Speed kills. At least, that’s what people say.
Speed is certainly a good tool to have. All else equal, any manager would pick the faster guy. Of course, speed is a huge asset in the field, especially for outfielders. Good speed increases range, providing a sort of buffer zone for players who don’t get a good jump on the ball or who don’t read the ball well off the bat. No one in their right mind, when given the choice, would pick the player with less range (again, all else equal). And so we can all agree that speed very clearly increases a player’s value in the field.
Whether or not speed increases a player’s value at the plate is a different story. The faster guy may leg out an infield hit every now and then or stretch a single into a double or a double into a triple, but this won’t significantly increase a player’s value outside of a small uptick in average.
Luckily, Baseball Savant’s sprint-speed leaderboard gives us some interesting data to examine (you can find the interactive tool here).
Here, we can see that the league average sprint speed is 27 ft/s. Catchers, first basemen, and designated hitters are typically below league average. And it comes as no surprise that outfielders, especially center fielders, are typically above league average.
If we look at the fastest player at each position for 2017, we can come to a better understanding of the value of speed.
Notably, of the nine players on this list, only four of them have a wRC+ above 100 — league average. Is this significant? Probably not as a stand-alone statistic. But it is safe to say that speed does not directly correlate to value. And it certainly doesn’t correlate to value at the plate. Even when examining the WAR column, you won’t be blown away. Dickerson and Bryant are having great years, but for the most part these players represent a pretty average group.
As mentioned previously, only four of these players are above average in terms of creating runs (highlighted in red and orange). The players with wRC+ values in red have not had success because of their speed. They all have ISOs that are at least 50 points above league average. Basically, their success can be attributed to power, not speed.
However, JT Realmuto’s ISO is essentially league average. Did speed boost his value that much? (NOTE: speed is not taken into account when calculating wRC+; still, the value of each outcome, which is considered in the calculation, can be affected by speed) Realmuto’s speed puts additional pressure on opposing defenses, especially relative to other catchers, but I would be very hesitant to say that speed alone created a difference of 9 wRC+ between him and the average player.
Billy Hamilton is the fastest player in the league. And while most would call him a plus defender, very few would call him a good all-around player. His wRC+ value of 57 is seventh-worst out of all qualified players (highlighted in blue). Although he leads the league in stolen bases, even that wasn’t enough to raise his WAR above a dismal 0.5. We can safely say that speed does not correlate to success.
What about specific teams? Do teams compiled of speedsters at every position win more games?
Here is the same image as above with only Marlins players highlighted. Miami has a player with above-average speed at every single position, save for Justin Bour at 1B who has been a top-20 player in the MLB based on offensive production this year. Without question, the Marlins have a lot of speed, but still, they are six games under .500 and 10.5 games out of the wild-card race in the National League.
Here is the same image with San Diego players. The Padres are a speedy team. They have not one, but two players above league average at three different positions. Even their catcher, Austin Hedges, is only slightly below league average while still significantly faster than the average catcher. Despite having one of the fastest teams in the MLB, the Padres are 14 games below .500 and 19 games out of first place in the NL West.
Speed isn’t a stand-alone tool. It is a great complement to someone who makes contact at high rates (see: Ichiro) and it can put pressure on a defense, forcing fielders to rush to make a play. Furthermore, it is a crucial tool in the field, increasing range for all players, most significantly for outfielders. However, speed in and of itself is by no means an indicator of overall value. In baseball, speed doesn’t kill.