What if The King Wanted to be The Kid?

LeBron James would have been a very toolsy baseball player, to say the least. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

What if a nine-year old LeBron James, inspired by Ken Griffey Jr.’s 45-homer monster season in 1993, had picked up a bat and glove? Instead of setting his ultra-competitive mind to chasing the ghost who played in Chicago (Michael Jordan), he could have set it to the one who played in San Francisco (Willie Mays), Atlanta (Hank Aaron), Seattle (Griffey) or Pittsburgh (Barry Bonds).

Given that James has been in the NBA for 14 years, and we were watching his high school games on ESPN even before that, it’s hard to imagine him playing a sport other than basketball. But, with a mix of hard data and some alternative physics, we can make an educated guess at the hypothetical baseball talent level of one LeBron Raymone James. There are a variety of factors that go into being a successful major league hitter, and we’ll tackle them one by one to see how James measures up against major league talent.

Tool #1: Speed (Data per: ESPN’s Analysis of “The Block”)

James is fast. Period. Anyone who remembers watching him stifle Derrick Rose in the playoffs many years ago will vividly recall the first-step speed as well as the top-shelf top speed he exhibited in order to completely shut down (at the time) the quickest point guard in the league.

However, that is merely a subjective measure. Why settle for the subjective observations of James’ speed, when we can look to “The Block” and the helpful analysis that has been done by ESPN to quantify his top speed on that play?

If you didn’t watch, here are a couple of jaw-dropping numbers, which we’ll put into baseball perspective, all the while keeping in mind this is in a Game Seven of a grueling series (and postseason overall) and timed after over 40 minutes of exertion, as compared to the fresh legs of a baseball player. Further, to my eye, this doesn’t look like a player going at his maximum speed, but that is a subjective perspective.

  1. James covered his first 60 feet in 2.67 seconds. If we simply extrapolate that to 90 feet, we get 4.005 seconds which would rank him in the top 10 in time to first. One could argue James probably is fastest later rather than earlier (a la Usain Bolt), which means he possibly could cover 90 feet in under four seconds, which would give him Billy Hamilton class speed.
  2. James hit a top speed of 20.1 mph, which is not quite as fast as Billy Hamilton’s 21.2 mph recorded by Statcast, but would still grade out as 80 speed on the 20-80 scale. In my opinion, watching the film, James isn’t even running full speed, since he had to measure his speed to time the block to match Iguodala.

While the legendary block is but one data point, it helps quantify just how fast 32-year-old LeBron James is. There is an argument to be made that he, given the more subjective measure of being “as fast as a point guard,” would be one of the fastest players–if not the fastest player–in baseball and still would maintain that speed and athleticism into his thirties. Without question, James would have the requisite speed, not to mention the reach and athletic ability, to play center field at an elite level.

Tool #2: Power (Data derived from Statcast)

Being bigger and stronger allows you to hit the ball harder. Thanks to Statcast, we now can measure how much harder a ball is hit by taller, stronger players. Before Aaron Judge took Yankee Stadium by storm, we witnessed Giancarlo Stanton break all the Statcast exit velocity records. Thankfully, we have far more than these two data points; we have two-plus years of Statcast data we can match up against player height and weight to see what the benefit of each is, as measured by exit velocity.

Batter Height to Exit Velocity


We see a fairly clear trend, wherein extra height (measured in inches) correlates strongly to increased exit velocity. As we soon will see, this is statistically significant irrespective of the batter’s weight. It’s not perfectly linear, though the sample sizes do get wonky at the edges. The above is filtered to heights where there are at least 1000 recorded balls in play, to ensure a robust sample size.

Batter Weight to Exit Velocity


We see another very clear trend, where more weight equals more power. This is rather intuitive, as we generally see the big, strong sluggers hitting the ball harder and farther. All else being equal, adding more muscle mass will give the batter a little more zip on his exit velocity.

Weight + Height to Exit Velocity

Let’s pull out the old multiple regression blender (minimum of 50 balls in play for each batter) and feed in our two variables above and see what it spits out:

ExitVelocity = 60 MPH + 0.21*inches + 0.057*pounds | R2 of 0.3118

We get a good correlation, which essentially tells us that if all you know is that a batter is good enough to play in the majors, you can explain roughly 31 percent of a hitter’s exit velocity with just his height and weight. Here’s a visual scatter plot of projected exit velocity to actual exit velocity.


The visual tells the same story as the correlation, with skinny, short Hamilton projecting and producing low exit velocity, contrasted to behemoths Judge and Miguel Sano who project for massive exit velocity and produce as expected. According to the above formula, adding about 20 pounds of mass could potentially add one mph to exit velocity, further demonstrating how much benefit a batter can accrue from bulking up (legitimately or through steroid use).

Thus Spoke Baseball: Another Look at the Language of the Game
In other words, baseball gets the glossary it deserves.

James is listed as 6-foot-8, 260 pounds. If we take James at his height and weight during his early years in the NBA, we would get a projected exit velocity of 91.62 mph; if he was playing at 6-foot-8 and 280 lbs. (which his frame could hold), that would work out to 92.76 mph, slightly higher than Kennys Vargas and Judge. What this implies is, given average contact skills and bat speed, we would expect to see elite power from James, simply due to his massive frame.

James also has the ability to launch his current 250-pound frame 40 inches into the air, suggesting there is enormous power in his frame; this power is also reflected in his style of play, wherein guys of similar physique bounce off him. Were James fully able to tap into his full potential as a power hitter, he would have a theoretical power ceiling that would eclipse anyone in baseball.

Tool #3: Bat Speed + Bat Control (Data per ESPN + “Alternative” Physics)

This section may contain alternative physics and cherry-picked bio mechanics. Reader discretion is advised.

Bryan Cole measured the hand speed of Stanton at 34 mph, which is mighty impressive. ESPN measured James’ hand speed on his spectacular dunks at a more pedestrian 27.4 mph. Assuming a moment of inertia of 20,000 oz./sq. in. for a baseball bat, compared to 8,000 oz/in^2 for a basketball, we’d have to reduce James’ hand speed by roughly 32 percent to compensate for the lower moment of inertia of a basketball, leaving us with an estimated 21 mph hand speed.

The real challenge becomes what kind of adjustment to make for the fact that James’ arm speed is being measured while he is jumping in the air (so, all arm speed generated from upper body only) compared to Stanton’s hand speed while standing firmly on the ground, using the rotational force of his massive lower half to generate arm speed.

Breakdown of a Golf Swing
Body/Joint Work Male Scratch Golfer % Total
Total Body Work 1,452 100%
Right Ankle 19.8  1%
Left Ankle -2.4  0%
Right Knee 38.4  3%
Left Knee -4.2  0%
Right Hip  297 20%
Left Hip  126  9%
Lumbar  342 24%
Thoracic  277 19%
Right Shoulder   63  4%
Left Shoulder   57  4%
Right Elbow  125  9%
Left Elbow   23  2%
Right Wrist   56  4%
Left Wrist   34  2%
SOURCE: Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3899668/table/table002/

Let’s assume for the sake of argument a golf swing is somewhat similar to a baseball swing in terms of which muscles are engaged. (They aren’t.) Let’s also assume for the purpose of a slam dunk, James would be utilizing his entire upper body, which in this case would include the 44 percent from the thoracic up, as well as his lumbar, less his left arm.

Adding these up, we’re looking at about 38 percent of his body he could use when swinging a bat that he can’t when dunking a basketball. This would then equate to roughly 62 percent more force he could put into his baseball swing, implying his 21 mph would translate to 33.8 mph, which is the number I had designed this formula to arrive at on par with Stanton.

From a more subjective perspective, witnessing the elite chase-down blocking ability of James (a skill unmatched in the NBA), we see a combination of the elite speed skills mentioned above and tremendous arm speed and coordination. According to ESPN Sports Science, a lot of his chase-down blocks have a 0.2 second window to be blocked, which necessitates extremely precise arm movement combined with exceptional arm speed.

Conclusion

While we can debate whether a spectacular athlete like LeBron James would have been a great baseball player, we can all agree that he would have been one of the toolsiest prospects ever. Baseball prospects with James’ physical stature usually have questions about whether they have the athletic ability to field any position other than first base; James would be the rare prospect with off-the-charts raw power and top-shelf speed. I don’t think it is farfetched to say that James would have profiled similar to “The Kid,” Ken Griffey Jr. While James is taller and heavier, his NBA track record suggests he would rival Griffey’s speed and athletic ability; although hard to imagine, the LeBron James version of Griffey might have been a less-injury-prone Giancarlo Stanton playing an elite center field.

Above and beyond the physical tools, we have perhaps the most important factor for any prospect: makeup. James’ track record as a champion, as well as his off-court professional demeanor is the kind of special makeup often attributed to Derek Jeter. James’ success in the NBA is a combination of elite athletic ability, compete level and makeup; one can only dream what that would have looked like on a baseball field.

References & Resources


Eli Ben-Porat is a Senior Manager of Reporting & Analytics for Rogers Communications. The views and opinions expressed herein are his own. He builds data visualizations in Tableau, and preps data in Alteryx. Follow him on Twitter @EliBenPorat.
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NoRake
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NoRake
As mathematical exercise and flight-of-fantasy, discussion of LBJ playing baseball will kill time on a long road trip. For 15 years, I coached amateur baseball from nine-year olds to select seventeen year-olds and two-years of high-school varsity baseball (marriage and my lack of enthusiasm for also coaching football ended that phase of my life). I also played baseball from age nine through college. In the upper age level of the experience, every year some sizable roundball or football stallion would present themselves for roster candidacy; on not single occasion did one push one of the experienced players off -the-roster (OK,… Read more »
Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Cool story bro, but this article pretty clearly states it is speculating had James focused on baseball as a 9 year old.

AaronB
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AaronB
Very interesting Eli. I help out with my 11 year old’s team, a AAA team. I think every kid on the team has been playing ball since they were about 5, and most at the competitive level for the last three years. One of our kid’s dad also coaches football, that’s his main passion. He had a couple of the football kids decide they wanted to play baseball. Fantastic athletes already. Lots of speed, they picked up fielding quickly, showed lots of promise. Then we starting hitting practice. First kid up had to face the coaches kid. He throws with… Read more »
Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

That projected vs. actual exit speed scatterplot shows a disaster of a fit line. +5 mph on the projection axis maps to +16 mph on the actual.

Guest
Guest
Guest

How much would NBA court and shoes affect speed (as compared to MLB field and cleats)?

Dom
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Dom

I truly think LeBron could have been a top end pitcher. His height, weight and wingspan to go with his incredible fitness would have given him a lot of velocity.

Calvin M
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Calvin M
A lot of useless time and effort went into this little column. Athletic ability has very little to do with success in baseball at the major league level. There is a reason why most young players spend 5 or 6 years in the minor leagues after playing for years at the Little League to high school and college level. The old TV intro, “the most closely followed and skillfully played game in the world,” is very true. Out of the many athletes who have tried to play baseball and another sport, only Bo Jackson succeeded in standing out in both.… Read more »
Sarpanitum
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Sarpanitum

Contrary to most opinions Bo Jackson was a below average player in many respects. His fielding was above average but his hitting was below average. He struck out a lot (for his time) and drew very few walks. Look up his stats if you doubt me. He lasted as long as he did because many were enamored of his physical potential. His commercials were funny and that’s one reason why everyone thinks he was a great multi-sport athlete.

Coach V
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Coach V
It’s probably contrary to most opinions because much of your post is contrary to fact. He was a below-average player in many respects, but almost exactly opposite to the way you claim. He had outstanding physical tools and made some memorable plays because of it, but wasn’t a terribly effective fielder, even before the injury. He was, though, a good hitter – mostly due to power. As you noted, he struck out a lot but his walk rate was league average and he did damage when he did make contact. He was 11 or 12% better than average at the… Read more »
SignedEpsteinsMother
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SignedEpsteinsMother
I think some of u are missing the point of the article: “What if a nine-year old LeBron James, inspired by Ken Griffey Jr.’s 45-homer monster season in 1993, had picked up a bat and glove? Instead of setting his ultra-competitive mind to chasing the ghost who played in Chicago (Michael Jordan),” It’s a fun exorcise and thank you for the time and effort to “translate” basketball skills to baseball. Multi-sport athletes is, unfortunately, less common now, but not unheard of (as a Cubs fan, ‘Marge and Matt Sczur come to mind). I don’t think we will see a BO… Read more »