CINCINNATI — Billy Hatcher guaranteed during spring training that Billy Hamilton would hit this year — if healthy. That’s the only explanation Hatcher has for Hamilton’s surge at the plate.
“He’s healthy,” Hatcher said. “If he stays healthy, he’s going to do it. He was always very good defensively. But if his shoulder don’t bother him, his thumb don’t bother him, Billy’s going to be okay.”
Hamilton’s hitting .293/.316/.427 since May 25. He went into Monday hitting .255/.291/.375 overall. In his struggles, Hamilton never mentioned his injuries.
“But being healthier helps quite a bit,” he said. “You always want to be 100 percent healthy when you’re playing this game. But as a player, you don’t want to make an excuse about not playing as well when you’re not healthy. I feel like if you’re playing, you’re healthy enough to perform. I don’t make any excuses.”
Hamilton’s surgically repaired left shoulder kept him from doing baseball work most of the offseason. The problem lingered into spring training, so Hamilton was trying to get the shoulder strong and find his hitting stroke at the same time.
It didn’t work out early. Hamilton was hitting .176 on April 29.
Hamilton’s shoulder has gotten stronger as the season’s worn on. But at times, it’s one step forward, one step back.
Hamilton had an issue with his left thumb after banging it making a homer-robbing catch in St. Louis in April. He re-injured the thumb May 5. He was on the seven-day concussion disabled list from June 10 to 17 after hitting his head on a slide into third.
You see the pattern: Hamilton gets hurt quite a bit. It’s hard for a guy like him to stay healthy because of his body type (lean), speed (blistering) and style of play (all-out, all-the-time).
Hamilton reached 21 mph making a sliding catch in Houston. If he hits the wall at that speed, it’s like being in a minor traffic accident.
Reds Hall of Famer Eric Davis had similar speed to Hamilton’s and the same body type. Hamilton is listed at 6-foot, 160 pounds; Davis was listed at 6-foot-2, 165 pounds.
“You’re moving at a higher rate of speed than the normal person,” Davis said. “So your impact is going to be greater when you dive or hit the wall because of the speed you generate."
Davis should know. He never played more than 135 games in his 17-year career in the big leagues and only got to 130 five times. Davis, a special assistant for the Reds, has counseled Hamilton on the importance of trying to stay healthy.
“It’s something he’s going to have to maintain,” Davis said. “It’s something I talked to him about at spring training. You really have to be cautious, not with the way you go after the ball but with what your surroundings are. The way he plays you be aware of what’s around you.”
Davis knows it’s hard battle to win.
“I was only healthy in November and December,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. He’s going to have to really learn to take care of his body over the 162-game grind."
Hatcher thinks the answer may be in adding weight, which may happen naturally as Hamilton, 25, gets older.
“Billy is frail,” Hatcher said. “He’s not that big of a guy. You think: If he gains 10 pounds, would he lose his speed? Maybe. Maybe not. He just has to get stronger. Some guys mature a little later. It takes until 26, 27 years old. The only thing Billy’s going to do is get better.”
But health concerns or not, Hamilton is not going to change his style of play. He’ll run into a wall to make a catch.
“As a gamer, you can’t control that type of stuff.” Hamilton said. “The type of player I am, I want to catch every ball out there. I’m not trying to run into walls. I don’t want to run into walls. But if it happens, it happens. I tell our pitchers I’m going to do whatever I can to catch every single ball that’s hit inside the park.”
That’s a fitting philosophy in the wake of Pete Rose weekend; it was the theme of Rose’s speech at the Hall of Fame Gala Sunday night.
“Pete was talking about playing hard (Sunday) night,” Hamilton said. “He said there shouldn’t be any player in baseball — no matter how bad you feel that day — you should always give 100 percent. You can go 0-for at the plate. That doesn’t mean you can’t give 100 percent on the field.
“That speech was good for me. I want to hustle all the time, no matter what.”
Hamilton attributes another part of his improvement at the plate to relaxing. The achy shoulder which led to slow starts led to him putting more pressure on himself as people questioned whether he’d ever hit enough in the big leagues.
“I’m trying to slow everything down,” he said. “Not try to do too much, not forcing things to happen. I was wanting to do so well that I put so much pressure on myself. I was trying to prove everyone wrong — that I could hit. It wasn’t working. Now, I’m relaxing and playing the game of baseball, not worrying about what anybody says.
“Lately, it’s been going pretty good. I’m not exactly where I want to be. But I’m playing well enough to have the confidence I need.”