The Magic of Playable Speed

Chances are that if you are fortunate enough to watch baseball games with a hardcore fan of an older generation, you hear complaints about the way baseball is played today compared to the “good old days”. Even with the draining of offense from the game over the past decade for obvious reasons, it does seem that almost every lineup is littered with power-focused, swing-and-miss types. One-run strategies are utilized less often, and speed seems to be less emphasized than in the past. Some of this is due to the game’s natural evolution, and a result of the encroachment of analysis into the game’s fabric.

An honest analyst with some scouting chops must realize that speed and athleticism are often at the core of the aspects of the game that are hardest to objectively measure, among them defense and baserunning. How much of the offensive and defensive impact of some of today’s fastest players is attributable to their speed? In light of some of the resulting answers to that questions, what is the Reds’ chance of success with their current Billy Hamilton experiment? Let’s use some batted-ball data to make some conclusions.

As our test subjects, let’s use the 2013 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for three of the fastest players in the game today – Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura.

Trout % REL PCT
K 19.0% 105 60
BB 15.4% 191 98
POP 4.8% 61 17
FLY 31.4% 109 68
LD 24.5% 113 85
GB 39.2% 94 36
Gomez % REL PCT
K 24.7% 136 86
BB 6.3% 78 27
POP 8.1% 102 52
FLY 32.6% 113 77
LD 20.8% 96 40
GB 38.5% 92 33
Segura % REL PCT
K 13.5% 74 20
BB 4.0% 50 7
POP 5.8% 73 26
FLY 20.6% 72 4
LD 19.8% 91 24
GB 53.8% 129 96

FLY 0.362 1.080 191 187
LD 0.645 0.944 106 121
GB 0.356 0.391 228 126
ALL BIP 0.410 0.711 178 162
ALL PA 0.317 0.423 0.549 183 170
FLY 0.427 1.065 213 154
LD 0.617 0.901 97 97
GB 0.309 0.396 195 139
ALL BIP 0.383 0.683 160 128
ALL PA 0.280 0.326 0.499 126 103
FLY 0.350 0.900 149 76
LD 0.615 0.792 86 79
GB 0.271 0.286 128 74
ALL BIP 0.340 0.490 103 69
ALL PA 0.292 0.320 0.420 106 73

Mike Trout is a great player in all facets of the game – as I noted in one of my previous articles here, he would be great if he had average speed, or worse. His walk rate is at the top of the scale (98 percentile rank), he strikes out at a reasonable clip for a power hitter, and he rarely pops up (17 percentile rank). His 2013 line drive rate (85) was very high, but his 2012 percentile rank (94) was even higher, suggesting this might be a true skill of his. He hits enough fly balls to take advantage of his power, and once he naturally learns to pull in the air a bit more, his power upside is even greater than he has shown to date.

Carlos Gomez is a player of extremes, with a wide range of potential outcomes. His K and BB rates have never been good, and until 2013′s respective line drive rate (40 percentile rank), poor performance in this area (6 percentile rank in 2012) had limited his performance. His popup rate has also steadily declined to its respectable 2013 level (52), and he has gained physical strength, allowing him to do more damage with the high number of fly balls he hits.

There’s a lot going on in Jean Segura’s 2013 frequency profile. He very rarely strikes out (20 percentile rank) or pops up (26), good things that are the foundation of the offensive games of most perennial high-average hitters. On the other hand, his walk (7 percentile rank) and line drive rates (24) were very low in his first full pro season, and his ground ball rate (96) was excessively high. If your glass is half-full, you might say that he has plenty of room for improvement in areas that can help him build upon his strong foundation.

Now, let’s focus on these players’ production by BIP tables. For each player, their actual production (AVG-SLG) for each BIP type is indicated – for purposes of this exercise, HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation, and all SH and SF are counted as outs. The “REL PRD” column measures the player’s production relative to the MLB average, scaled to 100, while the “ADJ PRD” adjusts for context, including ballpark and luck – while also weeding out the player’s speed premium or deficiency. Let’s attempt to quantify this speed premium for these three very fast young men.

Looking at their production by BIP type data, one of the first things that jumps out is their performance on ground balls. Major league hitters compiled a .237 AVG and .257 SLG on grounders in 2013. Trout batted .356-.391 for ADJ PRD of 228, Gomez .309-.396 for ADJ PRD of 195, and Segura .271-.286 for ADJ PRD of 128. Not all ground balls are created equal, however. Once adjusted for each player’s hard and soft ground ball rates, Trout “should have” batted .267-.287 on grounders, Gomez .278-.305, and Segura a measly .206-.216. If you’ve ever watched Jean Segura play for any length of time, this doesn’t surprise you. I’ve never seen a hitter accumulate so many hits on weakly-hit ground balls as Segura did in 2013. Conversion of these projections into a net number of extra ground ball hits and total bases that can be attributed to each player’s speed yields this:

- Trout – 16 additional hits, 18 additional total bases
- Gomez – 5, 14
- Segura – 17, 18

Most players get at most a handful of ground ball extra-base hits in a season, and almost all of them are doubles. Carlos Gomez hit seven doubles and three triples on the ground in 2013. That’s a speed premium. Trout and Segura’s ground ball speed premium took the form of additional infield singles. Speed kills in various ways.

All three players also recorded above average production on fly balls in 2013 – Trout’s REL PRD on fly balls was 191, Gomez’ was 213, and Segura’s at 149. The latter two were aided measurably by their cozy home park, which very quietly inflates fly ball production more than any park located outside of Denver and Boston. Speed obviously doesn’t impact these players’ homer totals, but if we remove the homers and compare the actual 1B-2B-3B spread of their remaining fly ball hits to the average MLB 1B-2B-3B distribution of fly ball hits given each player’s actual hard and soft fly ball rates, we can estimate the number of extra bases on fly ball hits attributable to each player’s speed:

MLB Avg – 9 1B – 14 2B – 1 3B = 40 TB;
Actual – 8 1B – 11 2B – 5 3B = 45 TB = +5 bases

MLB Avg – 16 1B – 16 2B – 1 3B = 51 TB
Actual – 19 1B – 9 2B – 5 3B = 52 TB = +1 base

MLB Avg – 11 1B – 11 2B – 1 3B = 36 TB
Actual – 10 1B – 7 2B – 6 3B = 42 TB = +6 bases

A similar exercise can be done with each player’s line drives. Trout picks up three additional bases, Gomez two, and Segura picks up none. If anything, I would consider these extra base estimates conservative. It can be argued that the impact of Gomez and Segura’s speed is muted by the homer-friendliness of Miller Park. Many balls that would be in the gaps or off the wall at many parks, often resulting in triples for these two, clear the fences in Milwaukee. Not that the club or the players are complaining, mind you.

Let’s tally up all of the extra bases, and see the impact of each player’s speed on their batting performance:

- Trout – 16 additional hits, 26 additional total bases – turns .295-.409-.513 into .323-.432-.557
- Gomez – 5, 17; turns .274-.329-.474 into .284-.338-.506
- Segura – 17, 24; turns .265-.301-.383 into .294-.329-.423

Remember, this still doesn’t take into account park effects, so Gomez – especially – and Segura need to be docked even further for the Miller Park effect when measuring their true hitting talent level. The speed premium turns a great player (Trout) into a potential legend, a solid player (Gomez) into a star, and an OK offensive player for his position (Segura) into a core building block worthy of a pricey long-term contract extension. And we haven’t even discussed the relative scarcity of offense at their respective positions, or the impact their speed has upon their relative defensive prowess.

In 2013, utilizing granular batted ball data, and adjusting for offensive and defensive hard and soft fly ball rates, the Brewers and Angels ranked very high at defending in-play fly balls head-to-head relative to their opposition. The Brewers ranked 2nd and the Angels 5th in this metric. Mike Trout and Carlos Gomez obviously had a lot to do with this. The Brewers ranked 3rd in this metric with respect to ground balls, largely thanks to the presence of Segura, and ranked 1st for all BIP types combined. It goes without saying that playable speed adds to individual and club success in various ways that can only be partially quantified by even the most cutting-edge publicly available metrics.

Which brings us to Billy Hamilton. In light of the above, it is easy to see what the Reds are chasing with their installation of Hamilton as their everyday CF and leadoff hitter. He’s as fast or faster than the three players studied here. Let’s not even bother comparing him to Trout, to keep things simple. Hamilton has never experienced sustained upper minor league success at the plate – he had a solid 50-game AA stint at age 21 in 2012, but washed out at .256-.308-.343 at AAA Louisville last season. Gomez was basically in the big leagues to stay at age 21, and Segura arrived and had immediate success midway through his age 22 season. Both Gomez, at 6’3″, 220, and Segura at a solidly built 5’10″, 205, combine speed with physical mass, and on more than the rare odd occasion were capable of hitting a baseball very hard at a young age.

Hamilton is a relatively frail 6’0″, 160, and rarely ever tattoos a baseball. His BB rate has been very low at the MLB level, and there is nothing in his minor league history to suggest that this will change anytime soon. Gomez doesn’t walk, but compensates with power. Segura doesn’t walk, but compensates with contact. Michael Bourn drew a representative number of walks – a ton in the minors – and slashed the ball to the gaps.

Pitchers are not afraid to challenge Hamilton, as he lacks the ability to truly make them pay. To date, he has struggled greatly with the major league fastball, making a ton of weak contact, often of the lazy fly ball variety. Outfielders can afford to play shallow, as he is unlikely to hit it over their heads. This shrinks the gaps and further eats into any potential speed premium. Even infielders can come in, decreasing his chances of infield or bunt hits. The early returns on his defense are quite positive, but his offensive shortcomings are outweighing his defensive usefulness thus far.

Hamilton’s speed isn’t yet truly playable at the major league level. Speed doesn’t exist alone on an island – it intertwines with the full complement of player tools and skills, allowing them to play up or down. For his speed to become playable, he must make adjustments that have nothing to do with his speed. Even Segura is going through a tough adjustment period at present, and it has nothing to do with being hit by a bat. He isn’t accumulating nearly as many soft infield hits this time around. Major league pitchers are a bear – once they identify your weaknesses, they attack them ruthlessly. Hamilton has yet to force their first adjustment.

Simply being fast doesn’t mean that your speed is playable. Adam Jones is a fast player with a very limited speed premium. he rarely gets extra bases on hits from his wheels, his defense isn’t as good as his defensive reputation – he is a power player who runs fast. Abraham Almonte is a fast player who makes too many mistakes in all aspects of the game, and doesn’t make enough contact to put himself into position to use his speed. Carlos Gomez once struggled to fully utilize his speed, but he got stronger and began to put the ball in play with enough authority to allow his speed to truly play up.

Hamilton is young and has time, but without a big spike in his contact rate that might propel him to a Juan Pierre-esque career, or a selectivity spike that could put him on more of a Bourn-esque path, he doesn’t seem destined to join the likes of Trout, Gomez or even Segura. He simply lacks the physical strength to take the Gomez path, or even a watered down version thereof. Speed can make a useful major league starter better, but speed alone doesn’t make a useful MLB starter. The potential rewards, however, are substantial enough that the Reds are unlikely to permanently pull the plug on this experiment anytime soon.

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12 Responses to “The Magic of Playable Speed”

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  1. MustBunique says:

    Good stuff Tony. I was a little put off by the percentile system that you use at first, but I have become a little more used to it and I think it provides an interesting way of looking at how a player performs. Like Segura being in the 96th percentile for GB. Wouldn’t you expect a player with his speed to benefit from a sustainably high BABIP due to a higher GB rate?

    What do you think about the Reds’ decision to turn Hamilton into a switch hitter? Is it really worth the extra tenths of a second for someone who is alread as fast as he is? Especially if it makes him a much poorer batter? I think this is a problem that he is facing at the plate, and even though he currently has better numbers from the left, I believe his confidence is shot by trying to face MLB level pitching from a side of the plate that he isn’t comfortable with.

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  2. Dees says:

    Adam Jones seems like a weird example, as he was ninth in baseball in BsR last year, one slot ahead of Carlos Gomez. His defense is, yes, vastly overrated, but there are lots of variables in defense that have nothing to do with speed.

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  3. Ben says:

    If you haven’t seen Hamilton’s “swing” against Samardzija, you need to.

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  4. Jason says:

    I’m not prepared to make too much of an argument because I think the sample size is too small “April!” to begin with, and parsing it even smaller leads to even weaker conclusions.

    That said, after his terrible first two weeks he has been very much a useful MLB starter the last two. It will be interesting to watch going forward as we get a longer look at him whether his bat can be good enough to keep him up.

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  5. American Stephen Crane says:

    Earl Weaver is a significant counter-example of that “older generation”. His book On Strategy and his “Manager’s Corner” radio spot/spoof (the best baseball trouvaille ever) are equally awesome. From Manager’s Corner:

    Team speed for chrissakes, you get f***in’ goddam little fleas on the f***in’ bases, getting picked off, tryin’ to steal, gettin’ thrown out, takin’ runs away from you, get them big c*******ers that can hit the f***in’ ball out the ballpark and ya can’t make any goddam mistakes.

    And Earl didn’t use asterisks.

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  6. KK-Swizzle says:

    “Speed can make a useful major league starter better, but speed alone doesn’t make a useful MLB starter.”

    Excellent conclusion to a well-written article. Hamilton, at this point, is just not a contributor at the major league level apart from “super-sub” speed/defense type. That being said, you allude to the motivation behind the Reds’ experiment: that the upside is simply too good an opportunity to pass up.

    I concur. This guy could be an all-star with 85 Wrc+ and an MVP candidate at 100. As is, Oliver projects him as a league average starter with a 65 Wrc+! He deserves to start for a whole year, if not two, to give him a chance to figure out hitting ML pitching. If he does, LOOK OUT

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  7. Jason says:

    Getting Mr. Blengino on Fangraphs was a major coup. Free access to the best MLB-level thinking from a mind that is equally grounded in scouting and advanced metrics. Just the best.

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  8. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Wow, Hamilton actually managed to hit one out!

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  9. Late Addition says:

    Great article. It is kind of ironic that he went 3 for 4 with a HR and an infield hit on the day it was published, but I also recognize that doesn’t take away from anything here.

    I do wonder how learning to hit left-handed, trying to adopt a ground ball approach, and thinking walk first has affected Hamilton’s numbers. Learning those things isn’t trivial and it’s bound to influence his success in some way. I think part of the reason he struck out so much at the beginning of the season might have been that he was being told to work deeper counts and get walked more. It translated to him not swinging early and falling behind quickly.

    Also, you mention that the infield playing in will take away infield hits, but as we saw today with Castro, it won’t eliminate them. Wouldn’t it ultimately increase his BABIP on ground balls because there are bigger holes in the infield? Put another way, wouldn’t the presumed effect of playing the infield in be substantially reduced range?

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