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.

Another post about Brandon McCarthy

February 25, 2010 • Scouting

If you're a betting man, you should know that the odds are good that this won't be my last article featuring the mechanics and health of the Texas Rangers starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy.

As my favorite subject, his mechanics have spent a lot of time on my computer monitor playing forward and backward, in slow motion, and in still shots. As a result, I have a small tendency to see a little bit of McCarthy in just about every pitcher. Every once in a while I run into a pitcher whose mechanics have a lot in common with him.

Meet University of Texas at Dallas junior Marvin Prestridge.

In light of recent mechanical changes, Prestridge doesn't look much like McCarthy does these days [Edit: this may not actually be true since I haven't seen high-speed video of McCarthy's new mechanics], but when I pulled up the video I shot of McCarthy last spring, the similarities were striking. The angles aren't quite the same, so you may have to use a little imagination in places.

McCarthy (left) and Prestridge (right) at the top of their leg kicks.

They don't look too similar at the top of their leg kicks, but they appear to have a similar degree of reverse rotation (turning their backs to the plate). McCarthy is more compact, and Prestridge lifts his knee much higher.

McCarthy and Prestridge at hand-break.

At hand-break, their mechanics are starting to run together. McCarthy sits a little lower on his back leg. Prestridge breaks his hands much closer to his body.

McCarthy and Prestridge right before their forearms start to turn over.

Before foot plant, this is the frame where their elbows stop moving upward and backward (toward 1B), and their arms begin external rotation. You can clearly see McCarthy's inverted W and that Prestridge's arm is below shoulder level with an extended elbow. Both pitchers have their arms well behind their shoulders.

I much prefer Prestridge's method of picking up the baseball to McCarthy's method from last spring. As a part of the changes he has made to his mechanics over the past 9 months or so, McCarthy's current pick-up features a full arm swing that positions his pitching arm much like Prestridge's arm.

McCarthy and Prestridge at foot plant.

By the time they hit foot plant, there's only one evident difference between the two: Prestridge is pulling his glove arm back toward second base. McCarthy's glove arm is essentially dead weight, while Prestridge's arm helps create additional rotational force through his shoulders.

McCarthy and Prestridge at peak elbow height just before elbow extension.

Again, the only difference is the glove arm action and position, though it appears that Prestridge has a greater degree of trunk tilt toward 1B.

McCarthy and Prestridge at full arm extension just prior to release.

At this point, the pitchers are literally inches away from letting go of the baseball. Prestridge is able to reach a little more toward vertical, thanks to his 1B-side trunk tilt.

McCarthy and Prestridge after primary arm deceleration.

After release, the pitching arm continues internal rotation while the body tries to keep the arm from flying out of socket. This frame attempts to capture the moment where internal rotation stops.

What's clear in this frame is that McCarthy's arm continued to fly forward, winding up closer to his head than to his chest. Prestridge's arm, on the other hand, is still essentially at shoulder level. This is the most significant difference between the two deliveries.

With McCarthy's arm positioned like this, the head of his humerus is placed in an anatomically questionable position while his rotator cuff applies extreme compressive force at the glenohumeral joint, driving the humerus awkwardly into the scapula.

Prestridge's arm is in a more natural position at this point, and as a result, I do not view his mechanics as risky despite their on-the-surface similarity to McCarthy's old, problematic mechanics.

McCarthy and Prestridge after complete deceleration of the arm.
McCarthy and Prestridge during the recovery stage after their follow-throughs.

[Edit: For reference, here's a link to the video I shot of McCarthy at spring training in 2009.]


Draft Prospect: Tyler Matzek, LHP, Capistrano Valley HS

June 5, 2009 • Scouting

Unlike Matthew Purke, Tyler Matzek is routinely regarded as a pitcher with an easy, repeatable delivery. Matzek is able to throw 90-94 mph with ease and has recently been as high as 98 mph according to several reports. He throws a curveball that has plus potential, but scouts from the Major League Scouting Bureau have a lesser opinion of its current quality than Baseball America does.

Dr. Mike Marshall weighed in on Matzek in his Questions/Answers 2009 file. If you are at all familiar with Dr. Marshall's view of the 'traditional' pitching motion, you'll recognize that his comments border on praise. Dr. Marshall had the following to say:

Mr. Matzek's version of the 'traditional' baseball pitching motion is not as injurious as many I have seen... I doubt that he will suffer a serious pitching injury. However, he will never be as good as he should have been.

As with Purke, I was intrigued by the generic mechanical comments I'd read in scouting reports. This time, though, the comments were about an easy, repeatable delivery. The comments from Dr. Marshall further piqued my interest. I dug around and found a video similar to the one I used for my Purke article.

Here's the video I looked at, courtesy again of Baseball Factory:

Even though it's a warm-up pitch, I chose to use the first pitch in the video as my example. The stills in the two images below were taken from this same pitch.

Important stages of Matzek's arm action.
Important stages of Matzek's arm action. Click to view larger image.

In the first frame, you can clearly see that Matzek takes the ball primarily toward second base during his pick-up. If you looked at my review of Purke's mechanics, you'll remember that he took the ball primarily toward third base. Skipping ahead to the fourth frame (approximately the release point), you can see that Matzek has much less side-to-side movement than Purke. His driveline to the plate is very direct compared to most 'traditional' pitchers, extremely efficient.

The second frame shows Matzek's body position at foot-plant, in the 'traditional' cocked position, where he seems to have a nearly straight-forward stride. At 90° of flexion, the ulnar collateral ligament is at its most vulnerable. At this stage Matzek's arm is fairly straight, so the late forearm turnover and reverse forearm bounce that follow are less of a problem. This is part of why Dr. Marshall views Matzek's arm action as less injurious.

As Matzek increases his elbow flexion, he also tilts his shoulders to the glove side and raises his elbow. This action helps limit his forearm flyout by effectively straightening his elbow's path. At his approximate release point, you can see that his forearm is nearly vertical.

In the video Dr. Marshall reviewed (of a side session), he mentioned that he was concerned about Matzek's forearm flyout. The video that I reviewed seems to show that Matzek's forearm flyout is minimal.

Matzek's follow-through from release to finish.
Matzek's follow-through from release to finish. Click to view larger image.

The first frame in this image is from shortly after release. Matzek's elbow is flexed and his wrist is pronated to the point where his palm is nearly facing up. This indicates two things: (1) Matzek pronates his release very powerfully, and (2) Matzek may be using his latissimus dorsi to internally rotate his arm instead of using his pectoralis major to horizontally flex his arm.

At this normal frame rate, it is practically impossible to tell for certain whether or not Matzek pronates into release, but he sure appears to be doing so.

Dr. Marshall says that because Matzek's stride is "too closed," he must be using his pectoralis major to horizontally flex his pitching arm. If he were actually horizontally flexing his arm to throw the baseball, I don't believe that Matzek could achieve the arm position shown in the first frame of this image.

By the second frame, his primary arm deceleration phase is done. The continuation of his body action in the next two frames causes his arm to wrap across his body. I believe the appearance of recoil is an illusion created when Matzek stands up to field his position.

So... what are you saying?

Matzek throws some high-quality pitches from a relatively safe, easy, and repeatable delivery. From an objective perspective, there are fewer risk factors than most 'traditional' pitchers. For a high school pitcher, he's a lot more polished than I would have expected.

I have reason to believe that he throws three different fastballs and a pronated curveball. After doing my research, I like him more than I did, and I'm kind of upset that there's no chance he'll be around when the Texas Rangers pick at #14. I guess I can hope, though.

You might also want to check out dirtberry's YouTube channel for more on Tyler Matzek.


Draft Prospect: Matthew Purke, LHP, Klein HS

June 2, 2009 • Scouting

Spring, TX - a suburb of Houston - has produced quite a number of early-round draft picks over the past several years. It looks like Klein's Matthew Purke will join a list that includes former Klein players Josh Barfield, Chris George, and David Murphy, as well as Josh Beckett, Sam Demel, and Daryl Jones from Spring High School.

Purke stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs 180 pounds. Scouts like his projectability and believe he could add velocity as he gets stronger. He already sits at 92-94 MPH, occasionally throwing a tick or two harder. His primary off-speed pitch is a slurve-type offering called a slider by Baseball America and a curve by the Major League Scouting Bureau. Whatever you call it, it's one of the best breaking balls in this year's high school draft class.

Conflicting reports from the same two sources have his change up somewhere between "unknown" and "good."

Purke is believed to have a strong commitment to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, so signability has become a concern for some clubs. Rumors of his signing bonus demands have ranged from $2 million to $7 million, but the most recent rumors have him in the neighborhood of $3 million.

Almost every report on Purke has mentioned something about questionable mechanics. Typically, high school deliveries are full of flaws and quirks, but rarely do these scouting reports go out of their way to mention them.

Baseball America mentions Purke's slinging action, saying that it is neither violent nor smooth. I guess that would be... Average? Typical? Expected? Outside of this specific mentioning of a flaw, I could only find generic references to his mechanics. I wanted to have a look for myself.

I located a solid video on YouTube, looked at it, and made some still photos. Here's the video, courtesy of Baseball Factory: [video has been made private and can no longer be embedded]

There are two big things that jump out at me, but first, I want to say that outside of his arm action, there really isn't much to complain about. He steps nearly straight forward, landing only a few inches closed.

Purke stays closed very well and gets great hip rotation and shoulder rotation. He even stands relatively tall through his release. His core does its job very well.

If I had to pick one part of his body action to complain about, it would have to be his somewhat stiff front leg. That might be the source of the reported inability to repeat his delivery consistently.

The still shots below were taken from the same pitch, the first one in the video.

Matthew Purke's arm action at four key points in his delivery.
Matthew Purke's arm action at four key points in his delivery. Click to enlarge.

Now, here are the flaws in his arm action as I see them. In the first frame, you can see that Purke's entire pitching arm has been moved about as far toward third base as possible. Skipping ahead to the final frame, you get an idea of how much horizontal acceleration takes place. When his arm finally starts moving forward, the centripetal force from the curved path results in forearm flyout. The Baseball America "slinging" comment is dead-on.

Pronated releases can help protect against the negative effects of forearm flyout, but there aren't enough frames available to be able to determine if, or to what extent, Purke pronates into his release.

The second frame shows a massive scapular load at foot plant. This puts extra stress on the anterior capsule of the shoulder, and the extra movement of the head of the humerus places the glenoid labrum at risk.

Still in the second frame, his forearm is past horizontal, avoiding an inverted arm position, but his forearm is almost 180° of external rotation from the throwing position shown in frame three. This causes a late forearm turnover.

Because his elbow is flexed to near 90° during his late forearm turnover, he experiences a pretty intense reverse forearm bounce which puts his ulnar collateral ligament at risk.

Purke's follow-through.
Purke's follow-through. Click to enlarge.

Here's an overly simplistic look at his follow-through. The first frame shows where his arm winds up after primary deceleration. His arm continues in the curved path and winds up finishing hard toward third base. There is no recoil evident at this frame rate, and his arm winds up tucked in softly at his waist.

There could be some extra stuff going on in his shoulder, but the standard 30 frames per second video does not reveal it.

So... what are you saying?

Overall, Purke's mechanics could be a lot worse. That said, I'm not a fan of his arm action at all. The slinging action reported by Baseball America is clearly present, and he puts a lot of torque on his elbow. Long term, he has almost no chance to stay healthy with these mechanics.

Any team that drafts Purke will have to ask themselves which risk they want to take: leave his mechanics alone and risk his arm falling apart - or - change his mechanics and risk his stuff dropping off.


Texas Rangers Prospects: Robbie Ross and Joseph Ortiz

May 27, 2009 • Scouting

Robbie Ross. LHP, 5' 11", 185 lbs, Born: June 24, 1989. The 2008 2nd round pick of the Texas Rangers was said to have 1st round talent. Some minor signability concerns allowed Ross to slip into the early 2nd round where the Rangers selected him and eventually signed him for a reported $1.575 million signing bonus. He has yet to make his professional debut, but Ross could be in line to join the Spokane rotation in less than a month.

In a post-draft interview with Ross, Jason Cole of Scout's LoneStarDugout.com wrote the following:

Ross enters pro ball with an advanced changeup to go along with his fastball and slider. The southpaw’s fastball, as he explains in the interview, generally sits in the upper-80s, low-90s, but he has shown the ability to dial it up to 94 mph at times.

Out of the wind-up, Ross has a very high leg kick, reminiscent of Nolan Ryan's leg kick. After the kick, he starts to drift forward before sitting down on his back leg. This loads the leg very well, but it also lowers his potential release point. From lower release points, pitches take more flattened paths to the plate compared to pitches thrown from higher release points.

Ross keeps his front leg and hip closed until right before foot plant. When he lands, his center of mass almost completely stops moving forward. The momentum from his drive helps him open his hips really well and pulls his back foot forward off the rubber. I prefer this action to the foot drag seen in a lot of pitchers. (In Ross's 2008 MLB Draft Report, he is seen dragging his back leg like dead weight on his first pitch and last pitch, both presumably change ups. I did not identify any change ups within my video sample.)

Worth mentioning is the path his front foot takes toward his landing. His front leg moves in a sweeping motion. By the time his front foot plants, it is moving more toward third base than it is toward the plate. This gives him a soft landing and sort of kick-starts his hip turn as he turns his front leg to face the plate. I like the soft landing but prefer a more direct stride.

As one would expect, Ross's hip rotation leads to strong shoulder rotation. Ross maintains extremely level shoulders throughout. Because he keeps his shoulders level, his elbow moves in a sharp arc around his body. Ross picks up the ball mostly with his shoulder, but he reverse-rotates his shoulders and takes his elbow well behind his back and toward third base. All of this creates a curved path to release, resulting in the centripetal force that causes forearm flyout.

Ross's pronation seems to occur during release. This provides a degree of protection from the negative effects of forearm flyout, but at this frame rate and camera angle, it is impossible to determine whether it prevents his ulna from slamming into his humerus. I was unable to identify any sliders in my sample, so I do not know if he supinates his release for that pitch.

At foot plant, Ross's arm is nearly vertical, but active external rotation is still taking place. This creates a reverse forearm bounce where the baseball is moving toward third base and his elbow is moving toward first base. This indicates a large valgus torque in his elbow and is a risk factor for his ulnar collateral ligament.

Ross's follow-through is where things get interesting. The continuation of the centripetal force described above causes his arm to wrap slightly across his body. There is some recoil, so I have some concern for the posterior capsule of his shoulder, mainly the infraspinatus and teres minor muscle tendons.

Finally, Ross has a weird little hop-twist after everything slows down. This is probably caused by a continuation of his powerful shoulder rotation. He ends in an athletic yet awkward looking stance.

Joseph Ortiz. LHP, 5' 7", 175 lbs, Born: August 13, 1990. When Ortiz debuted with the Low A Clinton Lumberkings last season, he was only 17 years old. Definitely one of the smaller players in the league, Ortiz pitches beyond his stature. Even as one of the youngest players in the league, Ortiz's only statistical fault was a high walk rate - 4.5 per 9 innings. He struck out just over 7 batters per 9 innings and allowed just under 6.5 hits per 9 innings.

This winter, Cole compared Ortiz to former Rule V pick Fabio Castro because of their similar body types and repertoires. From Cole's scouting report:

The lefty constantly attacked hitters with his 87-91 mph fastball... hard, late-breaking slider... [and] a promising, occasionally used changeup...

Ortiz has a very compact delivery without a lot of flair or wasted movement. His stride is fairly standard, and he lands noticeably closed. His front leg sweeps like Ross, but Ortiz puts his foot down before it sweeps all the way across.

Ortiz pulls his elbow down and to the side as he flexes his trunk forward. This can help raise the release point but prevents a few trunk muscles from adding to the pitch and puts a little extra stress on his spine.

His hip rotation isn't great, and he drags his toe in the dirt pretty firmly. Ortiz flexes his trunk over his front hip, so hip rotation - or lack thereof - isn't a huge factor for him. This drives his throwing shoulder in a nearly straight line toward home plate.

Ortiz takes the ball only slightly behind his back, but noticeably drives his elbow toward first base before as he explodes toward release. This lateral movement causes forearm flyout, but Ortiz, unlike Ross, pronates late, making him more susceptible to its negative effects.

Despite his compact delivery, Ortiz has a late forearm turnover. This leads to active external rotation at his shoulder after foot-plant and creates a reverse forearm bounce where, like Ross, the ball and his elbow are moving in opposite directions.

Ortiz's arm also wraps slightly across his body, but with a more alarming recoil. Ortiz's arm appears to collide with his rib cage after the throw. The collision doesn't appear to be terribly violent, but the leverage caused by the impact can place extra stress on the posterior capsule of the shoulder where the muscles are already contracting to help decelerate the arm.

At the very end, Ortiz actually does have a little flair. Instead of a hop-twist, Ortiz's post follow-through action resembles the finish of Dr. Mike Marshall's pitchers. His shoulders and arm point at the target while his lower half turns toward second base.

This doesn't mean much for his pitches or for his health, but it's notable because it puts him in a horrible fielding position. I imagine that you'd see a lot of bunts against him in close games.