5/5/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Could Gordon or Hamilton swipe 100 bags?
Not since Coleman in 1987 has a Major Leaguer reached triple digits
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
ANAHEIM -- Bug-eyed scouts double-check their stopwatches and label Billy Hamilton the fastest player to wear a baseball uniform since Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson were two-sport wonders. There are few limits to what the Reds' rookie center fielder might do on the basepaths.
Dee Gordon, who could make it a photo finish in a sprint with Hamilton, has gone relatively unnoticed -- until now. One month into the season, it is the Dodgers' second baseman, not Hamilton, stealing bases at a clip that could land him in the company of the all-time elite.
With 19 thefts, Gordon has surged ahead of Hamilton, with 11 steals, in the National League race. Gordon has a success rate of 86.4 percent compared to Hamilton's 68.8.
The Mets' Eric Young Jr., last year's NL leader with 46, has 12. The Twins' Brian Dozier, the Tigers' Rajai Davis and the Astros' Jose Altuve share the American League lead with 11. Jacoby Ellsbury, the steals king with 52 last year for the Red Sox, has 10 in his debut season in Yankees pinstripes.
"There's a lot more to stealing bases than speed," said Rangers manager Ron Washington, whose team leads the AL in steals. "It takes knowledge, awareness. Experience helps."
Not since 1987, when the Cardinals' Vince Coleman swiped 109 bases, has a Major League player reached triple digits. Coleman, who exceeded 100 three years running, joins Maury Wills, Lou Brock and record-holder Rickey Henderson in an exclusive modern-era club with 100 or more steals in a season.
Wills revolutionized the game with 104 steals in 1962 to eclipse Ty Cobb's modern (20th century on) record of 96. Brock claimed the record from Wills with 118 in '74, and Henderson stole it with 130 in '82.
With 19 steals in 28 games, Gordon is on pace to exceed 100 with a line-drive hitting style reminiscent of Wills, one of his mentors along with Dodgers coach Davey Lopes.
"It doesn't matter what type of hitter you are," Gordon said. "My game is about doing whatever you can to get on base -- putting it in play, working counts, getting a walk -- and scoring."
Peers are beginning to take notice of Gordon's remarkable start, which has elevated him from platoon player to regular atop manager Don Mattingly's stacked lineup.
"It'd be awesome for the game if he could do it," said Elvis Andrus, who stole a career-high 42 bases for the Rangers last season. "If Gordon can hit .300, with 180 hits, for sure he can do it. There are other guys. Hamilton did it in the Minors. Ellsbury [could do it]. Guys like that."
Ellsbury is a three-time AL steals champion, with a high of 70 in 2009 for the Red Sox.
Hamilton, who notched a professional record 155 steals in 2012 after bagging 103 in his first full season in Cincinnati's farm system, has done some eye-popping things in his rookie year. In terms of production, however, he is not yet on the level of Gordon, three years his senior at 26.
Hamilton is hitting .245 with a .280 on-base percentage. The son of Tom "Flash" Gordon, whose right arm brought a different brand of speed to the game, Dee is batting .353 with a .379 OBP.
Reds manager Bryan Price compares Hamilton's blinding speed with the sensation of watching teammate Aroldis Chapman consistently surpass 100 mph on the radar gun.
"I'm sure with Billy, you're never going to underappreciate his speed or take it for granted," Price said. "We get to see it every day -- every play at first base, every bunt, every ground ball, it's a bang-bang. Every base hit to center field is a possible double, based on how aggressively the center fielder goes after the ball. It's really exciting to watch."
Washington, a baseball lifer since 1971 as a player, coach and manager, believes in the running game as few do, referring to it as "winning baseball."
Though he doesn't discount the possibility of Gordon or Hamilton reaching 100 steals, Washington sees obstacles that didn't necessarily prevent Wills, Brock, Henderson, Tim Raines (90 steals in 1983) and Coleman from running wild in previous eras.
"One hundred is a lot of steals," Washington said. "You've got start getting three and four in a game. Rickey was getting four or five in a game. He'd get on base and steal second and third, just like that.
"It's not about being fast. It's about technique and on-base percentage, getting on base. It's about having the aggressiveness to do it and being successful. It's about reading pitchers and reading counts, going on offspeed pitches. A lot goes into it, little baseball things that a lot of people don't see."
The stolen base peaked as a weapon in the 1980s. Six times during an eight-year stretch, Henderson and Coleman led the Majors with more than 100 steals, three times each. Another Billy Hamilton reached triple digits three times in the last decade of the 1800s.
The analytics movement has evidence diminishing the value of the stolen base, but as the game gradually drifts away from the long-ball infatuation, an increased focus on containing the running game has surfaced.
"There weren't a lot of slide steps back then [in the 1980s], guys holding the ball like they do now," Washington said. "Guys had high leg kicks. You've got guys now who are quick to the plate and catchers with quick releases. Everything is timed now.
"The key is for a guy like Gordon to play at this level for six months. You can't take two months off -- or two weeks -- if you want to get to 100. You've got to play every day. You never know when a guy's going to get hurt and go on the DL for two weeks."
Rangers right fielder Alex Rios, like Andrus, stole a career-high 42 bases last year. The two share an understanding of the physical demands inherent in the chase.
"There are times when my mind wants to run," Andrus said, smiling, "but my body says no way. Part of it is the weather in Texas, the heat. And the legs get worn down."
"Stealing a lot of bases does take a toll on you," Rios affirmed. "You've got to find the right situation. Those guys who have the speed to go on any pitch, any count -- that's a big advantage. It could be possible for one of those guys [to steal 100].
"It can be done, if you've got a guy with the green light who gets on base and stays healthy. Playing every day, I think that's more of a physical challenge than mental."
Wills, beaten up physically after breaking Cobb's record in 1962, slipped to 40 steals in '63 and 54 in '64 before coming all the way back with 94 in '65.
"I had the good fortune of having Jim Gilliam, a very disciplined hitter, behind me," Wills said. "Most of the successful basestealers have had a selective guy like that in the No. 2 spot."
In this respect, Hamilton has the edge over Gordon. Ultra-disciplined Joey Votto has been hitting second for the Reds, ultra-aggressive Yasiel Puig for the Dodgers.
Gordon, in Washington's view, has the good fortune of Lopes' guidance. Lopes produced a career-high 77 steals in 1975 for the Dodgers and had 47 steals in 51 attempts at age 40 for the Cubs 10 years later.
"Teaching guys how to steal bases," Washington said, "Davey Lopes is the best in the game."
It hasn't been a smooth ride for Gordon, but his work with Lopes is producing major dividends.
"Dee has everything you look for in a leadoff man," Lopes said. "It's just been a matter of maturing and trusting his talents."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.