Speed for Days

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Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton is on pace to do something that hasn’t been done since 1988. No, it doesn’t have to do with his abysmally low on-base percentage. The speedy center fielder is on pace to swipe 85 bags this season, a number that hasn’t been eclipsed since Rickey Henderson stole 93 bases 27 years ago.

But before we get into Hamilton’s record pace, let us not forget that Hamilton has a long way to go before he can even claim to be the best base-stealer named Billy Hamilton.

Hall-of-Famer William “Slidin’ Billy” Robert Hamilton stole 914 bases in a 14-year career from 1888-to-1901. Hamilton twice stole 111 bags in a single season, good enough for sixth place on Major League Baseball’s all-time list. He first accomplished the feat as a member of the Kansas City Cowboys in 1889 and then matched the performance as part of the Philadelphia Phillies two seasons later. He topped 100 stolen bases in a single season on four occasions.

With this in mind, current-day Hamilton has a big pair of cleats to fill. But he’s off to an impressive start. As Yahoo’s Israel Fehr notes, Hamilton currently has more stolen bases this season (40) than half of the teams in Major League Baseball. And he might be getting better as the season progresses.

Hamilton stole 19 bases in June, capped by a four-steal performance Monday against Minnesota. That’s only two bases fewer than the 21 he stole in April and May combined. At his current pace, Hamilton has averaged almost 0.6 steals per game for the season. Projecting that he’ll play in approximately 145 games this season, Hamilton would finish with something close to 85 steals this season.

But what if he were to continue the pace he set in June for the rest of the season? Could Hamilton surpass 100 stolen bases, or perhaps even exceed the number set by Billy Hamilton of yore?

Well, current-day Billy stole an average of about 0.8 bases per game during the month of June. Using the same approximation of 145 games played over the season, Hamilton would be left with 76 games remaining. At his June pace, he could swipe nearly 63 bases during his remaining games and bring his season total to 103 – a threshold that hasn’t been topped since Vince Coleman stole 109 in 1987.

If Hamilton sustained that pace over an entire 145-game season, he would average 120 stolen bases—just 10 shy of Henderson’s modern-day record set in 1982.

The biggest obstacle to Hamilton ever stealing that many bases in a single season is obviously his inability to get on base (Ya know, the first step to stealing bases). His current on-base percentage of .276 is in the bottom 10 in the National League and .038 points lower than the NL average of .314. Suppose he could up his on-base percentage to the league average. At his 2015 base-stealing pace, Hamilton would swipe 104 bags in a given season.

Now here’s where things get really interesting. Let’s extrapolate that June burst over an entire season. If Hamilton were able to maintain his June base-stealing pace of about 0.8 stolen bases per game over an entire 145-game season while also sustaining an on-base percentage of the league average .314, he would steal 139 bases. That’s more than anyone ever—including Hugh Nicol, who stole 138 bags as a member of the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1887.

Henderson had an on-base percentage of .398 when he stole 130 bases in 1982. His ability to get on base was part of what made him so great. No player has ever stolen 80 or more bases in a season in which he posted a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Modern-day Hamilton is on pace to be the first.

Rob Ogden is a Nuxhall Way contributor and a reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. You can follow him on Twitter at @Rob_Ogden.

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