That is the issue at the core of this edition of Pipeline Perspectives as Jim Callis and I debate whether the Reds' Billy Hamilton or Astros prospect Delino DeShields Jr. will be the better big leaguer. It's somewhat ironic that I'm watching DeShields making his first Arizona Fall League start, being that Jim is advocating for him while I'm placing myself in the Hamilton camp.
Like Hamilton a year ago, DeShields is in Arizona making the transition from middle infield to center field, and he hopes he can follow Hamilton's path to the big leagues. Something tells me he'll eventually get there, though it may not be as immediate as Hamilton's call-up this year, the season after his AFL experience.
Hamilton's impact was large and immediate with the Reds. Sure, it was mostly as a pinch-runner, but he used his plus-plus speed to not just steal a bunch of bases, but to do it in big situations. Often, getting into scoring position allowed him to get crucial runs as the Reds held on to their National League Wild Card spot.
Hamilton took advantage of what playing time he was afforded, going 7-for-19. Yes, I'm aware that's an extremely small sample size and he'll need to show he can do it for much longer, but I'm calling it a promising start. DeShields, for his part, had a solid season, but it was in the hitter-friendly California League, so he needs to show he can hit at higher levels.
Many believe the key for Hamilton to blossom is to show an ability to withstand the grind of playing every day over 162 games. Granted, he's not the most physical-looking player in the world, listed at six-feet, 160 pounds. But I believe he's already passed the durability test. He hasn't missed much time as a pro, and in each of his three full seasons he's played in at least 120 games (123 was his low in 2013, but remember he was called up in late August). He stole 103 bases in 2011, then set a record with 155 in 2012. He still had enough left in the tank to play 17 more games and steal 10 additional bags in the AFL.
The other question about his physicality is this: Will he be strong enough to hit the ball with authority? He's never going to make anyone think he's a power hitter -- he had 13 career home runs in 2,015 Minor League at-bats -- and a vast majority of his hits in 2013 were of the one-base variety.
But Hamilton has a firm sense of who he is. Instead of pretending to be a guy who drives the ball in the air, he knows his living will be made by keeping it on the ground, bunting and letting his legs do the rest. According to MLBFarm.com, 208 of his 423 batted balls this season were ground balls. Yes, his spray chart says he did well in terms of infield hits, but it also reveals an ability to spread the ball to all fields, infield and outfield.
Besides, this is freaky speed we're talking about here. He already showed in his debut that he can leg out infield hits in the big leagues just as well as in the Minors. Infielders still have to rush throws, leading to a greater chance of errors. And for Hamilton, getting to first base often means he'll end up on third.
Some think Hamilton will be another Vince Coleman, a guy who can run but never really hit. But Coleman was a product of his environment, using the AstroTurf at Busch Stadium to his extreme advantage. Coleman was also a Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Star. Hamilton knows how to use his plus tool well in today's game. He's a baseball player. Coleman, on the other hand, may have been more of a track star who played baseball.
Hamilton can really run, he's going to continue to improve all facets of his game and he will be one of the most exciting leadoff hitters the game has seen in a long, long while.