Reds’ Hamilton ready for jump start on Year 2
CINCINNATI — Billy Hamilton is ready for 2015 to get started. The Reds center fielder isn’t due to report to the team’s Goodyear, Ariz., complex for spring training until Feb. 24 but he’s headed out west next week to get a jump start on things.
Jump starts and Hamilton are synonymous.
What Hamilton and the Reds are really looking for this upcoming season is not just that fast start but for the 24-year-old to be able to maintain and finish strong in his second year in the big leagues. There are certain factors that will have to go the Reds’ way if they are to rebound from last season’s 76-86 record and fourth place finish in the National League Central division. The return to health of right fielder Jay Bruce and first baseman Joey Votto tops that list.
Hamilton’s progress from first-year speed-wielding phenomenon to consistent leadoff batter isn’t too far below.
Hamilton was among those gathered Thursday morning at the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum adjacent to Great American Ball Park for the sendoff of the team’s annual caravan. He’s part of the West tour group (along with assistant general manager Dick Williams, broadcasters Jim Kelch and Jeff Brantley, former outfielder Glenn Braggs and highly regarded prospect Jesse Winker) that will travel to the Indiana cities of Muncie, Evansville, Bloomington and Indianapolis before returning to Cincinnati Sunday afternoon.
"The offseason’s been great. It’s not as long as I thought it would be," said Hamilton. "I didn’t want it to be long and right now I feel like my body is feeling really good."
Hamilton’s 2014 season ended four games early after he suffered a concussion Sept. 24 making a catch over the wall at GABP against Milwaukee. Hamilton was on his way to winning the NL Rookie of the Year award last season before September came calling. He played 21 games with 18 starts in the final month of the season, easily his toughest month of the year. He hit just .123 with a .219 on-base percentage.
He had been the NL Rookie of the Month in June after hitting .327 with a .348 OBP and .500 slugging percentage in 27 games. He hit three home runs, drove in 18 runners, scored 18 times himself and stole 14 of his team rookie-record 56 bases that month.
Former center fielder Eric Davis, now a special assistant to GM Walt Jocketty, is one of two close mentors for Hamilton, along with Louisville manager Delino DeShields. Once upon a time, Davis was the rising star for the franchise who turned into an All-Star and helped the 1990 Reds win the World Series.
"You just have to learn how to get through 162 games and be as consistent and maintain the thing that you want to do," said Davis. "You’re going to have ups and downs. You just don’t want peaks and valleys. That’s what he did last year; he had peaks and valleys."
Davis is certain Hamilton can be what both the player and team believe he can be. Davis cites Hamilton’s temperament, personality and drive to become a better player for his belief.
"That’s not to say that he’ll have a .490 on-base percentage but you’ll see him improve and it’s about being consistent over the long haul," said Davis. "The one thing that I’ve learned about baseball is: you have to prepare for 18 years. You can’t prepare for two years. That’s the learning curve that we’re trying to get him to."
Hamilton’s goals for this season are simply to be better. No numbers attached to what equal "better" but a simple thought that if he gets on base more often, only good things will happen for him and the Reds.
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"A leadoff hitter should be focused on getting on base no matter what the situation," said Hamilton, who finished with a .292 OBP and .250 batting average. "If you get on base your average is going to be really good. You can’t focus on your average, you’ve got to focus on getting on base. My main thing is getting on base however I can. If I can do that, whether if it comes with hits, if it comes with walks, if it comes with anything else."
Two areas of particular interest Hamilton would like to improve are his strikeouts (117) and steal percentage (70.9). Hamilton had the third-most strikeouts on the team, while walking only 34 times. He might own the franchise rookie record but Hamilton was also caught stealing 23 times in his 79 attempts. Opposing pitchers paid extra close attention to Hamilton when he got on first base. They used more slide steps. They hurried their delivery to the plate.
That’s something Hamilton and DeShields have worked on this offseason.
"All of that stuff was on me last year," said Hamilton. "I’ve got to know when to go this year. Last year I went a lot when I wasn’t supposed to. This year I know more. I’ve learned. That’s one thing I like to do is learn. I’ve learned from last season."
That’s why there is hope that Hamilton’s game will continue to improve. He showed last season that playing in the major leagues wasn’t too big for him. His defense never faltered and was Gold Glove caliber even when his offense struggled. Hamilton has taken to the coaching he’s received, whether it has been from DeShields, Davis or anyone on the major league staff.
"I know what to prepare for," said Hamilton. "Now I know going into the season how things are going to be. That’s why I’m excited about this season."