Scouting Grades: Speed

February 20, 2020 • Scouting

Some grades are straight-forward, objective evaluations, but others are quite subjective and open to varying degrees of bias. The Scouting Grades series aims to discuss different tools and how they are evaluated.

Speed is one of the more objective evaluations, but it isn't as straight-forward as one might think. Let's start with a fairly common chart that some of you have probably seen before. This chart contains the generally accepted guidelines for objectively converting a batter's Time to 1B into a scouting grade for speed.

Time to 1B Grades (seconds)
LHB Grade RHB
3.9- 80 4.0-
4.0 70 4.1
4.1 60 4.2
4.2 50 4.3
4.3 40 4.4
4.4 30 4.5
4.5+ 20 4.6+

Grades are typically meant to represent a normal distribution centered around 50 as MLB average (or 5 on a 2-8 scale) where 40 is 1 standard deviation below average and 60 is 1 standard deviation above average. A quick look at the StatCast baserunning sprint speed numbers for 2019 blows that idea out of the water.

128 batters averaged 4.55+ seconds on competitive runs to first base. That's almost exactly 25% of the 510-player sample objectively sitting at or well below the bottom of the scale. The median time of 4.38 seconds is roughly a 35 according to this scale. For comparison, normally distributed speed grades would put 68.2% of players between 40 and 60, with an additional 15.9% above 60, leaving 15.9% below 40, and only 2.1% below 30!

I took a quick crack at dividing the Savant list into separate tabs for left, right, and switch hitters and posted it in a Google Sheets document - 2019 MLB Baserunning Speed. I may have missed a leftie or two (#manualData) as right-handed (the default starting point), but a few lefties sneaking into the righties data won't ruin the samples. Here's what the chart would look like based on the split data with 333 right-handed batters and 132 left-handed batters. (44 switch hitters were left out since their times were presumably mixed.)

2019 MLB - Time to 1B Grades (seconds)
LHB Grade RHB
3.794- 80 3.794-
3.985 70 4.009
4.176 60 4.224
4.367 50 4.439
4.558 40 4.654
4.749 30 4.869
4.940+ 20 5.084+

This chart is a more accurate representation of the actual Time to 1B for MLB players with the one exception being that no one would qualify as an 80 runner.

MLB clubs have undoubtedly been aware of this disconnect since stopwatch times were first compiled on a spreadsheet. An educated assumption here would be that clubs are more or less ignoring current speed grades in favor of objective measures from the player tracking technology deployed across ballparks all over the baseball world. Yet the guidelines remain in effect in most scouting contexts.

Where the scouting element may actually come into play is in projecting future speed. More on that later.

The Before Time / The Long, Long Ago

Before player tracking systems were everywhere, measuring every runner on every play, the only way to get objective speed measurements came from scouts' stopwatches. Time to 1B is a standard because it is a fixed-distance sprint that is run by every batter.

To properly capture a Time to 1B, a scout anticipates contact, attemping to start the stopwatch at the exact moment that bat hits ball, and then reads the batter's steps, attempting to stop the stopwatch at the exact moment the batter's foot touches the base.

As error prone as this might sound, you may be surprised to learn that scouts actually get pretty good at this with practice. Is it as good as a player tracking system? Obviously not. Does it get the job done anyway? Somewhat surprisingly, yes.

Speed elements and application, the downside of relying on Time to 1B

What does Time to 1B really tell you about a player's speed? It doesn't really tell you his peak speed, and it doesn't really tell you how quickly he accelerates either. What it does tell you is a decent approximation of the two.

Take another look at the spreadsheet I prepared. You can get a decent idea of who accelerates well by looking for players that are faster to 1B than their sprint speed peers. For instance, it's pretty interesting to see Jeff McNeil average a 4.10 with average sprint speed.

For Time to 1B, peak speed would need to be significantly faster to make up for below average acceleration, given the relatively short sprint. Peak speed really comes into play over longer sprints: gap fly balls, doubles and other two-base sprints, and especially triples. In other words, Player A might be slower than Player B to 1B but faster than Player B to 2B on a double. Does Time to 1B actually tell you which player is faster?

Speed impacts defense almost purely as it relates to range. Outfield defense typically falls into the same acceleration-and-peak mix as baserunning, but for most infield defense, acceleration is far more important, with peak speed generally only coming into play on pop-ups in No Man's Land.

But there's something else about Time to 1B that you may have not considered yet. Different batters have different swings and require different adjustments to transition from swinging to sprinting. Balance, momentum, stance, and overall effort each affect that batter's ability to recover from the swing and get moving toward 1B, and every batter's Time to 1B has this swing effect rolled into it. 2 players could have the exact same acceleration and peak speed but different Times to 1B because of different swings!

There is no swing effect on defense, and that may be the only thing that really prevents Time to 1B from acting as a near-perfect proxy for an outfielder's defensive range. For infield range, Time to 1B would seem to have little or no correlation. (NOTE: I'd enjoy looking at a study that digs into this idea, and I'll cover range more completely in the Defense entry in this series.)

Projecting Future Speed - A Case Study

This could probably be an entire series of articles by itself, so we're going to floor it for a bit, then slam on the brakes, get out of the car, and do a walk-around.

The one thing to keep in mind is that, absent an alternative guideline, a speed projection should target the player's speed at physical maturity, not the end of the player's career. Physical projection plays an immensely important role in projecting speed.

Nomar Mazara made his Double-A debut with Frisco late in the 2014 season. He was 19 years old and had a wire frame on which you could hang a lot of mass. He showed coordination but lacked any sense of athletic explosiveness. He routinely ran 4.70+ to 1B.

He was reportedly 6' 5" when he signed (source) as a 16-year-old and was now listed at 6' 4", so a scout could fairly assume that Mazara had been that tall for at least 3 years, all while working with professional strength coaches and trainers. By all accounts, he would get stronger and heavier as he got older.

Mazara was a 20 runner with a profile that screamed for a negative speed projection, so of course he returned to Double-A Frisco in 2015 running sub-4.40.

There's a brightside, though. Having jumped two grades in one off-season, there was now room for negative projection! That may sound like a joke, but sticking with the negative projection on the 2015 report is the right call. The better Time to 1B obviously indicates more explosiveness, but everything else in the projection is still true.

If you thought he was going to be a large, lumbering fellow at maturity in your original projection, the only difference in the new projection would be some lighter lumbering.

What else could this two-grade jump indicate? It takes a lot of work to jump a grade in anything, and Mazara jumped two grades in a single off-season! A scout would be crazy to positively project Mazara again, but the jump alone is arguably enough of an indicator that the negative projection should be smaller than originally projected.

Positive speed projections are extremely rare outside of young, undeveloped athletes. In Mazara's case, it seems reasonable to conclude retrospectively that Mazara still fell into that categry, but between 2014 being his third full year as a professional and the rarity of positive projections even within that category, a positive projection would have been met with skepticism.

TL;DR

  • Scouting for speed is probably going the way of the dodo -- if it hasn't already -- thanks to tracking technology that puts a scout's stopwatch to shame, but physical projection is still the scout's domain.
  • A competitive Time to 1B -- measured from bat-on-ball to foot-on-bag -- represents a good-enough estimation of most practical applications of speed in baseball.
  • Projecting speed is the art of projecting physical maturity against present ability.

Still Learning 11 Years Later

February 5, 2020 • News / Announcements

You wouldn't typically expect 11-year-old blog posts to change, but that's exactly what I've done. Two of my earliest blog posts have been updated. I wrote them when I was new both to blogging and to trying to understand what I was writing about. The combination made for awkward language and muddled concepts.

Updating the old posts seemed a far better idea than writing new posts and having to constantly wave my hands at people reading the old ones. At the same time, I do not want to give the impression that the posts as originally written in 2009, so each post contains a note indicating the January 2020 update.

The first post remains one of the most popular posts on the blog -- Biomechanics: Ulnar Collateral Ligament. It was primarily updated for clarity but also includes an expanded conclusion to address a logical oversight.

The second article was a long-winded description of the relationship between internal rotation and elbow extension in a typical arm action -- Delayed Internal Rotation: Performance Implications. It was also updated for clarity by simplifying the language used to discuss the topic and by removing some irrelevant material.

In addition to these updates, I have planned this as something of a relaunch of the blog. I will write occasionally on a variety of topics generally in the realm of player development and scouting. I don't advise you to expect a regular publishing schedule, but new stuff will definitely squeak out as my rather ambitious personal schedule permits it.


Is it really supported by science?

February 8, 2017 • Research Review

On its surface, this question isn't all that hard to answer. The typical internal translation is often, "Is there a published research paper that supports this?" While that's a very common thought, there are a few problems with it.

Problem #1: Confirmation bias.

So there's a paper with an affirmative conclusion. Is it the only paper on that subject? Are there papers with a negative conclusion?

Confirmation bias and cherry-picking can allow someone to paint a fairly abstract illustration of what research really has to say on a subject. Confirmation bias seeks out only affirmative research, while cherry-picking is intentional disregard of research that doesn't affirm your assertion. Both methods of research review fail to appropriately consider the entire body of research.

This does not mean that every single research paper on a subject must be read in order for a reader to have an opinion on the subject. In many cases, this is actually quite an onerous task. In my opinion, it is generally sufficient to include discussion of both affirmative and negative research.

Problem #2: You may be reading a lie.

Some people are not smart enough to understand what they've read. Some people don't even read the research papers that they cite. Some people are so disingenuous with their manipulation of the research that it is equivalent to a bald-faced lie.

A once prominent pitching voice* frequently claims that his hypothesis is supported by science; however, the paper he cites in his defense actually contains conclusions that neither support nor refute his hypothesis. The comment to which he often refers is actually just a hunch offered by the paper's primary author. Even the primary author mentions that the research does not support it!

The only way to parse through claims like this one is to read the research for yourself, especially when investigating a potential coach.

* This is vague on purpose. I am not trying to start a flame war here.

Problem #3: Non-specific conclusions, poorly worded abstracts.

I recently read a 21-year-old research paper for the first time. What caught my attention was the conclusion in the abstract that explicitly stated, "This finding suggests that the muscles on the medial side of the elbow do not supplant the role of the medial collateral ligament during the fastball pitch."

After digging into the paper, it's clear that this conclusion is not generally applicable as its language would suggest. The full text of the study states that every member of the test (injured) group had pain when they threw.

In other words, there were no asymptomatic injured pitchers, and since pain inhibits performance it is impossible to know which element was to blame for the measured differences: the structurally compromised UCL or the pain.

Everything about the study was fine except for the wording in the abstract. Because the abstract completely skips over the fact that the entire injured group actively felt pain, it's impossible to know without reading the full text that the abstract's conclusion was specific rather than general.

It would have been 100% accurate with only 4 extra words, "This finding suggests that the muscles on the medial side of the elbow do not supplant the role of the medial collateral ligament during the fastball pitch in injured, symptomatic pitchers." Those 4 words pack a lot of meaning into the conclusion.

Wrap-up

One of the tougher issues that I think a lot of people have with research papers is understanding exactly what they're reading. Frequently, people only have access to a paper's abstract, and as described above, that can be pretty misleading.

Maybe it's just delusions of grandeur on my part, but I'm planning a research review series that will aim to dig into the guts of some published research on pitching, throwing, and arm health. Features will include study design, discussion topics (some papers have extremely interesting discussion sections), and conclusion analyses. Look for it in the coming weeks.


To athletes seeking "exposure"

February 1, 2017 • Youth Sports

One of the most commonly cited reasons for spending big money on youth travel baseball is "exposure". In most cases, this is an empty promise from the team unless you've been blessed with the ability to play for a team with truly elite talent that competes on a national level at a tournament like Perfect Game's East Cobb Invitational where MLB scouts and college scouts will actually be.

Even if the promise of exposure is actually kept, you have to ask yourself: how much is that exposure actually worth?

If the athlete hasn't reached high school yet, is there any value at all? After all, if you aren't any good at 16, it doesn't matter how good you were when you were 12, and if you are good at 16, it still doesn't matter how good you were when you were 12.

Are tools present that will impress a scout? Kids without a single standout tool are frequently convinced that all they need is exposure because they are good youth baseball players. Without standout power, speed, or throwing velocity, you will simply blend into the game. Scouts are after guys that will perform at the next level, not guys who perform at their current level.

The types of player that are helped by "exposure" are late bloomers, elite athletes that changed sports in high school, position players transitioning to the mound, and a very narrow subset of fringe players that scouts haven't made their minds up about. More athletes think they are in that last group than reasonably should.

If you have the talent to be noticed, scouts will find you wherever you are. It's their job, and the internet is making it easier than ever for them. Your tools are all the exposure you need.

None of this is an argument against paying big money to play travel ball. Just don't do it for "exposure".


Discovering the Intent to Throw Hard

January 25, 2017 • Training

Intent is vital to every kind of training. It is the difference between reaching for goals and going through the motions. Applied to physical training, specifically for sport, intent can take many forms: trying to set a PR in the weight room, trying to beat your last 60 yard dash time, or trying to throw the ball harder than you ever have before.

The most common use of "intent" in modern pitching training refers to the intent to throw hard, a phrase coined by Paul Nyman, which is most succinctly summarized as "If you want to throw hard, try to throw hard." -- a thought you will see echoed across blogs and Twitter timelines.

The tricky thing about the intent to throw hard is that young athletes often have trouble accurately assessing their own maximum intent level. Back in 2013, Kyle Boddy wrote a blog post that touches on it:

[They] thought they were trying to throw hard, but they had no idea what it actually felt like to even try.

Driveline Baseball, https://www.drivelinebaseball.com/2013/10/role-intent-pitching/

Any pitching coach that has had more than a few clients has run into a pitcher that can look you square in the eye and tell you that he is operating at 100% intent... in between throws that look like they were performed underwater. The catch is that he's not intentionally lying to you; he's just clueless.

Using a variety of implements (wrist weights, heavy balls, light balls) and techniques (constraint drills, running throws) can go a long way to helping athletes discover intent they didn't know they had.

I've always felt that intensity is something you know when you see it, so in addition to training variety, I make judicious use of Tweets and Vines that demonstrate clear and undeniable intent.

Show a kid this video of Driveline Baseball's Matt Daniels performing a pivot pickoff, and ask him if he still thinks his pivot pickoffs are at 100%.

Or you can show him video of recent Pittsburgh Pirates draft pick John Pomeroy performing a walking windup.

Or you can show him video of pulldowns performed by Trey McNutt, Peter Bayer, Eric Jagers, and Spencer Mahoney.

Seeing is believing. Don't be surprised if, after watching videos of true intent, that "underwater" kid suddenly looks a lot more athletic.

Getting a kid to discover for himself what the intent to throw hard really feels like is a major developmental milestone.