As we have become accustomed with Brad Pitt’s character in the 2011 baseball blockbuster film Moneyball, the Oakland A’s are a team willing to think outside the box to win. A small market club with small market money trying to compete in a large-market league has to do so to be successful. It comes as no surprise then, that in the 1970s the A’s tried something a little out of the ordinary, based on the idea of owner Charles Finley. Finley had a notion that speed was an essential element to a winning baseball franchise, and that the greatest place to demonstrate speed would be on the base paths. To satisfy the need for speed, he did something of a rarity in the sport of baseball: he instituted the specialist pinch runner.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Finley believed that having a man with wheels would give his team five to ten extra wins per season. To put his plan into action, outfielder Allen Lewis was utilized for this role from 1967 to 1973. In 1974, Finley took his theory to a whole new level by hiring Herb Washington, a track star with no prior baseball experience as his specialist. Washington was used in 91 games during the 1974 season, recording 29 runs and 29 stolen bases (caught stealing 16 times). His stay in the majors only lasted until early 1975, as his baseball instincts were obviously lacking, but the impact he left that speed was an invaluable tool in itself has left its mark on the game. Over the next few years, Finley shuffled in more specialist pinch runners, until Larry Lintz became the last of the breed in the 1977 season.
What does this have to do with the Cincinnati? Well, we could very well be about to experience Finley’s experiment in front of our very eyes. As I’m sure anyone following Reds baseball has heard, shortstop Billy Hamilton just recently finished out the season with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos (AA) and set the minor league stolen base record at 155 (previously 145 belonging to Vince Coleman, set in 1983), which is also the most across all professional baseball, even the majors. The record alone has gained national attention, but seeing Hamilton in person brings an even greater appreciation for his talents. Hamilton’s presence on base rattles pitchers: he is already in their head by just being in the game. Wild pitches are a common occurrence as pitchers keep an eye on his lead foot, knowing that he is likely to strike at any given moment. Many try their pick-off move again and again, only to be taunted as he glides into second the first time they dare to deliver the ball home. Prior to the season’s start, Hamilton played in the Reds’ “Futures Game,” an exibition between the 2012 Cincinnati Reds roster and a collection of the organization’s highest rated prospects. Hamilton stole one base easily, but on the second attempt catcher Devin Mesoraco was ready. He called a pitch-out in attempt to gun down Hamilton at second, a sure suicide attempt for most base runners.
Hamilton beat the throw. He overslid, an unlucky move that got him tagged out as he scrambled back to the bag, but the crowd was already in awe. 21-year-old Billy Hamilton just outran a major league pitch-out.
According to ESPN The Magazine, Hamilton has been clocked at 3.5 seconds from home to first, with the MLB average being only 4.2 seconds. He hit only two home runs this season: one of them was in the park, rounding the bases in under 13.8 seconds (fastest ever is 13.3 seconds, set in 1932 by Evar Swanson, according to Guinness World Records).
Switch-hitting Hamilton has played shortstop this season in the minors, producing a .311 batting average and .410 on-base percentage. The Reds currently have a budding star in rookie Zach Cozart at shortstop, so many believe Hamilton’s speed will one day be utilized in the outfield for the big league club. As for this season, however, the question still remains: do the Reds call up Hamilton as a specialist pinch-runner for the playoffs? Cincinnati is currently eight and a half games ahead of St. Louis in the National League Central prior to today’s 7:10 p.m. matchup against Philadelphia, therefore likely to win the division. Having Hamilton on the bench could provide a weapon in a close game when every run counts, snagging a few extra bases when called upon. As if Cincy fans aren’t going to be pumped up enough watching their team after the 162 game mark, bringing Hamilton onto the field as a pinch-runner would instantly get into an opposing pitcher's head and intensify the atmosphere even more.
Reds manager Dusty Baker said earlier this season that Hamilton’s call-up was “possible,” but John Fay, of The Cincinnati Enquirer, reported on Saturday that Cincinnati general manger Walt Jocketty said probably not. There has been no final decision, however, and we all know baseball is a game of surprises. Even if Dusty and the Reds are ready to take a chance on Hamilton, is baseball ready yet again for a specialist pinch runner?
That question has rattled the Queen City all summer, but consider this before forming your own opinion on Hamilton’s 2012 fate: the A’s made an appearance in each American League Championship Series from 1971 to 1975, winning back-to-back-to-back World Series titles in that expanse (defeated Cincinnati in the 1972 World Series, 4-3).Finley’s ideologies may have come to pass in Oakland, but a new “Man of Steal” could soon reign in Cincinnati.