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Baseball's Overlooked Edge: Speed

   by Bryan Leonard - 06/13/2011


There’s been a huge emphasis on power in baseball over the last decade. Certainly there’s been a lot focus on bulk and home runs, speed as an extremely important, and often overlooked, aspect of winning baseball.
Speed isn’t simply stolen bases, although that’s one part of the equation. Speed is also the ability of a player to go from first to third, or turning a single into a double. And defense in the outfield. And speed is a huge asset, along with on base percentage, with respects to one of the rarest and most important facets of a successful team – a good leadoff hitter.
The Boston Red Sox added two huge speed additions to their team this season: Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford. Granted, Ellsbury has been with the team since their 2007 World Series title squad, but he was basically injured pretty much all of last season. His return to health, and productive play in the leadoff spot, has been a key in their surge after that 2-10 start and back to back sweeps at Yankee stadium this week and last month.
A few years ago the NY Mets struggled badly and got off to an embarrassing start this week despite a ton of money dished out for star players. That Mets team had Jose Reyes as a leadoff hitter. Despite a decent batting average, in his first 14 at bats he had zero walks in the previous season, in 220 plate appearances for the Mets he had 5 walks. That’s ridiculous. I don’t care if this guy is faster than Vince Coleman and Willie McGee combined, his on base percentage is a joke and he doesn’t belong anywhere near the top of the order. You need to have guys get on base at the top of the order, more so than speed. A lack of on base capability will choke your offense.
By contrast, a good on base percentage player WITH speed is the best of all leadoff hitters, such as Ichiru. The Oakland A’s are currently in a terrible slump, one of the worst offensive teams in the game, and they suffer from awful on-base production atop the order. A good leadoff batter is an extremely valuable part of the makeup of a team. Look at the Cubs, a team that fizzled for several years with problems at leadoff, despite a powerful home run lineup.
Speed also enhances defense in the outfield, something that is often overlooked. A speedy outfielder will run down fly balls that might otherwise be hits, which decreases the amount of pitchers a hurler has to throw. I recall a game where Alex Rodriguez boot a ball that could have been a game ending double play in the ninth inning against the Red Sox. As a result, Mariano Rivera had to throw 39 pitches in a loss. A quick one, two, three inning versus a 39-pitch inning is a huge difference for a pitcher – not just one game, but the next few, as in that example, when will Rivera be rested enough to pitch again? Certainly not the next day.
Defense and speed helps the starting and relief staff as well as the offense. Be careful wagering on teams with flawed leadoff hitters or a lack of speed/defense in the outfield, especially if they’re a favorite playing in a big park. Speed can be a very important part of the makeup of a team.

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