I have never seen a faster baseball player than Billy Hamilton.
This is not a statement constructed out of great insight. But it is one that requires attendance, and it mainlines into a conversation I had with the former National League outfielder and coach Gary Varsho the day after Hamilton led me to my conclusion.
Varsho, now an Advance Scout with the Angels, was noting – more in sadness than in anger – the diminution of the Advance Scout in this age of video and digital file-sharing and 24/7 television. He noted that nearly everything of value he can tell his employers about the team they will next face is the stuff they don’t show in the broadcasts, or cut out of the videos. Or worse: it’s stuff they can’t show. Varsho cited the example of a prominent MLB catcher who falls into ruts of repetitive pitch-calling. You have to experience it, complete with the trips to the mound, the foul balls, the repetitiveness, that three days of in-person baseball drags you through. The guy just won’t follow a curveball with two consecutive fastballs. Just won’t.
And this is where Hamilton comes in. I’ve seen the television coverage and the videos (though you have to admit, slo-mo might depict a beautiful running form, but you can’t tell if the guy has the speed of Billy Hamilton or George Hamilton). But the context of being there is the magic wand.
The Angels’ facility at Diablo Stadium in Tempe is perpendicular to a fast-moving highway just beyond the right field fence. Almost inevitably, your attention occasionally drifts from the field to the ceaseless droning of thousands of cars and trucks all going around 65 for three hours. But when you manage to balance the two you suddenly have an unexpected bonus: you have an idea of how fast the players are running compared not to each other but compared to highway traffic.
I don’t mean it literally of course. But the constant motion is actually an excellent optical framework, and, bluntly, it makes some of the guys I saw that day like Zack Cozart and Mike Trout look kind of slow (I’m not insulting somebody by saying they look slower than a BMW doing 65, am I? Nor saying they look slower than a rookie with the Reds?).
Billy Hamilton did not look slow. He hit a grounder moderately hard toward Mark Trumbo of the Angels at first base, and that’s when it happened. Hamilton took one step out of the batters’ box and he was not merely at his full speed, but he looked competitive with the cars moving side-to-side in the distance. This extraordinary acceleration was also evident to Trumbo. His fear could be smelled in the press box. One bobble and he’s dead, one hesitation and the routine out becomes a close play.
For whatever reason, Trumbo hesitated. He couldn’t accelerate as Hamilton did and wound up frantically shoveling the ball to his pitcher for a 3-1 putout by a step. And Hamilton was running just as fast in that last step as he was in his second one out of the box. He looked like he could survive – at least in the slow lane – with the cars on the freeway.
I have not only never seen anybody faster, but I’ve never seen anything like it.
Last Saturday I would see the Reds’ bench coach – my friend, the former great Giants shortstop – Chris Speier. I asked him if he’d ever seen anybody definitively faster than Hamilton. He could think of no one. “Especially in terms of his acceleration. By the second step,” he began. I interrupted him and told him the freeway story. “Exactly,” he said with a laugh.
Speier warns there are all kinds of rough edges here. Hamilton is clearly not an intuitive shortstop and will doubtless never see anything other than emergency service there again. But his instincts in the outfield are good and developing quickly. Speier is more worried about the deleterious ancillary effects of Hamilton’s speed. “He still thinks he can position the bunt at the very last second, or swing at the very last second.” In other words, Hamilton thinks he handles the bat with the same accelerative ability that his legs provide. He can’t.
But of course we can only see that in person. Which is why we have bench coaches – and why we need more Advance Scouts. And why there are still things in baseball that have to be seen to be believed.
Like Billy Hamilton’s speed.