GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Billy Hamilton’s heart is pounding. All he remembers about the last half inning is that he wasn’t sure whether he wanted the ball hit to him, or not, and now, he’s digging in against 6-foot-4, 230-pound Cleveland Indians hurler Chris Perez and his 290 career Major League appearances. Hamilton acts on instinct. As the ball spins off of Perez’s fingertips, Hamilton lurches forward, crossing his back foot over his front, leaving the lumber in the zone. With a clunk, the ball rolls back towards Perez, who easily picks the ball up and fires to first, throwing out the minor league single-season stolen base record holder.
“Once you first get in there, you’re all hyped up,” says Hamilton, in big league camp with the Cincinnati Reds for the first time in his young career. “It’s your first big league camp at-bat, and I’m all amped up. I felt like if I would have swung, I would have just completely missed it, because I was so amped up. I felt like, if I could get a bunt down, that’s key, just showing that I can bunt, and showing that I’m not afraid to bunt on the first pitch, whatever pitch it is. That’s the key: I’m not afraid to bunt.”
Everything about the way Hamilton plays the game is predicated on fearlessness. Last season, he stole 155 bags in 132 games, between Single-A and Double-A, hitting .311 with a .410 on-base percentage.
Since high school, when Hamilton split time between baseball, football and basketball, Hamilton has always been a shortstop. It was initially his glove that got him drafted in the second round of the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft by the Redlegs. A year ago, that began to change.
During a minor league intrasquad spring training game, Hamilton saw teammate Juan Duran lose a high drive in the afternoon sun as he manned left field. Hamilton, though, had a bead on it.
“It’s tough out here. The sun is very bad out here, and one of my Dominican friends who I’m really cool with, I can tell when something’s wrong with him. He looked up, and he was shaking his head,” Hamilton recalls. “You’re supposed to point it out, but it’s tough to point out something up in the sky. The first thing I thought was, ‘Go get it.’ I just took off, running, full speed, and dove in a full-out dive and caught it.”
And so, an idea was born.
Hamilton spent his autumn in the Arizona Fall League, beginning his full-time transition from quick shortstop to rangy center fielder. The speed that allows him to cover so much ground, and that earned him those 155 swipes, though, has to be honed and aimed.
“There’s a lot to learn, but most of the time, if you’re a shortstop, you can play anywhere on the field,” said Reds manager Dusty Baker. “Robin Yount, who moved from shortstop to the outfield, he used to say that speed can run off the road. Speed has to take the right routes.”
In the top of the fourth on Saturday, Hamilton spelled starting center fielder Shin Soo Choo and played the rest of the game. He only caught one ball -- an easy fly in the top of the ninth.
“It’s always nervous out there, man, especially when you just switch over,” Hamilton says. “I was like, ‘Man, I want a ball, but I don’t want a ball,’ because I didn’t want to mess this up. It’s just getting used to it, getting used to the field and these tough skies out here. You make a mistake and you think you know where it is, you learn from it.”
Hamilton admits that the balls come off the bat differently when Major Leaguers are at the dish, but, when it comes to facing big league pitching, Hamilton is far from shy.
“It’s the same ball coming out of the pitcher’s hands. A minor league pitcher has to throw it, and a Major League pitcher has to throw it,” Hamilton says. “It’s not about what the pitcher’s throwing; it’s about what I’m doing, and I feel like I’ve been improving my left-handed swing and my right-handed swing. I’m just improving as a hitter.”
Hamilton finished the day 1-for-4 with a run and two strikeouts, notching his first hit of big league camp on a single to right field to put men on first and third with two outs with the Reds down 11-6 in the bottom of the seventh. Hamilton then rode home on a ringing two-run double by Neftali Soto, though, in the end, Cincinnati fell just a few short of the Tribe, falling 13-10.
“All players are nervous when they first do something,” says Hamilton. “I felt like I handled it pretty well. It didn’t go as I wanted it to go today, but I still felt like I did a good job, and I’ve got room to get better.”
As for where he’ll head after camp, that remains to be seen. Baker has a wealth of possible outfield candidates, and seems to be leaning towards playing Choo or Jay Bruce in center, even though Choo has played the position only once in the past four seasons, and Bruce not at all.
“That’s why we’re going to have our eye on him, making that transition from shortstop to center field,” says Baker. “He can do it; it’s just a matter of practice, being out there. How many chances is he going to get? I don’t know, because I’ve got Choo, I’ve got Yorman Rodriguez, I’ve got [Ryan] LaMarre, I’ve got [Denis] Phipps -- a bunch of potential center fielders -- and, this is his first camp.
This camp, Baker says, is just for the big league staff to see Hamilton up close and personal, to see just what they have on their hands if the conversion takes.
“He’s young. He hasn’t had very many at-bats as a switch hitter, he hasn’t played any in center field, so where’s he going to play?” Baker asks. “Is he going to play in front of [Ryan] Ludwick? That makes my lineup in front of Bruce, do you put him in front of Choo? Do you play him in front of Bruce? Now, if I had a rover …”
Baker trails off. The speed is just too enticing, but, the Cincinnati skipper quickly catches himself. “He has to play,” Baker says, admitting that playing every day in the minors – where Hamilton has played just 50 games above the Single-A level – instead of sitting on the bench in the bigs, is better for the 22-year old. He needs to mature. He needs to continue to learn how to switch hit at a high level. He needs to learn how to harness that speed. But, unbeknownst to Baker, that process seems to have already started.
“Stolen bases are over with, now,” says Hamilton. “I’m not going to say I’m not going to steal any more bases, but I’m not going to go out there trying to get 100 or more. I’m going out here to get better, work on my jumps and whatever happens, happens.”
Ryan Gorcey writes about the MLB for Fox Sports Next and publishes Cal Sports Digest. Follow him on Twitter @RGBearTerritory.