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Column: As small ball fades from favor, Billy Hamilton shows he’s more than a base stealer

Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton lays down a bunt against the Cardinals during a game Sept. 2.
(Kirk Irwin / Getty Images)

Throwback jerseys are great, but that is a promotion for a day. Billy Hamilton plays throwback baseball, every day.

Take Friday, for example. He led off the game with a bunt single, took second when the other team tried to pick him off and made an error, and stole third. In the third inning, he walked and stole second. In the seventh inning, he singled and stole second. Maury Wills would have been proud.

Hamilton, the center fielder for the Cincinnati Reds, leads the major leagues with 57 stolen bases. The Angels as a team have stolen 48 bases, the Dodgers 37.

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For most of his first three years in the major leagues, Hamilton has been portrayed as a one-dimensional player: See Billy run! What is so compelling now is that, at the very time Hamilton is showing signs of blossoming into a very good player, the singular skill that propelled him to the major leagues has been dramatically devalued within the game.

For a time, this was a popular theory: The crackdown on steroids would be accompanied by the revival of the stolen base. If sluggers stopped slugging, small ball would be back in vogue.

That did happen, at first. In 2003, the last year before the introduction of a drug policy that included suspensions for positive tests, the 30 major league teams combined to steal 2,573 bases. By 2011, that number had risen 27%, to 3,279.

The reversal has been almost as fast as Hamilton himself. Teams stole 2,505 bases in 2015, and are on pace to steal 2,503 this season. That would be the lowest number in a non-strike season since 1974, when the major leagues had 24 teams.

Hamilton said he loves to watch video of Rickey Henderson and his generation, with Tim Raines and Vince Coleman and Willie McGee.

“They were stealing bases like it was nothing,” Hamilton said with a wide smile. “It’s fun to see guys run.

“What impresses me are the guys like Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley. You thought those guys would be big steal guys and really focus on steals, but they all hit for power. They’re hitting, like, .400 with 30 home runs.”

Angels Manager Mike Scioscia played 15 years as a catcher and said there were “maybe four guys” in that era that had the kind of speed Hamilton or the Miami Marlins’ Dee Gordon does.

“Guys like Coleman and Raines and Rickey Henderson could lead off in any era,” Scioscia said. “Those guys would be just as valuable today. Finding that guy who can get on base with that game-changing speed, that’s a special player.”

In Scioscia’s day, the prototypical leadoff hitter batted .280 with 30 stolen bases. That kind of player might not make a major league roster today, unless he also drew a lot of walks and hardly ever got thrown out trying to steal.

The ideas are not new. When Gene Mauch managed the Angels three decades ago, he used the slow-footed Brian Downing to lead off because Downing got on base. However, in this era of widespread availability of analytical data and its adoption by a new wave of general managers, on-base percentage has become paramount.

“If you have the choice between on-base percentage and speed at the top of the order, you’re going to go for on-base percentage,” Scioscia said.

And, if your leadoff hitter gets on base and wants to steal, he’d better be safe about 80% of the time. Much less, the data says, and your team has a better chance to score if the leadoff man simply stays put at first base and the hitter hits away.

“The stolen base has been proven to be kind of inefficient if done at a mediocre rate,” said Hamilton’s teammate, first baseman Joey Votto.

“The game is smarter. The conversation is more about efficiency and good decisions instead of doing things all in volume: the RBI, the stolen bases, the batting average. Those can be kind of empty numbers. Especially with the money in the game, the money you’re paying guys, you want the best bang for your buck. Just because a guy has a big round number doesn’t mean he is a valuable player.”

Juan Pierre stole bases with a 75% success rate, Wills at 74%, Steve Sax at 71%, Luis Polonia at 69%. Prominent leadoff hitters all, in their day.

Wills revolutionized the stolen base in his era – he merits Hall of Fame consideration for it, he won a most valuable player award and finished among the top six in MVP voting three times – but a player with his skill set might struggle to find a job today.

“I don’t think there’s a front-office person that does any analysis at all that doesn’t appreciate a 90% success rate on stolen bases,” Scioscia said. “I don’t think that’s holding any of these guys up. I think it’s being able to do enough things on the field to let your speed play.”

That brings us back to Hamilton, who is playing the best baseball of his life.

His success rate in stolen bases: 88% this year, 88% last year, up from 71% in his first year. The active leader in that category: the Dodgers’ Chase Utley, at 88%.

Since the All-Star break, Hamilton is batting .290, with a .365 on-base percentage. His career numbers: .247, with a .296 OBP. In August, he drew 14 walks, his first career month with double digits in that category.

“I want to become a great hitter,” he said. “I have to really focus on what type of hitter I want to be and what kind of player I can be.”

Said Votto: “He’s taken more control over the direction of his career. I think he’s getting to the point where he can see what’s going on. Instead of taking feedback from other people, he’s able to solve it himself, which is really, really important.”

Hamilton said he has heard more than enough about how he needs to hit more ground balls, so he can beat out more base hits. Major league infielders are very good, he said, and shifts make them better.

“I’m thinking more this year about being a line-drive hitter, trying to hit the ball in the gap, not focusing on hitting ground balls,” he said. “A lot of these guys can hit home runs, hit the ball deep in the gap. My job is to hit it as low as I can, on a line. That’s what I figured out.”

Hamilton is hitting more line drives this season, and fewer fly balls. His ratio of ground balls to fly balls has jumped dramatically. As a result of his offensive improvement, his baserunning prowess and his elite defense in center field, Fangraphs rates him at 3.0 WAR – that is, just as valuable this year as Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals and Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets.

“This year has been a little taste of what I want to become,” Hamilton said. “I don’t want to have this few weeks of going good and then go back to normal. I’m just looking forward to what’s going to come.”

How about becoming the first major leaguer to steal 100 bases since Coleman did it in 1987?

“It’s possible,” he said. “The last two years, I batted .220 and had 57 bags, .250 and had 56 bags. Just imagine if I get to where I want to get – the .300 level, the .280 or .290 level. Then for sure it’s possible. As of right now, I’m working to get to that point. I’m just working to get on base.”

His definition of a good year does not include stolen bases. If he gets on base, they will come.

“If I can hit around .280 and above, that’s all I really want to do,” he said. “If I can get above .280 and stay in that area, then life will be good.”

Hamilton this week turns 26, the age at which most major leaguers hit their prime. This Hamilton could be quite a long-running show.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin


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