PEORIA, Ariz. – The biggest thing to come along in fantasy baseball this year has no idea what fantasy baseball is. Lately Twitter followers have gushed to Billy Hamilton that they drafted him, a gesture Hamilton appreciates because he's polite like that. Only he doesn't get the fuss.
"Explain it to me," Hamilton said Friday afternoon. "What is it?"
Well, OK. So a bunch of nerds get together and ...
Kidding, especially coming from someone who's been in a fantasy league with friends for 24 years and plans on placing a monster auction bid on Hamilton this year. Because anyone who plays traditional fantasy baseball knows that one soul-sucking category can ruin seasons with ease. Stolen bases are the devil, the eternal – and infernal – conquest fantasy owners annually try to wrangle. And it just so happens that Billy Hamilton, a 23-year-old rookie, steals bases better than anyone on the planet.
When the Cincinnati Reds revealed their intentions to hand Hamilton their center field job upon the departure of Shin-Soo Choo, fantasy owners started to froth at the idea of a one-man-stolen-base band. Between Triple-A and a September callup to the major leagues last season, Hamilton stole 88 bases. That paled compared to a year earlier, when he swiped a minor league-record 155 over two levels.
Considering just 12 teams cracked 100 stolen bases last season, Hamilton has the opportunity and ability to outsteal by himself at least half of the major leagues. The Reds last year stole just 67 bases. He'll single-handedly beat the rest of the team so long as he honors his role as top-of-the-lineup catalyst: take pitches, practice patience, put the ball in play and utilize the single fastest pair of legs scouts ever have seen on a baseball field.
Oh, and for the fantasy owners, ride that speed to a championship.
"What do they win?" Hamilton asked.
Well, bragging rights for one, and sometimes, maybe, perhaps some people play for cash, and bragging about fantasy supremacy over a friend from whom you took money is actually quite wonderful.
"Ohhhhhh," Hamilton said. "I thought it was just like an overall thing you've got to sign up for. You can do it with your friends!"
Especially the ones who know nothing about baseball.
"That's nice," Hamilton said.
There's that politeness again. Hamilton carves out a unique slice of Mississippi charm, a potent brew of humility and rat-a-tat, mile-a-minute diction. Hamilton talks as fast as he runs, and yet he's self-aware enough to avoid the missteps and traps that can ensnare rookies. He doesn't dare talk about stolen-base totals. He knows better than to let all the attention flood on him, even though he is an ever-rare breed: a kid one year into a shortstop-to-center transition being thrust atop the lineup of a team that harbors legitimate playoff hopes.
"You hate to say it's a job that's his to lose in spring training, but we're optimistic he can handle it," said Bryan Price, the Reds' first-year manager. "If he was overmatched or overwhelmed offensively, you'd have to think twice about it, but he's utilizing his speed, putting balls in play and making teammates better.
"It's not an uber-aggressive position. There's an art to seeing pitches, getting yourself in good counts. Just really taking advantage of what he's given. It's a table-setting position, especially when you have speed. So he has to be patient."
Early returns leave Price confident in the plan. Hamilton spent the offseason working with Delino DeShields, a minor league manager in the Reds' organization and former player in Hamilton's mold, and improved his bunting. Hamilton's range in center field extends so far, Ryan Ludwick, the Reds' left fielder, told him: "You make my job easy." Every day Hamilton picks Ludwick's brain, Jay Bruce's, Brandon Phillips', all to get more knowledge about the proper decorum for a major leaguer. And, in turn, they see his success as payment in kind.
"I call him the Road Runner," Phillips said. "He's like 'meep-meep' and he's just gone. That's the thing about him. He's very exciting to watch."
Yes. Yes he is. Exciting doesn't do Hamilton justice. When he gets on base, as he did in his third plate appearance Friday, a sense of inevitability settles over the diamond. Baseball is so full of unknowns; we know Billy Hamilton is running. And a lot of time, he's running on the first pitch, not barreling toward second base but streamlined like a dragster on foot. On Friday, he slid in easily against Seattle, then followed by swiping third.
Afternoons like that cause fantasy swoons. Steals do things. They foster irrational behavior. In the League of Alternative Baseball Reality, a particularly nerdy fantasy league – they know that's a compliment – Hamilton drew a $28 bid. Context: It was more than David Wright. More than Yasiel Puig. More than All-Stars, luminaries and every pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw. The last player to steal 100-plus bases was Vince Coleman in 1987. Only Jacoby Ellsbury exceeded 50 last season, and by just a couple. Billy Hamilton is the savior of steals, and the fantasy world wants to love him even if he's more valuable in pretend than reality.
As silly as the whole thing seems – "The only fantasy I have is in the bedroom," Phillips said – the convergence of "Hamilton: impact player" and "Hamilton: impact fantasy player" will be reflected in his stolen-base totals. Because to get them, he needs to get on base. And to get on base, he needs to prove he can embody those characteristics Price seeks.
The big question about Hamilton isn't his speed or glove. His bat can make him an All-Star, and it can render him a pinch-running specialist. Some scouts believe it will help him grow into an even greater weapon: a switch-hitting, center field-playing speedster. Others don't see it catching up with major league pitching.
"Fast is extra credit," Hamilton said. "It's not what I want to be known as. I want to be a great player. I want to do everything. Stealing bases is a big thing. It's always good to have that. But I want to be known as a player, not a stolen-base guy."
That's not fantasy. Just reality.
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