Billy Hamilton needed to run. On Tuesday the Reds got him to the plate as a designated hitter for the first time since March 2, he wasted no time showing off his speed.
Hamilton bunted on the first pitch from Ian Kennedy of Kansas City. Zack Cozart fouled out in the rightfield corner of Goodyear ballpark, Hamilton sprinted to second. A pitch rolled a few feet after it hit off the mitt of Royals’ catcher Tony Cruz. Hamilton was on third before Cruz could retrieve it.
“I love to run,” said Hamilton, overstating the obvious. “If I can get on base, I can make things happen. My job is to get into scoring position, like on the ball to the outfield. I’ve got to run.”
The 25-year old speedster from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, had a six stolen base lead over eventual NL stolen base leader, Dee Gordon, when his season was cut short by an injury to his right shoulder ended his season on September 24.
It was the converted shortstop’s second stint on the disabled list after he was initially injured making a diving catch against Kansas City on August 18. He sat out 19 days and aggravated it by making throws, leading to surgery, September 29.
“Billy is a Major League defender and a game changer defensively,” Bryan Price said.
Hamilton, along with Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Trout, led the Major Leagues with perfect fielding percentages. Hamilton had no errors in 281 chances and erased eight baserunners with throws.
“We need to find out if he is a leadoff man or should he bat somewhere else in the order,” Price said.
Hamilton hit .226 and walked just 28 times in 412 at bats for a .274 on-base-percentage. Once on base he stole the next open base 88 percent of the time.
The Reds used the downtime this winter to fine tune Hamilton’s approach at the plate. He with coach Billy Hatcher to that end.
“In season it is so difficult to make a significant change to your stance or your approach,” Price said. “To me the commitment to be in Cincinnati to make an adjustment is a sign of maturity. It was a willingness to say that what I’m doing isn’t working to the degree that he was satisfied with. We believe he has a much higher ceiling offensively and that he needs to address it aggressively. I think he’s done that.”
“I was working to hit the ball better to get on base,” Hamilton said. “I was working on different setups and thought processes. There are all kinds of different things that I learned from Hatch being around the whole off season.”
The Reds would like to see fewer balls in the air and a better eye at the plate.
“I did a lot of things. I took some swings but I watched tape,” Hamilton said. “We talked about what I wanted to do as a hitter. We talked about what I did last year and what I could’ve done better. We talked about situations and what I did and how pitchers were going to pitch me. We had a lot of cameras set up to show me what I was doing last year and how to handle it better.”
Against the Royals though, Hamilton hit fly balls in his next two at bats. The ability to bunt will keep the infielders honest, if Hamilton can hit the ball on the ground, the ball will find holes.
“He was that offensive weapon that makes pitchers force pitches and lose their patience,” Price said after Tuesday’s game. “It was a beautiful bunt. Now we have to get him in the field. It will be soon.”
Patience is foreign to Hamilton but he understands spring training is the time to make sure he’s ready.
“I was awesome as much as I want to get out there every single day,” Hamilton said. “It was a blessing getting out there with the guys. I was so excited, kind of nervous. It was like making my debut again. I’m real close to playing in the field. We didn’t want to rush things. I’m going to keep working to get to 100 percent.”