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Running Down Rickey Henderson

With 23 steals in 25 attempts through 43 games, Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton might be putting together the most impressive baserunning season in baseball history

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

About a week ago, I was scrolling through the statistical leaderboards on Baseball-Reference and saw that the Reds were leading the National League in stolen bases and boasting a success rate in the mid-80s. My eyes bugged out of my head for a fraction of a second before I realized, “Oh, that’s probably just Billy Hamilton.” And it was. After Sunday’s action, the Reds as a team are 46-for-55 in stolen base attempts, and Hamilton alone is 23-for-25.

When Hamilton was in the low minors, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were atop the global prospect lists, but Hamilton was just as frequently discussed and just as greatly anticipated. That’s because we’d seen something like Harper and Trout, but Hamilton, fresh off​ a 103-steal season in low-A in 2011, was something new: a person with the chance to be the fastest everyday big leaguer ever. Hamilton stole 155 bases in 132 games across two levels in 2012 and debuted in the majors late the following year.

Once there, Hamilton was not only the fastest player in the game, but a qualitatively different runner. Small and lightweight, but long-striding, he invites the viewer to make sound effects, like “whoosh” and “neeeeeeerrrrrr” and “zzzzzzoooooooom.”

But like all things, the luster on Hamilton’s exceptional talent has faded with familiarity. It hasn’t helped that in Hamilton’s three full seasons in the majors the Reds haven’t won more than 76 games, or that his bat hasn’t lived up to even modest high-contact, low-power expectations: Hamilton’s career slash line entering 2017 was .248/.297/.334. And while Hamilton’s still managed to become an average, if unusual, big league regular, his legs have been most valuable not on offense but on defense, where he’s a plus-plus defender in center field.

Despite three straight 50-steal seasons, Hamilton hasn’t led the National League in stolen bases even once. His 58-steal season last year, a career high, doesn’t rank among the top seven stolen base totals for an outfielder named Billy Hamilton. But through a quarter of the season, Hamilton’s got a chance to change that.

On May 21 in each of the past three seasons, Hamilton’s had 16, 17, and eight stolen bases, but now he’s at 23 through 43 games for the Reds. Nobody else in baseball has more than 13. I know Hamilton is one slump or tweaked hamstring from blowing that pace to hell, but he’s on pace for about 87 stolen bases.

Even in one of the most stolen-base-averse environments of the past 45 years, 50- and 60-steal seasons aren’t that uncommon; there have been 16 60-steal seasons since 2000, for instance, led by José Reyes’s 78-steal campaign in 2007.

But nobody’s reached 80 since Rickey Henderson stole 93 bases in 1988, two years before Hamilton was born. And even the great stolen base seasons of the 1980s were the result of a more aggressive basestealing approach. Hamilton’s on pace for 94 stolen base attempts — in the expansion era, only two players, Henderson in 1985 and Eric Davis in 1986, stole as many as 80 bases in so few attempts. In fact, Hamilton’s efficiency is as impressive as his aggressiveness. Baseball-Reference credits Hamilton with five baserunning runs about a quarter of the way through the season. Nobody else is above three, and the record is 19, set by Maury Wills in his 104-steal season in 1962. Hamilton’s stolen base success rate at the moment is 92 percent, and his 25 attempts are already tied for 34th most since 1951 (when both leagues started tracking times caught stealing) for a success rate that good. The most stolen base attempts with that high a success rate is 56, set by Jacoby Ellsbury in 2013.

Depending on how you balance volume versus efficiency, Hamilton is in the hunt for the best baserunning season of all time. A 19-run baserunning season could make Hamilton’s legs as valuable as Dexter Fowler’s bat was last year, but Hamilton runs the risk of flying under the radar because nobody cares about baserunning WAR; he’d have to chase down 100 stolen bases, if not the record of 130, in order to make large-print national headlines.

Unfortunately, he probably won’t have a chance to get there. When Henderson set the record in 1982, he attempted to steal 172 times, which he could do because, by virtue of being Rickey Henderson, he was on base constantly. Henderson led the league in walks that year and posted a .398 OBP. With Hamilton’s .311 OBP, he’d reach base 202 times per 650 plate appearances, which means he’d have to steal almost every chance he got in order to keep up.

We won’t get 1998 home-run-chase-style coverage of Hamilton, but even if all he does is keep up what he’s been doing for the next four months, it’ll be the best baserunning season of at least the past 30 years by any standard. And that was more or less the expectation all along.