DAYTON, Ohio -- When Billy Hamilton was a senior at Taylorsville (Miss.) High in 2009, he watched a deep fly ball fall into the glove of a rival school's left fielder, so he decided to tag up. Hamilton, a prospect renowned almost entirely for his speed, scored standing; an accomplishment that is only impressive because he started at second base, running 180 feet in the time it took Richton High to relay a ball from the warning track to the plate.
Hamilton wasn't one to wait around at Taylorsville. He originally signed a letter of intent to play wide receiver at Mississippi State, and he sparked a fourth-quarter comeback in the 2A state championship in 2008, when he returned a kick 85 yards to the end zone and caught a 33-yard touchdown pass.
After Taylorsville ultimately lost by 3, Hamilton shifted to basketball. He scored 35 points in his first game. When hoops ended, again in a state championship loss, Hamilton hopped on an early bus to Taylorsville and spent the evening in the school's indoor batting cage. Coach Dusty Hillman had given Hamilton his own key to the facility. The next day, his first game back on the diamond, Hamilton had four hits.
Billy Hamilton, with 24 stolen bases this year, could be the Reds' leadoff man of the future. (Emily Jones/MiLB.com)
"He never took a day off," Hillman said. "It didn't matter what sport he was playing. He just kept working. He would go from one to the other, never making excuses."
Work ethic aside, though, the Reds drafted Hamilton in the second round in 2009 as a potential leadoff hitter because of his wheels. Penciling him in the lineup is like putting a Ferrari on the field -- something particularly useful in Taylorsville, a Mississippi town with a population of 1,353 and not a single traffic light to slow Hamilton down.
But in the last two years -- facing teams with better pitching in front of larger crowds in towns with more traffic lights -- Hamilton's game has slowed down. He is hitting .210 in 119 at-bats with Class A Dayton this year, and he has committed a team-high 14 errors at shortstop. Outfielder Juan Duran has committed the second-most errors for Dayton. He has five.
Still, the speed continues to impress, and Hamilton leads all Minor Leaguers with 24 stolen bases. But what good is a Ferrari if it rarely leaves the garage?
"That doesn't mean you're going to be a good player," Dayton manager Delino DeShields said of Hamilton's quickness. "I've seen guys who could outrun anything moving but weren't good players, weren't good base runners, didn't make good decisions on the bases. ... He has game-changing speed. Everyone knows that. But it's how you apply it which is going to make the difference."
For now, though, there is a more important difference in his game. Hamilton, who was converted into a switch-hitter when the Reds drafted him, has been solid from the right side, posting a .293 average in 41 at-bats. But as a lefty, he is just 13-or-78 (.166).
"I'm still in the mix of learning stuff and learning how to stay on balance and how to swing left-handed," said Hamilton, who talks as fast in his southern accent as he runs. "I'm still learning. I'm still frustrated right now, but I'm going to work through it."
Hamilton, who has been praised by both former and current coaches for bringing an upbeat attitude to the clubhouse, admitted to getting down on himself after going 0-for-5 and committing a pair of errors against Tigers affiliate West Michigan on Monday. At times, he has thought about giving up switch hitting altogether, even if it could lower his ceiling as a pro.
But coaches are still defending the organization's decision to train Hamilton as a left-handed hitter. In the big picture, it could pay off.
"Our goal is to get him to Cincinnati," hitting coach Alex Pelaez said. "I'm sure when he's an All-Star in the Major Leagues, he's not really going to be thinking about, 'What did I hit in Dayton?'"
DeShields, sensing his shortstop's frustration, pulled him aside Tuesday. DeShields had once been a middle-infield prospect who turned heads strictly because of his speed. In his first year, splitting time between rookie level and low A ball, he hit just .217.
But DeShields worked through his early struggles and was called up to the Expos after three years. In his 13-year career, he averaged 35 steals per season.
"My style is basically going off his style," Hamilton said. "What he tells me is something I got to listen to, because my game is just like his."
DeShields is even more familiar with Hamilton's struggles with the glove. In his three Minor League seasons prior to getting called up, DeShields committed 132 errors. And like his game overall, Hamilton's play at shortstop can almost simultaneously be a reason for excitement and an expression of how far the 20 year old has to come.
In the first inning against West Michigan on Saturday, Hamilton ran down a sharp ground ball hit into shallow center field. Standing on the grass, the shortstop was still able to sling the ball to first in time, ending the inning and saving a run for Dayton.
The next inning, though, Hamilton committed both a fielding and a throwing error on the same play -- a rare unfortunate feat that allowed a runner who should have been out to reach second and eventually afforded West Michigan a pair of runs.
DeShields said there is no magic way to improve Hamilton, defensively or as a switch-hitter. If he wants to reach his potential, or at least the potential his coaches see in him, it will take repetition. And patience.
And Hamilton may just have to wait for the light to turn green, an unfamiliar feeling for him.