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Baseball's Overlooked Edge: Speed

   by Bryan Leonard - 07/20/2012

There's been a huge emphasis on power in baseball over the last decade. But home runs are down this season, likely because there is so much steroid testing now. And with teams lacking power like they used to, speed can be 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 Tampa Bay Rays had a terrific season two years ago, with the best record on the road, and again last season making the playoffs on the last day. Many looked at their pitching, which was a factor, but less credit was given to their speed, tops in the AL in stolen bases. When a team with speed plays on the road, they don't have to adjust their game to the size of the park. Small parks like Tampa, Fenway and Yankee Stadium may be easy to hit home runs in, but big parks like in Oakland and Washington are tough for hitters. However, if you have speed on the bases, none of that matters, as the bases are all the same distance from each other.
A few years ago I recall the NY Mets struggling badly as they got off to an embarrassing start despite a ton of money dished out for stars like Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. The Mets had Jose Reyes as a leadoff hitter. Despite a decent batting average, in his first 14 at bats to the year he had zero walks. 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 was a joke and he didn'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 in his prime.
The Red Sox have won two World Series the last seven years with excellent speed/on base percentage leadoff hitters like Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury. They went after Carl Crawford with that in mind, as well, a disappointment so far, but a good leadoff batter is an extremely valuable part of the makeup of a team. Look at the Cubs, a team that has fizzled the last few years despite great pitching and powerful home run lineups. One season their leadoff batter was Corey Patterson, a guy with power, but lousy at getting on base.
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. 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.
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, and often overlooked, part of the makeup of a team.

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