Reds speedster Hamilton’s job? Get on base, then wreak havoc

Cincinnati Reds' Billy Hamilton slides safely into home during Tuesday's spring training game.

John Locher/AP

GOODYEAR, AZ. — Billy Hamilton walked into the clubhouse on the first day of spring training and before he could unzip his equipment bag somebody was in his face.

It was new teammate Marlon Byrd and his first words to Hamilton were, "You are going to score 140 runs this year."

Hamilton broke into a broad smile and later said, "Man, talk about somebody showing some confidence in you. That meant a lot to me."

As a leadoff hitter, scoring runs is "priority A" for Hamilton and that, of course, means getting on base. His on-base percentage last year was .292, far below the expectations of a guy with his speed and a guy batting leadoff.

During the winter, Hamilton spent nearly every day doing fireside chats, working with Mike Cameron and Delino DeShields, two former major leaguers who knew how to use their speed and how to get on base.

Hamilton realizes how important he is at getting the offense into perpetual motion and that means getting on base so he can create some havoc with his speed.

"My job is to get on base and that’s what me and Delino are talking about most this spring," said Hamilton. "Whatever I can do to get on base and it doesn’t matter how — walk, hit by pitch, hit. Just find a way to get on base. That’s my job every day, every game.

"Delino and I actually worked on everything — from base running to hitting to just learning the game," he added. "We sat down and had long conversations about the game."

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Hamilton listened intently and absorbed.

And DeShields, now manager of the Class AAA Louisville Bats, worked with Hamilton on bunting and hitting, "So I feel I’m better prepared now."

DeShields is Hamilton’s guru and he said, "I worked with Delino all last spring, but once he left to be with the minor leaguers I got away from it. And I missed him. I can always be honest with Delino and he knows me. He taught me well in spring training and I got away from it once the season began."

For the first half, Hamilton didn’t need DeShields. He hit .285, scored 47 runs and stole 38 bases. He missed DeShields dearly in the second half when he hit only .200 and scored 25 runs and stole 18 bases.

The general consensus is that Hamilton wore down, that his 160-pound body couldn’t take the 162-game marathon, especially because Hamilton always played winter ball or fall league and had no off-season rest. He took this winter off from playing baseball games.

Manager Bryan Price believes Hamilton’s second-half swoon was a combination of exhaustion and some bad habits that DeShields wasn’t around to fix.

"It could have been fatigue," said Price. "He is an every day player. He is a guy who plays at 100 percent all the time. He never shuts it down. He loves to showcase his speed on the bases and in center field, which is great. Everything he does is at full speed.

"And I think he got into a few bad habits with the bat and didn’t feel it the same way in the second half that he did in the first half," Price added

Hamilton admitted that every time he failed to get a hit in a game the second half of last season he tinkered with his stance, "Changed things around all the time and that didn’t help me. That won’t happen this year. I let the season get away from me last year and I can’t let that happen again."

And his physical well-being?

"I feel better prepared, a lot stronger," he said. "I worked harder on weights than I ever have. My body feels really good. This is the first time I’ve really had the chance to do those things — work out more, run more, learn about the game.

"I didn’t have to go to winter ball, I didn’t have to go to the fall league," he said. "I played two years of winter ball and two years of instructional league and a year in the fall league. This is the first winter I’ve been able to be home and that’s why I feel better prepared."

If Hamilton can push that on-base average up to the .400 level he might make Byrd’s prediction of 140 runs scored a reality.