To Quantify Speed

By John Heitz
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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 RedsMinorLeagues.com blogger Doug Gray aka @dougdirt24:

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.

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:

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:

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:

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

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