Young, scrappy and hungry
It’s one of the wonderful quirks of baseball that two of the fastest men in the history of the game were named “Billy Hamilton.” They are also the only two players in baseball history named “Billy Hamilton.”
The first Billy Hamilton — Slidin’ Billy Hamilton — was a 5-foot-6 textile worker from New England who just wanted to run his way out of the mills.
He hooked up with the Kanas City Cowboys of the old American Association in 1888 and the next year slashed, bunted and chopped his way to a .301 batting average and 111 stolen bases in 137 games. Stolen bases were different then. Anytime you took an extra base — on a sac fly, on an error, on a wild pitch — it was considered a “stolen base.” In a way, this makes a lot of sense.
Anyway, Slidin’ Billy led the league in hitting twice, and in stolen bases five times. He is in the Hall of Fame. It is impossible to know how many of his 914 stolen bases (third all-time) match our modern idea, but it’s clear that he could really run.
Today’s Billy Hamilton is a 6-foot former football player from Taylorsville, Mississippi — he signed to play wide receiver at Mississippi State. When the Reds drafted him in the second round of the draft, he was still unsure about which sport he wanted to play.
“I think I’m going baseball,” he told the paper in Tupelo just after he was drafted. “I really don’t know yet. But I’m pretty sure I am, though.”
He did go baseball, and from the start his pure speed dropped jaws. He stole 103 bases in Dayton. He stole an absurd 155 bases when splitting time between Pensacola and Bakersfield. Nobody could say — and, realistically, this still an open question — if his bat would ever produce enough to make him a star. But he’s just so bleepin’ fast that he runs down everything in the outfield, he adds real value on the bases, and he’s just crazy fun to watch.
Every now and again, Hamilton’s speed alone does change the entire complexion of a game. It doesn’t happen THAT often because in baseball if you don’t get on base, if you don’t hit the ball with some authority, there’s a pretty low ceiling for how much you can affect the game. Hamilton is a two-to-three win above replacement player, which is just about as good as a player can be with a .653 career OPS.
But back to Thursday: Hamilton came up in the ninth inning, one out, runners on first and second. There was one out because Reds managers, for reasons that are entirely unclear, decided to give up an out by sacrifice bunting into a fully prepared Cleveland defense. There may yet come a day where managers do not do things like this.
In any case, Hamilton cracked a sure double play grounder to to first base. Cleveland turned it as perfectly as it could be turned. The game was over.
At full speed, it sure looks like a double play. The umpire thought so. The Tribe thought so. Heck, it seemed like Billy Hamilton even thought so. No human being on earth should be fast enough to beat out that double play grounder. The Reds asked for an instant review because of course they did — it was the game-ending play, they had nothing to lose. They also seemed to have nothing to gain.
Only the closer you looked at the play — and the review crew took almost three minutes looking at it — the more you realized: Great Caesar’s ghost, Billy Hamilton might have beaten that out.
And then you looked even closer: Yeah, he beat it. Impossible.
How many players in recent baseball history beat out that double play? Five? Three? Willie Wilson could have beaten it out. Maybe a young Kenny Lofton? Ichiro? Insane.
After that magic trick, scoring the game-winning from first base on a single to left hardly seems like anything at all. But yeah he did that next:
When the game ended, there really wasn’t much complaining on the Cleveland side. Yes, they had the game-ending play overturned. Yes, they lost on a guy scoring all the way from first on a single. But you know, Billy Hamilton is that mesmerizing. Often, you come away from a Reds game disappointed because you don’t get to see Hamilton run. He doesn’t get on base all game. He isn’t challenged by a fly ball. You are reminded of the limitations of speed.
But then every so often, yes, you get to see Hamilton, and it’s just perfect.
Breaking: Davis Allows Homer
Before Wednesday night, Wade Davis had given up three home runs — THREE HOME RUNS — since August of 2013. Maybe to put it in better perspective, Davis had allowed three home runs since this was the iPhone:
With a three-run lead on Wednesday and a runner on first, Davis faced San Francisco’s Mac Williamson. Their battle was pretty epic. Well, it looked like this:
First pitch, as you can see, was JUST off the plate, a 92 mph fastball that tailed inside; Williamson could do nothing but watch. He then fouled a 93-mph fastball straight back and the battle was on.
Third pitch: A 94-mph fastball that Williamson swung right through, overpowering stuff. Had that first pitch been called a strike, this would have been a three-pitch strikeout, something Davis has grown accustomed to over the years. Instead the at-bat went on.
Fourth pitch: A nasty cutter running away — Williamson was able to reach out and just spoil it.
Fifth pitch: A 95-mph fastball up. This was actually a bad pitch from Davis; he had wanted to keep the ball down. Williamson got a good rip, but fouled it back. That seemed like his missed chance.
Sixth pitch: An absurd 82-mph knuckle curve that is so ridiculous it probably shouldn’t be allowed. Williamson swung, and it’s still not entirely clear how he got any of the ball, but apparently he did.
Seventh pitch: Back to the cutter away, and one more time Williamson reached out and was able to spoil it. That’s four straight foul balls.
Eighth pitch: Make it five straight foul balls. Davis went back to the knuckle curve, and this one did not have the same bite on it as that ludicrous sixth pitch. It was located well, though, on the inside part of the plate, and Williamson took a good cut but could only foul it off.
Ninth pitch: Six straight foul balls. This time Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras asked for the fastball up, up, up — he made it very clear that he wanted it up — and Davis did throw it up and in. Williamson seemed to be getting comfortable, though, with anything that Davis threw, and he swung hard and fouled it off.
Tenth pitch: Contreras came out to the mound; it’s always interesting when pitchers are searching for answers. Davis decided to waste one way inside and into the dirt, a pitch that even Williamson would not be able to foul off. Williamson never considered swinging.
Eleventh pitch: Davis tried one more time with the fastball, up, and he caught too much of the plate. Williamson fouled it off, his eighth foul ball of the at-bat.
Twelfth pitch: Contreras called for the cutter away, the one pitch that seemed to at least make Williamson a little bit uncomfortable. Davis threw it just where he wanted, right on the outside corner — maybe a touch high, but a pretty devastating pitch.
Here’s what Williamson did with it:
That sure looks like a pop-up coming off the bat. And it is sort of a pop-up — it landed in the basket at Wrigley Field. Davis still has not given up a ball over a FENCE since 2015. But that does count as a home run, the first of the season for Davis (and Williamson).
Sometimes, even in May, we get epic encounters.
Are they for real?
The Colorado Rockies are 31–17 now, the best record in the National League, a half-game behind Houston for best record in baseball, and brilliant reader Boz on Twitter asks this question:
There was a really good story on Fangraphs by Jeff Sullivan … its basic conclusion is that even though we are closing in on the one-third mark of the season, it’s still too early to really make any conclusions. At this point, blind preseason predictions are more predictive of what will happen this season than early results.
That said, winning 31 of 48 at any point in a season is pretty impressive. Bad teams don’t do that TOO often. I don’t know what the break point is, but I think we are getting closer to the point where you can say with some assurance that this Rockies team is pretty darned good.