LIMA — There’s a quiet confidence that exudes from Billy Hamilton.
He walked into the Lima Mall wearing a stocking cap, his Reds’ No. 6 jersey and a smile on his face.
The Reds center fielder owns the record for most steals in a professional season with 155.
But after hitting .256 at AAA Louisville last year, he knows he must prove he can consistently get on base as the Reds’ starting center fielder this year.
“Of course, I have to bunt more,” Hamilton said. “If I get more bunt base hits, it’ll help my average out a little bit more. I’ve been in Arizona doing bunt work now so I’ll be better at it this year.
“I don’t want to be one of those guys who goes up and comes back down. I want to be here stay. I want to put the work in and become a better hitter and be a good leadoff hitter.”
The 23-year-old Hamilton was a member of the Reds caravan, which stopped in Lima on Friday.
Hamilton, a 6-foot, 160-pound switch hitter from Collins, Miss., was drafted in the second round by the Reds’ 2009 draft.
He hit the national radar screen in 2011 at Class A Dayton when he stole 103 bases, along with hitting .278.
Then, in 2012, he set the professional record with 155 stolen bases, getting 104 at Class A Bakersfield and 51 at Class AA Pensacola. He combined to hit .311 that year. The 155 steals broke the professional stolen base mark of Vince Coleman, when he stole 145 at Macon in 1983.
It was a year in which Hamilton would get on base, stay there for a pitch or two, then hit a jet stream to second.
“I wouldn’t say I felt I could take it at will, but it was more of a confidence,” Hamilton said. “Once I stole that many bases, I had a lot of confidence in myself to know that I could steal a base off whoever was pitching or whoever was catching.”
Last year at AAA Louisville, Hamilton’s average dipped to .256. He ended up with 75 stolen bases. He was promoted to Cincinnati in September and had 13 steals in 14 attempts. In 19 at-bats, he hit .368.
“It was a big confidence boost last year,” Hamilton said. “Going into the big leagues, not knowing what it was going to be like. The September call got me excited about this year. I’ll know what to expect when I get up there this time.”
In the offseason, Reds 2013 center fielder Shin-Soo Choo signed with the Rangers. Shortly after, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said Hamilton would be the first up to take over Choo’s spot in center.
“It was more of a relief to hear that, knowing I would go to spring training not having to fight for a job,” Hamilton said. “It made it a little easier, relaxed, and not to put too much on myself. I can just play my game.”
Last year was Hamilton’s first year in center field after playing 2009 to 2012 at shortstop. He doesn’t see that will be a problem this year at Great American Ball Park.
“Actually, I thought it (converting to center field) was going to be way tougher than what it was,” Hamilton said. “I ended up getting it quickly and (special assistant to the general manager) Eric Davis helped me out a lot. Coming from him, he made it easy for me.”
The latest ranking of prospects by MLB.com has Hamilton ranked No. 37 overall. Last year he was ranked No. 11 by MLB.com and No. 20 by Baseball America.
Another member of the caravan, Reds broadcaster Jeff Brantley expects plenty of buzz around Hamilton.
“I think you can expect a tremendous amount of excitement,” Brantley said. “Because we saw in September when he gets on base everybody moves up to the edge of their seat, including Marty (Brennaman) and I. It’s an exciting time. Guys in both dugouts are watching. It’s not if he’s going, it’s when he’s going. The biggest thing for Billy right now is to perfect getting on base so he can steal.”
Before he was a baseball record holder, Hamilton was a standout wide receiver at Taylorsville High School (Miss). At the time, he had a tough decision to make.
“I signed a scholarship with Mississippi State and was going to play football and baseball there, but it was a family decision,” Hamilton said. “Baseball was one of my favorite sports, and I knew I would play baseball, eventually, so I went ahead and did it. … I think it was a good decision. Life is good right now. I’m having fun.”