever.
"It's fun, you know," Hamilton said. "It makes you want to hit the ball on the ground a lot more, because you know you've got a better chance of getting to first. It's just something I've always done, no matter what I did, I knew I could run."
Nor is the enjoyment of Billy Hamilton limited to the Reds, even within games.
"Baseball is baseball," Hamilton said. "Same team or not, guys enjoying seeing someone who's fast. Like, Dee Gordon is not on my team, but I love to watch him play. So that's been what guys tell me -- 'Good luck to you, have a great season'. They don't want me to beat 'em, they're not saying stuff like that. But you see somebody fast, you'd like to see somebody steal bases.
"So they'll just be like: how many you gonna steal this year?"