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.