SURPRISE, Ariz. — When on the run, Royals slender and somewhat gangly outfielder Billy Hamilton becomes a near-perfect combination of explosion, flexibility and coordination.
The 6-foot, 160-pound Mississippi native glides around the outfield grass and the basepaths, seemingly floating on top of them.
Regarded as the fastest man in baseball, Hamilton turns his speed into artistry not unlike a bird in flight. Yet, throughout his career he's also played the part of a caged bird.
Only in his case, he'd been held captive by the batter's box and the expectations that weighed on him every time he grabbed a bat. He enters his first season on the Royals with a resolve to break out as a hitter.
"I keep coming here every single day having the confidence," Hamilton said seated at his locker in the clubhouse of the Royals' spring training facility in Arizona. "That's one thing I haven't had my whole career hitting-wise is confidence. I'm learning to have that too."
The Royals know exactly what they acquired when they signed Hamilton, 28, this offseason. The speed, the defense, the inconsistency at the plate — all of it was understood before Hamilton joined the club. More than understood, it was accepted.
If Hamilton only provides tremendous defense and nearly unparalleled speed, he'll be worth it, the Royals say. But there's also a certitude inside the walls of the Royals facility that there's more baseball artistry to extract from Hamilton.
"I'm not putting any limitations on him, but we got him for a specific reason and so everything else he does along the way is gravy for us," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "There's no unrealistic expectations on him, but we're not putting any limitations on him. We believe that he'll play much better offensively as the year goes out, as the year unfolds, as the year continues to develop.
"I think he'll just do better because of mindset, frame of mind, and we really believe in him."
Hamilton, a second-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds who Mississippi State recruited to play football out of high school, built a reputation that preceded him onto the national stage. His 155 minor league stolen bases in 2012 established a professional baseball record.
Since his first full season in the majors in 2014, nobody has stolen more bases than Hamilton's 264. He enters this season with an 81 percent success rate. He's stolen 50 bases or more four times, and there have only been nine 50-steal seasons in the majors since 2014.
"The more he can learn to get on base consistently — because when he gets on base he screws the whole game up — he's a game-changer," said Terry Francona, manager of the AL Central Division-favorite Cleveland Indians. "The pitcher worries about him. The catcher worries about him. We worry about him.
"Then you end up throwing a pitch belt high to the next hitter because you're worried about him. It screws up the whole game. It's stressful for everybody when he's on base."
Defensively, Hamilton has ranked among the majors' top five center fielders in FanGraphs' ultimate zone rating each season since 2014. He also leads all active center fielders in total zone runs (the number of runs above average the player was worth based on the number of plays made) as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com.
"I'm a big Billy fan," said Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who competed multiple times annually against Hamilton and the Cincinnati Reds. " ... He's so dynamic on defense. And on the bases, you can't throw him out. You're lucky when you do. You could spend as much time as you want there, trying to keep him from going. He's that good."
Royals pitcher Homer Bailey, who signed this winter as a free agent after having been Hamilton's teammate in Cincinnati, expressed confidence in Hamilton's defense on his first day in camp with this quip: "If there's two outs and the ball goes up in the air, I'm walking to the dugout."
The Royals play their home games in the stadium with the second-largest amount of fair territory, which places a premium on a center fielder who can cover ground and make plays.
During their World Series runs of 2014 and 2015, Lorenzo Cain covered center field in Kauffman Stadium like a tarp. When Cain left as a free agent following the 2017 season, Moore almost immediately had designs on who could fill his position.
The Cincinnati Reds obliged this offseason when they non-tendered Hamilton, who was eligible for salary arbitration, despite general manager Nick Krall describing Hamilton as "one of the most exciting players in baseball."
"I think a large part of it was how does this fit in our budget from an arbitration number (in relation) to what else we had to do," Krall said. "We had to go out and get pitching. It was an obvious hole. We feel that we have addressed that, but we had to be able to use that budgetary spot to be able to do that."
Seeking a renewed emphasis on fast defenders able to take away hits in the cavernous Kauffman Stadium, the Royals signed Hamilton during the winter meetings to a one-year, $4.25 million contract with a mutual option for 2020. The $1 million buyout guarantees him $5.25 million.
"We acquired Billy Hamilton because we know what we're going to get," Moore said. "We know we're going to get great defense. We need that. That's really important for our team. It's important with our pitching. It's important for our ballpark."
Last season, Hamilton struck out 132 times on his way to posting a .299 on-base percentage. That came as the encore to a 2017 season in which he struck out 133 times and also logged an on-base percentage of .299.
By comparison, Cain posted a .361 on-base percentage during the Royals' World Series championship season of 2015.
In order to maximize his speed offensively and put pressure on the defense, Hamilton must put the ball in play more consistently.
What makes the Royals think Hamilton will hit? That there's something there to unlock?
"Here's the problem," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "You have 10 guys that have that, but nobody thinks to develop them differently. "They develop as they would Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, where you've got to develop them completely different than you would a (Hunter) Dozier, (Ryan) O'Hearn, (Adalberto Mondesi), (Whit) Merrifield. Whit can steal bases, but Whit steals bases on savvy and instinct and smarts. He doesn't have the pure speed that they have."
That doesn't mean making Hamilton a ground ball machine or a bunting, slap-hitting speedster who's entire goal is to make opponents try to throw him out at first base.
The Royals are largely banking on a change of scenery and their coaching staff to connect with Hamilton and turn him into a complete hitter.
Yost's mandate for his staff is that hitting coach Terry Bradshaw and quality control/catching coach Pedro Grifol are the only ones — with the exception of Mitch Maier for bunting — giving Hamilton input and adjustments.
"Their game is and their style of play is completely different than anybody else in baseball," Yost said of unique speedsters like Hamilton. "But because there are so few of them, they don't develop their aspect on offense. It's a different game. It's not a game where you say just keep the ball on the ground because of your speed. Bull. You keep the ball on the ground because of your speed, the infielders just shorten up and you're out too. You eliminate all that crap."
"Speed always seems to develop later because of that. They start to figure out, 'I'm different, so I've got to do things different than everybody else does it.' Plus, you've got so many people in your ear because you are a special guy — 'do this, try this, try this, do this.' When you get a change of scenery, all of a sudden that's gone. You've got fresh eyes looking at you."
Prior to joining the Royals, Hamilton received advice on hitting and suggestions about adjustments from a variety of people and each had their own twist. Midway through spring training Hamilton already felt a significant difference in the way he approached his work and what the staff wants out of him as a hitter.
The manner in which the messages from Grifol and Bradshaw were always in lockstep struck a chord with Hamilton.
After a career spent trying to build his offensive game around hitting the ball on the ground, bunting and poking the ball the other way against major-league defenses, Hamilton embraced his new marching orders. Line drives, not ground balls, are the new goal of every swing in an effort to take advantage of the natural alleys created by the spaciousness of Kauffman Stadium.
"They're like, 'We didn't bring you over here just to fricking hit a ground ball on the left side,' " Hamilton said. " 'We want you here to be a hitter. We want you to be yourself, come out here and do your thing.' "
Hamilton, who Royals fans will learn talks nearly as fast as he runs, made it a point to insist that he's not shoving off any responsibility for his hitting struggles on the Reds staff.
But a little more probing reveals that one of Hamilton's primary problems during his time with the Reds was an inability to carry over changes into games.
The more Hamilton spoke, the more evident it became he'd been speaking about fear. Fear set in and his mindset changed, his batting stance reverted. What he intended to do no longer mattered.
"You said it right," Hamilton said. "Scared. I did something in the cage and in the back fields and I'm like this thing works. It works. Then I get thinking in my head this might not work on a real pitcher. It works on a batting practice pitcher or a machine, but this might not work in the game. Then you get in the game and then you just go total opposite of what you actually worked on in the cage. I've done that a lot."
At times Hamilton fell victim to a loss of focus at the plate, and the enthusiasm about him and his speed paved the way for high expectations. He heard the criticisms, the impatience and disappointment of people wanting him to become a star hitter.
Again, Hamilton accepted the blame and said, "It was nothing about them. It was me being afraid of myself."
So far, he's found a measure of solace in his fresh start and the daily confidence instilled in him by the staff. The joy was evident from across the clubhouse when he pointed and simply said "see" after he successfully translated success in the batting cage into two hits, including a double, later that day. Ironically, that came against his former team.
"Everybody is like, 'You're going to hit. We're not even worried about that. We're not worried about results,'" Hamilton said. "Go out there and be yourself, have fun, run balls down, just be prepared. That's just something that I feel like I'd doing now that I didn't do over there. It wasn't nobody on the team or owner or anything, it was all myself."