Only 22 players (see list below) in the history of Major League Baseball have stolen more bases in a game than Billy Hamilton, despite the fact that the only game that Hamilton ever started was Wednesday night. He has already easily beaten pitch outs and the best arm in the game in going 9 for 9 and alter the game as the Reds fight for the NL Central.
Before Babe Ruth escalated the home run from a mistake (swinging slightly too low to “lift” the ball instead of achieving the goal of hitting a line drive), stealing bases was essential to having a strong offense. A team that could not steal bases usually needed three singles in an inning to score, while a team that could steal a base or lay down a bunt to get a fast runner to second base only needed two hits. Risking an out on a caught stealing was worth the risk.
However, when Bill James started measuring the impact of various plays, he calculated that attempting stolen bases cost a team runs unless they were safe almost 75 percent of the time. The better strategy was to get on base and hope a slugger could hit a three-run home run.
Hamilton stole his first five bases as a pinch-runner, drawing comparisons to sprinter-turned-Oakland-A’s player Herb Washington from the 1970s. However, Washington was only successful on 31 of 48 stolen bases attempt without ever being sent to the plate. That 65-percent mark means he likely cost the A’s more runs than he produced.
Hamilton has still not been caught, easily beating pitch outs. He stole 158 bases on the minors last year, way ahead of the Major League record 130 by Rickey Henderson. He had only pinch hit once this season before being inserted into the No. 9 spot and playing centerfield for the Reds against the Astros Wednesday. The question of whether or not he can hit major league pitching may still be in dispute since many of the Astros pitchers would be in the minors if they played for another team, but Hamilton’s three hits en route to a four for four day on the base paths gives hope he can hit at least enough to justify a roster spot.
He will probably never be able to tie the record seven steals in one game, which was ironically last tied by another Billy Hamilton 119 years ago.
The only 22 players to ever steal five or more bases in a game (in alphabetical order) are Bert Campaneris, Alex Cole, Eddie Collins, Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ryan Freel, George Gore, Scarborough Green, Tony Gwynn, Billy Hamilton (the other one, Philadelphia 1894, record seven steals), Rickey Henderson, Damian Jackson, Kenny Lofton, Davey Lopes, Dan McGann, Clyde Milan, Johnny Neun, Otis Nixon, Amos Otis, Lonnie Smith, Willy Taveras, Alan Wiggins and Eric Young.