To Quantify Speed

I love spending time on Twitter and reading a thought so original it takes my breath away.  This happened a few days ago and it got me to thinking about how we measure speed in baseball.  Here is the Tweet that caught my eye, from the keyboard of blogger Doug Gray aka @dougdirt24:

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This statistic caught my eye because the expectation naturally tends to be that balls fielded by infielders tend to be outs.  To reach base more than 20% of the time in this situation seems to be a lot, or so I believed and commented to Mr. Gray.  We talked a bit more about the statistic and he indicated that he planned to do more research about other minor league players to see how he compares to others in this situation.  I did not ask but I must assume that to develop this statistic Mr. Gray had to compile numbers from each Dragons box score so I again thank him for this tremendous discovery.  This is the reason he is THE expert regarding Reds minor league prospects.

We talked a bit more and as I continued thinking about the stat I began to wonder how major league players compared in the circumstances.  I had no desire to look at everyone in the major leagues to find apt comparisons but I wanted to establish a standard among the leaders in both leagues in the two categories most predictive of a favorable comparison: stolen base and batting average leaders.

Let’s start by taking a look at the best base runners, the 10 stolen base leaders in each league.  Stealing bases is as much about technique as speed but speed helps.  Here are the National League leaders.

NL SB Leaders Bats AB SB Infield Plays BA/Infield
Michael Bourn Left 656 61 261 .161
Cameron Maybin Right 516 40 221 .181
Drew Stubbs Right 604 40 192 .161
Matt Kemp Right 602 40 160 .113
Emilio Bonifacio Switch 565 40 250 .192
Jose Reyes Switch 537 39 221 .118
Ryan Braun Right 563 33 202 .089
Angel Pagan Switch 478 32 172 .099
Jason Bourgeois Right 238 31 127 .150
Jimmy Rollins Switch 567 30 230 .070

Emilio Bonifacio is statistically close enough to suggest variable fielding and range of minor league players make a comparable statement to that posed by young Mr. Hamilton and his fleet feet.  Also batters from the left hand side of the plate have a half step advantage to first. Another flaw in my review is that I am only using Hamilton’s performance batting left handed and not including his average from the right side of the plate which, according to Mr. Gray was still a respectable .129.  Here are the AL SB leaders:

AL SB Leaders Bats AB SB Infield Plays BA/Infield
Brett Gardner Left 510 49 255 .173
Coco Crisp Switch 531 49 231 .082
Ichiro Suzuki Left 677 40 359 .117
Jacoby Ellsbury Left 660 39 272 .096
Elvis Andrus Right 587 37 285 .098
B.J.Upton Right 560 36 177 .085
Rajai Davis Right 320 34 140 .121
Ben Revere Left 450 34 268 .116
Erick Aybar Switch 556 30 268 .119
Ian Kinsler Right 620 30 250 .060

Since none of these players beyond Brett Gardener were even close I decided to check out the numbers recorded by the all time stolen base leader in MLB history focusing on the year Rickey won the AL MVP award in a year Reds fans remember fondly, 1990.  Rickey hit for a .325 batting average with a league leading 65 stolen bases.  When an infielder played a ball he hit though he only recorded 17 hits in 177 at bats for an .090 batting average.

Here are the National League batting average leaders and how they fair:

NL BA Leaders Bats AB BA Infield Plays BA/Infield
Jose Reyes Switch 537 .337 221 .118
Ryan Braun Right 563 .332 202 .089
Matt Kemp Right 602 .324 160 .113
Hunter Pence Right 606 .314 230 .113
Joey Votto Left 599 .309 177 .034
Starlin Castro Right 674 .307 265 .106
Aramis Ramirez Right 565 .307 203 .059
Yadier Molina Right 475 .305 199 .045
Michael Morse Right 522 .303 175 .032
Troy Tulowitzki Right 537 .302 215 .060

This list proves that the ability to put the ball in play does not correlate with infield hits.  Without blazing speed, you simply cannot reach base with consistency.  The first four players in this group, Reyes, Braun, Kemp and Pence are all fast but still cannot even equal Hamilton’s average from the right side of the plate let alone match his left handed statistical performance.  Our own Joey Votto, if you extend his average to 1000 at bats reaches base safely just 34 times.  I decided to check out how the Hit King fared in his MVP season of 1973 and compare his numbers and was disappointed to discover that hit location statistics only exist through 1988.  It would have been a fascinating comparison and it is one I may personally revisit to learn more about Pete Rose’ performance in 1973.

The American League batting average leaders present more of the same:

AL BA Leaders Bats AB BA Infield Plays BA/Infield
Miguel Cabrera Right 572 .344 196 .041
Adrian Gonzalez Left 630 .338 224 .067
Michael Young Right 631 .338 253 .126
Victor Martinez Switch 540 .330 215 .028
Jacoby Ellsbury Left 660 .321 272 .096
David Ortiz Left 525 .309 190 .074
Dustin Pedroia Right 635 .307 262 .115
Casey Kotchman Left 500 .306 233 .090
Melky Cabrera Switch 658 .305 274 .105
Alex Gordon Left 620 .303 192 .083

Still not a single hitter matched even his less daunting right hand batting average.  Only 3 record a hit in every ten at bats let alone two.  Of all of the players on all four of these lists the one I was most interested in examining his performance was Ichiro Suzuki who throughout the past decade has defined the concept of situational hitting.  2011 marked the lowest batting average in his major league career but I decided to return back in time to the best year of his Mariners career, 2004, when he had a league leading career best batting average of .372 and 262 hits.  The 262 hit total is the most hits ever recorded in a single season. Ever.  Ichiro has always fast and in 2004 he stole 36 bases.  But how did he do with balls hit to infielders?  He had a .163 batting average with 57 infield hits in 349 at bats.  Now I begin to gain a better grasp into just how quick out of the box and up the line to 1st base that Billy Hamilton is.  MLB may not have seen this before.

Billy Hamilton still has a ways to go and 3 levels of the minor leagues to traverse before he reaches the “Show”.  I have said it before and I will say it again; I eagerly anticipate his opening act.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnHeitz

Tags: Adrian Gonzalez Alex Gordon Angel Pagan Aramis Ramirez B. J. Upton Ben Revere Billy Hamilton Brett Gardner Cameron Maybin Casey Kotchman Coco Crisp David Ortiz Drew Stubbs Dustin Pedroia Elvis Andrus Emilio Bonaficio Erick Aybar Hunter Pence Ian Kinsler Ichiro Suzuki Jacoby Ellsbury Jason Bourgeois Jimmy Rollins Joey Votto Jose Reyes Matt Kemp Melky Cabrera Michael Bourn Michael Morse Michael Young Miguel Cabrera Pete Rose Rajai Davis Rickey Henderson Ryan Braun Starlin Castro Troy Tulowitski Victor Martinez Yadier Molina

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