By JOE KAY
CINCINNATI — Billy Hamilton is ready to show the major leagues that he can steal a base anywhere.
The Reds have invited the 22-year-old outfielder with freakish speed to spring training, giving him a chance to see firsthand what it’s like to take off running with a major league pitcher and catcher trying to keep him from taking the next base.
Hamilton set a professional record with 155 steals last season, which he split between Single-A and Double-A. The Reds plan to start him at Triple-A Louisville this season, giving him time to develop his bunting and adapt to his new position in center field.
First, he’ll get a chance to attend camp in Arizona as a non-roster invitee. He played in a few spring games last year, but will get a more regular test this time.
Can he steal off these guys?
“People say once you move up, it’s going to be harder,” Hamilton said Thursday, before boarding a bus as part of the team’s annual winter caravan to nearby cities. “But my confidence takes me a long way, not just in baseball. I feel if I get there and have the same confidence, I’ll be good. I’m looking forward to it, to seeing what the outcome is.”
A lot of fans are aching to see what happens when he finally makes it to Cincinnati.
Reds fans were enticed by speed when lanky left-handed pitcher Aroldis Chapman started his career in the minors and hit 105 mph on radar guns with his fastball. He reached the big leagues in 2010 and hit 105 mph again.
The diminutive Hamilton seems to run as fast during the 90-foot dash from base to base — only an optical illusion, of course. However, he has already received national attention for circling the bases in a mere 13.8 seconds during an inside-the-park homer in the minors — the video quickly became a hit on YouTube.
At that speed, he compares favorably to some of the fastest players in the majors.
The Reds’ challenge is getting him ready to run the bases in the big leagues. They’ve moved him from shortstop to center field — youngster Zack Cozart has shortstop locked up for the foreseeable future. They traded center fielder Drew Stubbs to the Indians in the offseason and received 30-year-old outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who will play center and bat leadoff this season, his last under contract.
The way is clear for Hamilton to take over the spot either late this season or in 2014, depending upon how quickly he develops at Triple-A. The Reds sent him to the Arizona Fall League after last season to continue his progression.
“He’s probably going to end up bunting a lot,” general manager Walt Jocketty said on Thursday. “With his speed, we saw him get a lot of hits that way in the fall league. Bunting and running are his two key tools.”
Hamilton’s speed brought him a major career choice in high school at Taylorsville, Miss. He was offered a football scholarship to Mississippi State — he played receiver and returned punts — but decided to pursue baseball in part because his mother, Polly, thought it better suited his 6-foot-tall, 160-pound frame.
“It was a real tough decision,” Hamilton said. “I sat down with my family. My mom didn’t want me to get hit so much. She liked me taking the baseball route. I’m glad I took that route. It’s working out good for me.”
At first, he stole bases solely on his speed. Reds coaches, including former star center fielder Eric Davis, have been teaching him how to read pitchers’ moves, which will come in handy as he moves up to higher skill levels.
“His main thing was: Don’t be afraid,” Hamilton said. “Always have that feel that you can’t be thrown out. Always be aggressive.”
Teams started pitching out when he reached base last season, but it didn’t matter very much.
“They threw over (to first base) a lot,” Hamilton said. “They pitched out a lot. It makes me mad, kind of, when I’m running and they pitch out. But it’s their job. It’s respect.”
He got a lot of respect last year when he topped Vince Coleman’s professional record of 145 steals in the minors during the 1983 season. Hamilton would switch his white batting gloves for gray sliding gloves as soon as he reached base, getting ready to take off.
Unlike Willie Mays Hayes, who would tack his gloves to the wall after each successful swipe in the movie “Major League,” Hamilton kept no mementos from his record-setting season, which will be daunting to top.
“It’s going to be tough to do,” Hamilton said. “Just get out there and play my game and see where everything falls.”