Major league offense is down again in 2012; home runs (with the notable exception of Matt Kemp) are down. There have already been 41 shutouts in the major leagues this season, eight of them in 1-0 games.
The stolen base, then, could soon become a more important part of major league offenses as teams try different ways of manufacturing runs. And currently in the low minor leagues, working his way toward the Cincinnati Reds, is someone who is stealing bases in a way we haven't seen in the major leagues in two or three decades.
Billy Hamilton is in his fourth season in the Reds organization, playing for the Bakersfield Blaze in the High-A California League. Still just 21, he's dominating the league offensively; through the team's first 23 games he's hitting .398/.481/.591, leading the league in batting average and on-base percentage and sixth in slugging percentage.
Playing in all of his team's 23 games through Sunday, he's stolen 29 bases. In the 140-game Cal League schedule, that would project to 177 stolen bases.
That probably isn't going to happen, but Hamilton did steal 103 bases (and was caught 20 times) for Dayton in the Low-A Midwest League in 2011. That's the most steals by anyone in the minor leagues in the last decade; here are the minor league leaders in steals for the last 10 years:
2011: Billy Hamilton, 103
2010: Delvi Cid, 71
2009: Anthony Gose, 76
2008: Everth Cabrera, 73
2007: Ovandy Suero, 75
2006: Eric Young Jr., 87
2005: Todd Donovan, 65
2004: Josh Anderson, 79
2003: Freddy Guzman, 90
2002: Ruddy Yan, 88
You probably don't recognize most of those names unless you're a hardcore minor-league fan. Of the nine leaders before Hamilton, just four of them have ever played in the major leagues (Cabrera, Young, Anderson and Guzman). It's not uncommon for one-skill players -- guys who can run very fast but not do much else on a baseball field -- to steal a ton of bases, but flame out when they get exposed by better pitching at higher levels.
Hamilton, though, is dominating his league in nearly every offensive category. That's a big step up for him, too; he wasn't nearly this good at Dayton in 2011 (he hit.278/.340/.360). If he continues this dominance, he'll almost certainly be promoted to Double-A later this year, although he'll have to improve his defense before he gets to the major league level. He made 39 errors at shortstop in 2011 and seven in 21 games there so far in 2012. If he does this, and continues to hit at his current level (or even close), he could be a disruptive offensive force in the major leagues within two years.
There's one more thing about Billy Hamilton that's interesting to those of us who are baseball history buffs. More than 100 years ago, in the primordial pre-1900 soup of the then-major leagues, there was a base-stealing champion named... Billy Hamilton, known as "Sliding Billy" for his base-swiping exploits, and a member of the Hall of Fame. He stole over 100 bases four times and in only 14 seasons, stole 914 bases, still more than anyone except Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock.
The game was different then, but could we be looking at a new "Sliding Billy"? Keep an eye on the exploits of this speedy Reds prospect.