Vahe Gregorian

Billy Hamilton’s speed embodies a crucial question about fate of 2019 Royals

Billy Hamilton looks forward to new beginning with Royals

Royals free-agent signing and center fielder Billy Hamilton speaks to reporters in the clubhouse at the team's spring training facility in Surprise, Arizona on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.
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Royals free-agent signing and center fielder Billy Hamilton speaks to reporters in the clubhouse at the team's spring training facility in Surprise, Arizona on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

About ever since Billy Hamilton skedaddled for 155 stolen bases as a minor-leaguer in 2012 to set the professional baseball standard, he has been widely perceived as the fastest man in baseball.

Even at the fossilized age of 28, he remains among them now with a top speed of 30.1 feet per second in 2018, per Baseball Savant’s Statcast sprint analysis. And no one in baseball has more stolen bases in the last four seasons than his 264.

Yet … Hamilton hit all of .236 last season, when he stole just 34 bases after averaging 57 over the previous four years. His 132 strikeouts for the Reds would have been the most on the Royals … but without the power (four home runs) to make it more palatable.

“You’ve got to get on base to run …,” Hamilton, the Royals’ presumptive regular center fielder, said on Tuesday as pitchers and catchers were reporting for spring training. “It’s all on me … If I do something wrong, I’m always going to man up to it.”

All of which makes him a fascinating symbol of both the appeal and risk in the Royals’ gambit to put a premium on their running game this season.

How his own reboot goes will have sway in their own attempt to reset.

While Hamilton was signed in part to enhance the reach and range of the outfield patrol, the acquisition also more broadly speaks to the Royals going all-in on speed to manufacture runs.

They believe they can thus jump-start the offense and replicate some of the energy of 2014 and 2015 with the likes of Hamilton, Adalberto Mondesi, Terrance Gore (in a potential regular-season role as a pinch-runner), two-time American League stolen base leader Whit Merrifield, alert base-runner Chris Owings and perhaps the swift Brett Phillips.

“Catcher for the other team, be ready,” said Royals catcher Sal Perez, who reckoned if he were playing against the Royals that dynamic would be in his head all game.

But even with three of last year’s top eight base-stealers in the game on the team now, the asterisk attached to all this is significant.

Other than Merrifield, the AL hits leader in 2018, and Mondesi, who hit .288 with 13 home runs and 29 stolen bases over his final 240 at-bats, the profiles of those the Royals expect to plunder the basepaths suggest that getting there in the first place is the real issue.

Gore has one major-league hit in parts of five seasons. The versatile Owings is a lifetime .250 hitter who fell to .206 last year. Phillips hit .188 in 112-at-bats with the Royals last season.

Hamilton, who had spent his entire career in the Reds organization before being signed in December by the Royals on a one-year, $5.25 million contract, is a career .245 hitter with an OBP of .299 the last two seasons.

A key part of the reason he signed with the Royals, who conveyed that they have coveted him for years, was the chance to play the aggressive style general manager Dayton Moore is touting as a catalyst away from the dreadful regression to 58-104 last season.

Hamilton also saw joining an organization that promptly felt like home to him as a chance at what he called “a new beginning.”

That includes clearing out all the voices over the years that he believes came to gridlock him into a tentative approach at the plate that included him striking out 265 times over the last two seasons.

Told by Moore in the offseason to “go out there and be yourself,” Hamilton has been working on simplifying overall and getting away from an inclination to go deeper in counts in favor of more aggressive at-bats.

“The style of play that (Moore) wants, I felt like I could fit right in with these guys,” he said.

Including one area in particular that he expects will spark some friendly competition.

Hamilton’s 264 steals since 2014 are the most in the major leagues, but his aptitude for the art of the steal has been refined since he was caught on 23 of 59 attempts his rookie season. He’s gone from a “run, run, run” mentality, often oblivious to the situation, to a more mature and discriminating approach that relies on much more than just being fast.

Just the same, he knows he’s fast. So had he had his way in 2017 as a member of the Reds, he would have enjoyed a charity race with the Bengals’ John Ross, who earlier that year had run the 40-yard dash in 4.22 seconds at the NFL Combine.

Alas, then-Bengals coach Marvin Lewis put the kibosh on that, according to ESPN saying, “John is not a circus act” and that neither of them needed to “risk their careers in some kind of race.”

As the newcomer was taking in the sensations of a fresh clubhouse at the team complex on Tuesday, a similar caliber of challenge loomed nearby in the form of Gore — whose speed is figuratively off the charts … and in the case of Statcast, literally, too, because he has played in so few major-league games.

Asked if he was the fastest man in this room that also will feature Mondesi (29.9 feet per second last year), Hamilton appeared to play it coy when he said, “I don’t know what that means.”

He also seemed to be just fine with leaving to speculation whether he is faster than Gore.

“We don’t race, so I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “You’ve got to race somebody to know if you’re faster than them. I can say yeah, he can say yeah, the media can say yeah, everybody can say yeah, but nobody knows until you race.”

Fun stuff, especially if they do ultimately race.

Trouble is, to borrow from Lewis’ Debbie Downer routine, having the fastest team in baseball can’t be just a novelty act.

First things first as Hamilton tries to make the most of this fresh start. Or all this speed won’t mean much more than that.

“You’ve got to get on base,” he said, “to make those things happen.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.