With Shin-Soo Choo playing center field last year, a player of limited range, Bruce covered the gaps. And he said, "I played next to Drew Stubbs a few years ago and he was very fast and covered a lot of ground, but nothing like Billy Hamilton. This year I had to totally rehabilitate my game."
Bruce says there are balls he could catch, but Hamilton flashes into his peripheral vision and he backs off, "Because the center fielder does have the right away, takes everything he can get." Bruce worries that Hamilton covers so ground, "That even as fast as he is, there might be some balls he can’t get and I have to make certain I’m there."
There was a play in San Diego, a line drive in the gap. Bruce sprinted over and was about to launch a dive when Hamilton’s airborne prone body zipped in front of him and Hamilton snared it.
The amazing part is that Hamilton signed as a shortstop, never played center field. But the Reds moved him out there less than two years ago and he is playing it as he was born in front of the 404 sign in center field of Great American Ball Park.
It doesn’t surprise Bruce.
"Billy is a supreme athlete," he said. "He is second to none as an athlete. And he is a baseball player. He knows the game. You can tell from the jumps he gets. It came so easily to him."
The glossy part of Hamilton’s game, of course, is his base-stealing, 35 so far this season. That’s what fans notice, that’s what disrupts the other team — Billy on the bases.
"I noticed that when he came up to us last September," said Bruce. "I noticed the base-stealing aspect because he is not just out there running. He knows the pitchers, he gets jumps, does what baseball players do. I noticed that from Day One so it wasn’t really surprising that he made the shift so easily.
"Generally it would be surprising that a shortstop could switch so quickly and so effectively to center field," Bruce added. "But he has the speed and the instincts and it has been impressive. It is crazy. He goes and gets the ball."
When Hamilton stuck with the team this year, there were doubters, those who wondered if he could hit and get on base enough to utilize that Kentucky Derby speed. Well, going into Saturday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers he was hitting .279 with five homers — only two less than Bruce and only one less than Joey Votto.
"He has been great, he really has," said Bruce. "I have been very, very impressed and not with just the results. He works hard, man. He is trying to learn, tries to get better. He is a student of the game and knows he doesn’t have it all figured out. He makes mistakes, like everybody else, but he learns from them.
"He wants to make himself the best player he can be," said Bruce, which has always been Bruce’s personal mantra about himself. "That’s admirable. It has been a lot of fun watching him. He is truly the first guy, since I’ve been here, who I’ve been able to see start from the very beginning and watch him do his thing. It has been very cool to see. And the scary thing is that he is just starting out."
Manager Bryan Price, a defensive aficionado, recognizes the benefits of a world class sprinter in center field and says, "We can take more risk on the corners. We can play guys more as an extreme pull, knowing that Billy can cover those gaps. It isn’t as noticeable in our outfielder because we don’t have those peculiar curves and corners and we don’t a left center or right center that bows out. So on the road there has definitely been some things we’ve done to utilize Billy’s speed."