The Case of the Player With Speed Without Speed

There’s a pretty strong and obvious relationship between speed and baserunning. Speed is best demonstrated when running, and “baserunning” has “running” right in the word. There usually isn’t very much interesting to say about a fast guy who runs the bases well. Likewise, there usually isn’t very much interesting to say about a slow guy who runs the bases poorly. It’s more uncommon to hear about a fast guy with baserunning limitations, but we can make sense of that — baserunning skill isn’t 100% footspeed. Speed’s just a component, along with instincts and awareness and reaction time.

But it’s a major component. Not all good runners will be good baserunners, but it feels like all good baserunners should be good runners. Check out the top of last year’s baserunning value leaderboard. Jacoby Ellsbury is a good runner. Rajai Davis is a good runner. Eric Young, Elvis Andrus, Mike Trout, Alcides Escobar — all these guys, good runners. An almost infallible rule is, you need to be able to run pretty well to be able to run the bases pretty well. But note that I had to throw an “almost” in there. And I had to throw an “almost” in there on account of Daniel Murphy, baseball’s premier player with speed without speed.

You don’t think of speed as something you can really develop. Of course, you can make sure that you’re in shape, and of course, you can do sprint training, but it seems like there’s less possible development in speed than there is in, say, weight lifting. You’re born quick or you’re born slow or you’re born in between, and there’s only so much you can do to raise your ceiling. One thing I want to make clear is that Daniel Murphy hasn’t somehow turned himself into a burner. By big-league standards, he has below-average footspeed. But as a player he’s been able to maximize his effective speed, if you will, with a blend of smarts and aggressiveness.

Earlier in his career, Murphy was known for making a handful of baserunning gaffes. Through his first 3+ years, he had 19 steals, and his baserunning overall had been right around league-average. Last season, however, Murphy’s on-base value skyrocketed. He ranked tenth in the league in baserunning runs, between Jarrod Dyson and Everth Cabrera. He ranked 14th in stolen-base runs, between Trout and Nate McLouth. He ranked 19th in non-steal baserunning runs, between Ben Zobrist and Emilio Bonifacio. Completely out of nowhere, Murphy turned himself into one of the better baserunners in the game.

Last season didn’t start out that way. Murphy didn’t make a single steal attempt in April. By May 18, he was 1-for-4. He was still 1-for-4 the morning of June 9. But from then on, in 104 games, Murphy attempted 22 steals, and each and every attempt was successful. Beyond that, for the year, he managed to take an extra base 61% of the time. That’s according to Baseball-Reference, where the league-average rate was 40%. Half the time someone hit a single with Murphy on first, he made it to third. There were 21 occasions that Murphy was on second when someone hit a single; on 17 of those occasions, Murphy scored. Murphy was aggressive on the bases last year, but he was both aggressive and effective, which is what allowed him to accumulate such value.

Here’s the really amazing part, and this is going to rely on the results of the Fan Scouting Report. Last season, 83 different players stole at least ten bases. Now, the Fan Scouting Report has a “Speed” category. The league-average rating was 51. Murphy had a rating of 39. That was the lowest out of everyone with at least ten steals, by six. It was the lowest out of everyone with at least 20 steals, by 15. The average speed rating in the ten-steal group was 68. The average speed rating in the 20-steal group was 72. Daniel Murphy stole as many bases as Michael Bourn, and he stole more bases than Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence.

It’s not like this was a one-time thing. Murphy’s career Speed ratings according to the Fan Scouting Report:

2009: 42
2011: 44
2012: 44
2013: 39

Murphy’s never been a speed demon. Until 2013, he’d never played like a speed demon. Then he became something he was never supposed to become. Murphy learned how to run the bases like a player with far better wheels. Murphy effectively built a strength out of a weakness.

Going back to 2009, there have been a little over a hundred player-seasons worth at least five baserunning runs over average. Remember, that’s quite a bit — the spread of baserunning value usually isn’t that large. Out of all those player-seasons, 2013 Daniel Murphy again has the lowest Speed rating. Next-lowest is 2009 Orlando Cabrera, with a Speed rating ten points higher. The average speed rating of the group is 79. Murphy was at literally half that.

The idea: aggressiveness. More accurately: calculated aggressiveness. Ben Lindbergh wrote about the Mets’ baserunning philosophy, and a lot of the credit was given to coach Tom Goodwin, who you’ll recall was quite the baserunner himself. The Mets were the top baserunning team in baseball, and it wasn’t all about Daniel Murphy, but it was probably the success of Murphy that was the most surprising. It’s one thing to see a guy like Eric Young running all over the place. It’s quite another to have Murphy be an aggressor on the basepaths. Which was maybe the whole point behind his being aggressive. The other team, simply, wouldn’t expect it.

You knew you weren’t getting out of this without .gifs. So, here’s Daniel Murphy stealing some bases.

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Pitcher, second baseman not paying attention.

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Dropped pitch, but also, excellent jump.

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Another dropped pitch! But also, another excellent jump.

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Jump City (TM)

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Defense too casual, again, so Murphy seized an opportunity.

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Great jump off a lefty.

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Great jump off a righty.

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Great jump off a righty.

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A steal of third on a walk. And, another truly excellent jump.

Obviously, these aren’t all the good things Murphy made happen on the bases, but I think the images capture how Murphy was able to put up the numbers he did. Running the bases is about both speed and reads. Murphy doesn’t have much of the former, but he excelled at the latter, which allowed him to maximize his probability of success, even when being aggressive. He read the infielders around him. He read the pitchers and studied their timing. If speed is about tenths of a second, so is awareness, and Murphy made up for his feet with focus. He did the absolute best with what he had, so you could say, 2013 Daniel Murphy probably just about reached his baserunning ceiling. It isn’t often we can say that about any player and any tool. Say what you will about the rest of Murphy’s game, but he could be a lot worse just by running the bases like you’d expect that he would.

I’m not sure how much of this will continue. In the future, Murphy might catch fewer opponents off guard. A few times last year, he got a little bit lucky, so his baserunning value will probably regress closer to the mean. I’m not sure how many more exceptional baserunning seasons Daniel Murphy is going to have. But it’s kind of incredible he’s had even one, and he should still be projected as positive, positive despite running a lot like a catcher. You don’t necessarily have to be quick to run the bases like you are. You can be either quick or hyper-attentive, and Daniel Murphy proves it. Daniel Murphy, and no one else.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


26 Responses to “The Case of the Player With Speed Without Speed”

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  1. the dude says:

    The guy is a winner on a losing team. Too bad for him the Mets don’t trade him to a contender where he would get the recognition he deserves.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      And there was just an article about how bad the Dodgers’ 2B situation is, too. As I read that article, I was thinking about Murphy – especially since the Mets seem to want to get Eric Young into the lineup.

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      • LaLoosh says:

        the Mets FO has been lazy and inactive since grandpa Alderson took the reins.

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        • Noah says:

          You are so beyond wrong it’s laughable. Alderson has done some great things since taking over. He took one of the worst farm systems and turned it into a top 10 system in 3 years.

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        • LaLoosh says:

          sadly the Alderson era is anything but laughable. they are looking at their 4th straight 74 win (at best) team and declining attendance for the 6th straight year. bang up job. there is no mandate to win there. how did the FO do with the 1B and SS situations this winter? bullpen? Valverde and Farnsworth you say?? ah ok.

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        • brendan says:

          Zack Wheeler!

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  2. David says:

    Ryan Klesko, 2000 and 2001, 23 SBs each year. He was a keeper on an opponent’s fantasy team. These things stick in your mind.

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  3. Chris from Bothell says:

    Can’t see some of those great caught-ya-napping GIFs above without thinking of Brendan Ryan swiping 2nd and then immediately swiping 3rd because of out-of-position A’s defenders.

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  4. Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

    Jeff Bagwell would be proud.

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  5. tz says:

    It’s neat that Murphy was in the NL top 10 for both basestealing and baserunning runs above average, after being average in each category previously.

    What’s even funnier – Jonathan Lucroy cracked the top 30 in the NL for basestealing runs (9 SB vs. 1 CS) despite having the worstUBR in the NL. I couldn’t even begin to frame an explanation for that without seeing the GIFs of his stolen base attempts.

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  6. Jon L. says:

    Great gifs; Daniel Murphy is a genius. I wonder if he may lose some measured baserunning value next year, yet still maintain some actual value by dividing pitchers’ & fielders’ attention.

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  7. LaLoosh says:

    NIce recognition for Murphy but it’s an aberration as noted and a bi-product of team philosophy to be aggressive on the bases and look for opportunities to take the extra base when they arise. I have my doubts it will carry over to this year for Murphy. As someone noted, this was an opportunity to sell high on Murphy.

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  8. bobabaloo says:

    you should really go extreme and do some miguel cabrera gifs. him taking a double on a grounder to centerfield comes to mind…of course he tried it again a little while later and it didnt work. but hey, when youre THAT slow what are you gunna do?

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  9. Hunter says:

    Bobby Abreu was another guy who stole a lot of bases for how slow he was (especially in his later years.)

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  10. LongTimeFan says:

    RE: Jeff Sullivan

    Is misinformed on the nature of speed as innate vs. nurture and the degree of change that can occur beyond what a person is believed to be born with – Fast Twitch vs. Slow Twitch Muscle Fibers. Speed is a lot less fixed than he believes. For instance, he makes no consideration for persistent poor mechanics culled at young age that can later be corrected through proper instruction and training.

    While I’m not claiming everyone can be super fast or even average, there’s lots of room for improvement such as occurred with Daniel Murphy who arrived on the major league scene with short, awkward strides which by 2013 lengthened enough to turn him into very successful base stealer and base runner – a very neglected part in Sullivan’s analysis he’s apparently not aware of as neither are most Mets fans who aren’t mechanics hounds. There’s no way the once shorter-stride, awkward-running Daniel Murphy steals all those bags or even a handful. He might not even be aware of the changes. Those Fan Scouting Report numbers cited don’t pass the eyeball test of this fan whose been observing Murphy’s running style since his big league debut.

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    • Baltar says:

      I’m not making this up; I saw it on NOVA recently.
      Running speed is entirely a function of how hard the runners feet hit the ground. If you don’t believe it,time yourself running a 100-yard dash, take a rest until your energy is fully restored and then do it again, concentrating on hitting the ground much harder with your feet. Your time will be much faster.
      Maybe Murphy has discovered this.

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      • Roman Polanski says:

        Yeah but Force equals Mass times Acceleration, so the force of the foot hitting the ground is based on the mass and the acceleration of the foot which is pushed and pulled by the legs/hips etc., you can’t make your foot hit harder, its a byproduct of the rest of the system working.

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    • Billy says:

      With all due respect LongTimeFan, I have to say I am skeptical of your notion, at least as far as it pertains to this level of competition. I 100% agree with you that good vs. bad running mechanics can make a huge difference in speed. However, I would have to imagine that most pro athletes already have their running mechanics pretty close to maximized. I might be wrong here, especially in baseball where speed is not a requirement. And I’m not denying that you may be correct that Murphy is among those who did not have good running mechanics.

      But I have to imagine that among pro athletes, he’s more the exception than the rule. Having good running form isn’t that difficult of a skill to perfect when compared to hitting a baseball, a golf swing, or putting spin on a tennis ball. I’d imagine this is especially true among those with the athletic ability and understanding of their body mechanics required to be a high level athlete. And once you take out mechanics, the main determinants left appear to be God-given ability and how hard you train.

      This is more theoretical than anything else, so feel free to disagree. But unless my personal life experience is extremely unrepresentative or I’m just really stupid and can’t realize how stupid I am, I’m confident in my position.

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  11. Mr Punch says:

    Carlton Fisk was a slow runner who was a smart baserunner. He tied for the league lead in triples in ’71 (which I believe was the first time a catcher led the AL in any positive offensive category) and 11 years later he went 17-2 in steal attempts. Pudge wasn’t the slowest runner – I recall him beating Thurman Munson down the line to record a PO at first – but he was far from being a burner even in his youth.

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  12. LHPSU says:

    Yadier Molina – 12 steals in 2012.

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  13. ettin says:

    Peter Bourjos is an example of this as well. His ability to get jumps and steal bases is light-years behind his actual base-running where he is as good as pretty much anyone in the game. He cuts the corners of the bases like no one else when he is at full stride.

    He could become a better base stealer but that ability lags behind his base-running.

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  14. BaseballGuyer says:

    A question I had reading this: how much year-to-year consistency is there in terms of players moving from 1st to 3rd on a single? For fast players, I would obviously expect the rate to be higher, but for a guy like Murphy, wouldn’t that rate have a strong correlation with where the ball is being hit when he’s on base? (IE, more likely to take third on a ball hit into right or right-center, less likely in left?)

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