David Hamilton is leading the charge for a Red Sox minor league system that is running wild.
Last Saturday, the Double A Portland middle infielder swiped his 65th base of the season, breaking a Sea Dogs’ record that had stood since 1999, when the franchise was a Marlins affiliate. He’s kept the pedal down since, stealing another base on Sunday and, after an offday on Monday, three more on Tuesday to reach 69.
Baseball-Reference.com’s minor league stolen base records date to 1941. Hamilton’s 69 steals are the most by a Red Sox minor leaguer in its annals, surpassing the 68 bags swiped by Gus Burgess in 1981. Jacoby Ellsbury — who stole 70 in the big leagues in 2009 — is the only Red Sox known to have stolen more bases in a season than Hamilton.
“I love [stealing bases] a good bit,” chuckled Hamilton, who is hitting .242/.333/.397 with 12 homers in his first full season with the Red Sox following an offseason trade from the Brewers. “Get on first, I’m looking to go. I’m fast, so that helps.”
Indeed. Red Sox farm director Brian Abraham suggested that Hamilton has speed that grades as a 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale (80 being the highest), making him quite possibly the fastest runner in the system. When Hamilton reaches base, he usually doesn’t stay there long, typically taking off in the first pitch or two unless he senses a pitchout or a pitcher uses an extreme slide-step.
“I’m not just blindly stealing. If a pitcher is too quick or I know there’s going to be a pitchout, I might shut it down,” said Hamilton, who said that he’s studied video of Rickey Henderson while trying to advance his craft. “But most of the time, I’m looking to go and, if they lift the leg and I get a good jump, I’m going to go. I think the most important part is the jump. If you get a good jump and you’re fast enough, you’ll get in there.”
That is certainly true of Hamilton, who has been successful on a remarkable 69 of 77 (89.6 percent) steal attempts. Yet he is not alone among Red Sox minor leaguers who are turning games into track meets. A whopping 15 have at least 20 steals this season, including six who have stolen at least 25, contributing to overall numbers that represent a stunning departure from precedent.
Sox minor league affiliates are averaging 1.29 steals per game with an 80.7 percent success rate — both the highest known numbers in the team’s history. How to explain this explosion in running?
Part of it is a function of the sort of players who are making their way through the Sox system. There is a clear emphasis on finding explosive speed and athleticism — with an increased effort to find players who have the speed and versatility to play all over the field. The Red Sox are turning it loose.
The lower levels are stocked with some of the best middle-of-the-field athletes the system has featured in years, with Hamilton joined by Ceddanne Rafaela in Portland, as well as Single A Salem infielders Eddinson Paulino and Brainer Bonaci, Florida Complex League standout Miguel Bleis, and many others.
“There’s more athleticism. Those guys who can run, you’re going to be more aggressive, at least for us,” said Abraham. “You’re kind of seeing a trend towards that for most teams and players, looking for more athleticism. Those guys are playing more, getting in the lineup through versatility, and they feel like they can make an impact on the bases.”
While Hamilton is new to the system, many of the Sox’ leading base stealers were already in the organization in 2021. Red Sox minor league teams are averaging 1.60 steal attempts per game, a whopping 42 percent increase from the 2021 season — too much to explain based on personnel alone.
Their huge jumps in both base stealing and success (at 80.7 percent, they’re up from 73.1) are part of a minors-wide trend. According to MLB, steal attempts have gone up roughly 27 percent compared with 2019, with the success rate increasing from 68 to 77 percent.
That increase coincides with the introduction of new pace-of-game rules in the minors. In particular, the rule limiting pitchers to two step-offs from the rubber with a runner on base. On a third step-off, a pitcher must either pick off the runner or be charged with a balk.
That rule, implemented across minor league levels this season, has changed the risk/reward calculus for some potential base stealers. While Hamilton typically runs well before a pitcher has attempted his second pick-off — Portland manager Chad Epperson estimated he has stolen no more than a handful of bases after multiple pickoff attempts — other runners with more modest speed have been more aggressive once a pitcher is staring down a balk.
“Guys know they can maybe take another half-step or longer,” said Abraham. “Guys are very aware if there’s been two step-offs, they have a better opportunity to go, but I don’t think it’s been a huge difference [in the Sox system].”
But the minors-wide data has been dramatic enough that MLB is bringing the two step-off limit to the big leagues next year, with hopes of both accelerating the pace of play and motivating players to see more benefit to attempting steals and showcase their full range of athletic gifts.
Could that mean that Hamilton and others will chase 130 bags, the holy grail of base thieves established by Henderson in 1982?
“One-thirty?! I don’t know about 130,” said Hamilton. “That’s a lot. But if I can get to 70 again next year, that’ll be good.”
In a sport that hasn’t seen a player steal 50 bases in five seasons, such ambition represents a potentially notable change to the way the game is played.
⋅ Outfielder Wilyer Abreu, acquired from the Astros in the Christian Vázquez trade, went 3-for-5 with a homer and walk on Wednesday, continuing a scorching stretch in which he’s hitting .319/.507/.532 with three homers, six steals, and 20 walks in 15 games. The 23-year-old is hitting .249/.402/.433 with 18 homers and 31 steals for the season.
⋅ Righthander Thad Ward, 25, has a 1.17 ERA with 25 strikeouts and four walks in his last three starts (spanning 15⅓ innings) with Double A Portland. Ward is showing a diverse mix (sinker, four-seamer, cutter, slider, curveball) while working at 92-94 miles per hour that has effectively unbalanced hitters in his return from Tommy John surgery.
⋅ Second baseman Chase Meidroth, a fourth-round selection this year out of the University of San Diego, concluded a standout pro debut earlier this month, hitting .316/.438/.540 with four homers and more walks (14) than strikeouts (11) in 22 games (19 at Single A Salem).
⋅ Outfielder Nick Decker ended the year in a 1-for-38 funk that included 22 strikeouts in 42 plate appearances. The 22-year-old — a 2018 second-rounder — finished the year with a .122/.275/.239 line at High A Greenville, a performance that suggests another entry in a long line of second-rounders who have failed to make a big league impact. All of the team’s 2011-17 second-round selections — LHP Williams Jerez, RHP Jamie Callahan, RHP Teddy Stankiewicz, 1B Sam Travis, OF Cole Brannen, and SS C.J. Chatham — are out of affiliated pro ball.
⋅ Outfielder Gilberto Jimenez, a multiple-time top-10 Red Sox prospect, had neither a walk nor an extra-base hit in his final 13 games for Greenville. His once-elite speed also ticked down this year, with the 22-year-old finishing the year with a .268/.306/.366 line.
⋅ Since going 3-for-4 in his first game in Triple A, Bobby Dalbec is 3-for-22 with no extra-base hits in six games.