Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton comes off the center field wall with a catch on a deep fly ball hit by Pittsburgh Pirates' Travis Snider during the ninth inning of a baseball game in Pittsburghm Thursday, June 19, 2014.
CINCINNATI — Billy Hamilton raced toward the green padded wall in Pittsburgh’s PNC Park like a runaway Lamborghini, tracking a baseball headed for the danger zone — a possible game-winning hit.
As always, he outran the ball, snagged it and ran up the wall, leaving spike holes in the padding on a ball hit by Travis Snider.
"Seeing those spike marks in the wall was pretty cool," said the Cincinnati Reds’ world class sprinter/leadoff hitter/center fielder.
It was just one of a baker’s dozen stupendous catches Hamilton has made this season, enough to fill a DVD for center fielders to study on how to make impossible plays a reality.
And the amazing thing is that Hamilton was signed as a shortstop, never played center field. He was playing shortstop at Class AA Pensacola at the end of 2012, the year he stole 155 bases, an all-time professional record.
That’s when Reds general manager Walt Jocketty and Pensacola manager Delino DeShields told him, "We’re going to turn you into a center fielder."
Hamilton stammered a mild protest and said something like, "Ahhhh, well, geez, umm, I’m a shortstop. I don’t know."
Then Jocketty said, "It will be your quickest way to make the major leagues." That was the convincer and Hamilton quickly said, "OK, let’s do it."
Hamilton says Jocketty and DeShields were right and, "I thank them. I thank them every day."
Hamilton immediately hooked up with minor-league instructor Eric Davis, a natural connection. Davis signed as a shortstop and was converted into a center fielder and became an outstanding outfielder, prone to making the same kind of catches Hamilton is now making.
"He was the main guy to help me," said Hamilton, "When they first told me I was going to the outfield I went straight to him and went straight to work with him. Learning from him? He made it a lot easier than I thought it was going to be.
"The difference between shortstop and center field is that you have a lot of room to run out there and I sure like to run," he said. "But being a shortstop all my life, I do miss it sometimes. I sneak in there and take ground balls during batting practice. Hey, you never know when they might need me back there.
"Defense is good because when you aren’t going good at the plate you can go out there and make a good play," he said. "I never take my at-bats out there on defense. I want pitchers to know I’m out there to help them out. That’s why I’m so aggressive out there."
With his speed, Hamilton plays shallow center field, some call it deep second base. He has made several diving catches in medium-depth right-center and left-center. And with his fleet feet he can flee to the wall if necessary.
"I talk to the pitchers and I tell them, ‘I’m going to play shallow,’" said Hamilton. "And guys like Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey tell me, ‘If they hit it over your head, that’s their fault.’ They want me to take away the cheapies and the broken-bat balls. Cheapies messes up everything. Pitchers hate that. They’d rather give up a home run or something hit hard than a broken-bat hit. I try to take all those away and the pitchers really appreciate that."
Hamilton, of course, is regarded as a guy who beats out bunts, beats out infield hits, steals bases and sprays line drives to all points of the compass. Defense? Who knew?
"Defensive players can play the game a long time even if you’re not a real good hitter," he said.
The big question? Would Hamilton rather make an astounding, mouth-dropping catch or beat out an infield hit?
"Ah, heck, I’d rather make a catch like I did in Pittsburgh over anything," he said. "Defense is awesome."
Hamilton, a 23-year-old switch-hitter from Taylorsville, Miss., the son of a football coach (he was recruited as a wide receiver by Mississippi State), was recently listed by Las Vegas as the third choice for National League Rookie of the Year, behind Pittsburgh outfielder Gregory Polanco (5 to 7 odds), who was called up from the minors just 12 days ago and Arizona shortstop Chris Owings (2 to 1). Hamilton was listed as 3 to 1.
Owings is hitting .280 to Hamilton’s .275 and has six homers to Hamilton’s four. Hamitlon leads him in RBI (22 to 21) and in runs scored (35 to 26), stolen bases (30 to 7) and by a landslide in above-and-beyond defensive plays.
Asked about Rookie of the Year, Hamilton smiled and said, "I haven’t thought about that. Not once. You have to get there first and there is a long way to. Yeah, sure, it would be nice, but I’m not giving any thought to it."