The Value of Elite Speed, Measured in Wins

Apropos largely of nothing — except his notable performance, I suppose, in this past Saturday’s Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game — I’ve dedicated considerable attention to Reds (now) outfield prospect Billy Hamilton in these electronic pages over the last 48 hours.

Hamilton, because he has a tool (in this case, speed) considered by many to be generational, has produced excitement among prospect analysts. In some cases, that excitement is analogous with optimism about Hamilton’s future as a major leaguer; in other cases, it’s more of an aesthetic judgment than any sort of projection about Hamilton’s career.

I wanted, briefly, to speak to the first point — and, specifically, to establish some sort of framework (however rough) for what speed is actually worth in terms of runs and wins.

I’m mostly certain when I suggest that speed produces runs in three main ways: by means of defensive range, baserunning (both via the stolen base and other manner of advancement), and infield hits/drag bunts. In the case of the first two elements (range and baserunning), speed alone isn’t even responsible for the entirety of the skill. There are excellent defenders, for example, whose range is due not only to footspeed but also to making good reads on, and taking straight paths to, batted balls. Likewise, there are players with merely average speed who, nevertheless, are above-average baserunners due to excellent decision-making. For the sake of this post, however, both elements will be considered purely as expressions of footspeed.

The question of infield hits and drag bunts is problematic in a different way, in that both components inform a player’s batting numbers directly. Because it’s “baked in” to a player’s offensive slash lines, we’ll ignore it for the sake of this post. Our concern is more with the first two, less immediately visible, metrics.

Now, with regard to those less visible metrics: to determine something like a ceiling in terms of runs/wins both of defensive range and baserunning, I considered what league leaders in both categories generally produce.

For defensive value, I looked at UZR-plus-positional adjustment for all outfielders — to account not only for center fielders, but other defensively talented players, as well (like Brett Gardner or Desmond Jennings), who merely happen to play a corner-outfield position. I omitted infielders, as their hands and throwing ability factor much more significantly into their run-prevention skills. The inclusion of arm-related run prevention isn’t particularly problematic, it seems: for most every outfielder who’s not Alex Gordon, really, range is the primary informant of run prevention. For baserunning, I looked at the baserunning metric (for outfielders only, for consistency’s sake) available here at the site, which considers not only stolen-base runs but also other manner of base advancement.

To establish what “elite” run production is both for outfield defense and baserunning, I averaged together the top-10 leaders by each measure over the past five years — which is to say, I found the top-10 outfield leaders for UZR-plus-positional adjustment from 2012 and averaged together their totals. Then I did the same for 2011, 2010, etc. Then I averaged together all five years’ worth of those averages. After that, I found the top-10 leaders in 2012 by baserunning, and averaged together their totals. Then I did the same for 2011, 2010, etc. Then I averaged together all five years’ worth of those averages.

Here’s what I found:

For defense, the average top-10 leader has saved 15 runs, or 1.5 wins, relative to league average over the last five seasons. For baserunning, a top-10 leader has been worth ca. 8.0 runs per season over the last five years.

So, broadly speaking, we can say that the upside for a player with elite speed — in terms of defense and baserunning — is something like 20-25 runs, or 2.0-2.5 wins.

Notably, not one player appears on all 10 of the top-10 lists considered. Michael Bourn leads all players, appearing on seven of the 10. Brett Gardner appears on five lists. Jacoby Ellsbury, Ben Revere, Ichiro Suzuki appear on four each.

Whether he’s the league’s fastest player, Michael Bourn has consistently generated the most wins by those means — outfield defense and baserunning — that we would generally associate with speed. Since 2008, Bourn has been worth about 12 runs per season defensively (that is, UZR plus his positional adjustment) and just under nine runs as a baserunner — for a total of ca. 21 runs (or, 2.1 wins) per annum. That has allowed Bourn to augment his just slightly below-average park- and league-adjusted batting line over that five-year stretch and average roughly 4.0 wins total per year.

Whether Billy Hamilton can approximate Bourn’s success — either with his legs or with his bat — remains uncertain, obviously. A full-time job and league-average bat would likely place him in the four-win range with Bourn. To profile as a roughly league-average (or, two-win) player — with Bourn-like speed numbers — would actually be rather easy: neither Clint Barmes (62 wRC+ in 493 PAs) nor Brendan Ryan (61 wRC+ in 470 PAs) nor Drew Stubbs (64 wRC+ in 544 PA) managed to produce as few as -21 runs below average, despite all posting miserable batting lines in a large number of plate appearances. Thus, were he to bat like any of that triumvirate, Hamilton would still finish at roughly two wins above replacement — as long as he were able to produce speed-related runs at the same pace as Bourn, of course.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

22 Responses to “The Value of Elite Speed, Measured in Wins”

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  1. JT says:

    I’m afraid he’s going to break your heart, sir. Would you guard yourself from the pain, or confront your love with abandon?

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    • I’m not actually a particular fan of Hamilton. In fact, I’ve generally been suspicious of the excitement he’s produced — at least in such cases where that excitement has led to considerable optimism concerning his future as a major leaguer. Running the numbers like this, however, it does seem as though posting a two-win season would be entirely possible.

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    • SKob says:

      Love Hamilton haters! Makes it easier to know who doesn’t read scouting reports!

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  2. TRob says:

    I haven’t seen anything in regards to Hamilton’s progress in CF so far this fall. Anybody have any insight?

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  3. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Speed in baseball is excitement, if he can hit and field at an average rate he is at least worth watching.

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    • Cidron says:

      agreed, speed is excitement.. whereas power is Oooh, Aaahhh.. a nice mix of them on a team should keep fans in the stadiums, but.. the only the front edge of the seat will be used due to the whole thing.

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    • tbjfan says:

      The question is whether Billy Hamilton will be the next Rickey Henderson or next Vince Coleman?

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      • Carl Allen says:

        B Ham has no power. He hit 2 homers today which is one shy of his season high at any level. He’s a faster version of Juan Pierre.

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  4. Nivra says:

    Isn’t there an argument to be made that your ignored factor: infield hits & drag bunts (as well as infield ROE, DP’s turned into FC, and 2B’s turned into 3B’s or 2B + E) is perhaps the most valuable (in terms of wins or runs) component of speed?

    Certainly Ichiro is unique, and his past production was as much a factor of his specific batting approach and talent as his speed, but his unique speed and time-to-first played a huge role in his ability to produce with that approach. Similarly, looking at profiles of players such as Ricky H, we see a unique ROE profile that is almost certainly an effect of his speed.

    A single IF out turned into an E or IF hit with the runner is worth 0.79 runs on avg (from tango). So 10 additional outs turned into non-outs per season is worth almost 8 runs. Is 10 a lot? Probably. But is 5 too little? I really don’t know.

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    • Jon L. says:

      I wanted to point this out as well, that in addition to defense and baserunning, elite speed can at least partially substitute for hitting ability. You just have to be a good bunter, make contact, and hit the ball on the ground.

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    • Pete says:

      But that’ll only make a difference in ROE – a single, whether a laser to LF or a drag bunt, is still a single and reflected in BA (or any of the advanced stats).

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      • Nivra says:

        I mentioned ROE, DP –> FC, and 2B + E which can all happen from speed that would be unaccounted for because of speed. The last is debatable.

        However, Carson’s question is “the value of speed,” not the value of speed that isn’t included in wOBA or OPS or BA.

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  5. Evan says:

    The baserunning contribution to speed value isn’t independent of batting ability though. Proficiency at getting on base will affect his ability to steal or advance extra bases in either a positive or negative way.

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  6. Elite speed also has benefits that cannot be directly measured by any means. If an elite speedster is on base, especially first base, he can disrupt a pitcher’s focus and require numerous throws to first. Elite speed puts extra pressure on the defense, possibly leading to more fielding errors. An elite speedster can excite his team and the home crowd as well as demoralize the opponents and their fans. That is why a few select players are said to have “game changing” speed. Obviously Hamilton has that kind of game changing speed… it is just a matter of how fully he can utilize his gift. I certainly hope he reaches his full potential because it would be a blast to see him play and it would be great for fans of the game.

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  7. Gaja says:

    Well speed is one thing but skill and defense another.. SF Giants had a studd named Grego Blanco who showed speed and defense in the World Series robbing Det superstars of crucial hits. Speed is one thing but using it another

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    • Baltar says:

      Carson acknowledged what you said in your comment. His purpose was to show some of the potential impacet of Hamilton’s speed and how it could help make him at least an average MLB player, which he did quite effectively.
      By no means did he make any predictions or estimates of what Hamilton will accomplish.
      I would also point out that even if his other skills aren’t sufficient, he could (I don’t say will) have a major league career as a pinch-runner or perhaps even as a pinch-bunter.

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  8. Anthony says:

    I think this is underselling Hamilton. His speed “upside” of 2-2.5 implies he can only be among the middle of each group of 10. But if scouting reports and minor league numbers are to be believed, his upside is to be #1 by a wide margin. I think the excitement with Hamilton is not that he’s super fast. It’s that he’s faster than anyone we’ve ever seen. I don’t think the numbers calculated above really represent his “upside”.

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  9. Doug M says:

    One more place that speed can help a player — tougher to double-up.

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  10. Tom says:

    Another take on this subject can be found on the Diamond Mind Baseball web site.

    This link takes you to their list of articles, where you can scroll down and select Measuring the Impact of Speed.

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