Running and Baseball
As I watch the baseball playoffs peppered by questions from Malinda about the role of running in baseball – triggered by Aubrey Huff lumbering home with the winning run on a sacrifice fly in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series (NLCS) – I’ve taken a new interest in the role that running has in the game of baseball. How important is speed to a baseball team?
I’m no baseball coach but I did a little research to provide a track coach’s perspective on running and baseball. I believe there are four main ways that running comes into play in a baseball game. 1) There’s running to first base after hitting the ball. 2) There’s stealing a base after getting on base. 3) There’s running the bases after someone else hits the ball. 4) There’s running while playing defense.
I am amazed at how perfect the dimension of a baseball diamond are. It’s ninety feet from home plate to first base. That seems to be the perfect distance to have close plays at first base on ground balls and bunts. No player in history has been able to consistently beat out a bunt or ground ball to an infielder. Mickey Mantle is credited by Major League Baseball (MLB) with the fastest time from home to first base both batting lefthanded (3.1 seconds) and righthanded (3.5 seconds). The statistics are all from a 1952 The Sporting News story.
Another statistic to consider when reflecting on speed and baseball is the stolen base. Rickey Henderson is the MLB all-time stolen base king with 1,406 steals during his career. Henderson also holds the modern day single season record with 130 steals in 1982 (Hugh Nicol is credited with 138 stolen bases in 1887 but many of those steals would not count as stolen bases under the modern day rules established in 1898). Related to the stolen base is stolen base percentage (SB%), as in what percentage of the time was a player successful in their attempt to steal a base. Henderson’s career SB% was 80.8%. Tim Raines holds the career record with a SB% of 84.7% (808 steals out of 954 attempts). The MLB SB% average for the 2010 season was 72%. The likely reason for such a high percentage is that players who have little chance of stealing a base (i.e. the slow guys) don’t bother attempting to steal. Vince Coleman holds a record for stealing fifty consecutive bases without being thrown out from September 1988 to July 1989.
Running from base to base in baseball is more than just raw speed. It requires tagging each base with your foot and changing directions at the base. According to the Guinness World Record Book, Evar Swanson holds the record for circling all the bases the fastest, running it in 13.3 seconds in 1932.
Most other measures of speed while running the bases are subjective, not objective. The same is true of a player’s speed while playing defense.
In reality baserunning in baseball is more about smarts than speed. Most if not every major league team employs a baserunning coach to teach these smarts. The Philadelphia Phillies have been particularly happy with the work done by their baserunning coach, Davey Lopes. That being said, one of Lopes’ pupils, Phillies pitcher Roy Oswalt, made a questionable baserunning decision in Game 2 of the NLCS. Oswalt “ran through the stop sign” by the third base coach and was actually lucky to not be thrown out.
Herb Washington may be regarded as one of the fastest baseball players of all-time. Washington was an excellent sprinter in high school and college. In 1974, despite not having any professional baseball experience but because he was the world record holder in the 50 and 60 yard dash, he was signed by Charlie Finley and the Oakland A’s. Washington became the A’s “designated runner,” a rather gimmicky idea of Finley’s. Few other baseball teams have ever used up a roster spot for a player who’s only role is to pinch run. Washington played in 92 games that season, stole twenty-nine bases, and scored twenty-nine runs for the A’s. He did not have a single at-bat nor did he appear on the field as a defensive player. All he did was pinch run. Washington earned a championship ring when the A’s defeated the Dodgers in the 1974 World Series. After playing in a few games at the beginning of the 1975 season Washington was released and never ran again in the major leagues.
Current San Francisco Giants centerfielder Andres Torres is said to have run 10.37 for the 100 meters as a teenager. This is quite fast and people on the Track & Field News message board questioned whether the mark was legitimate. No official record of his 10.37 was found and it was ambiguous if Torres did this in high school (possibly while attending a high school in Puerto Rico) or while in junior college. The Giants opponent in the NLCS, the Philliies’ Shane Victorino was the Hawaii state 100, 200 and 400 champion in high school. His 10.80 in the 100 from 1999 still stands as the Hawaii state meet record.
Several other major leaguers had strong track & field credentials prior to beginning their professional baseball career.
Deion Sanders was a multi-sport athlete from the 1990’s known mostly for playing both professional baseball and football at the same time. But, before that, in May of 1987, he had an amazing baseball and track & field day. The Seminoles baseball team was playing in the Metro Conference Tournament at the University of South Carolina. In the afternoon Florida State beat Southern Mississippi to advance to the championship game later that evening. Adjacent to the baseball field at South Carolina was the track, where the Metro Conference Championships were taking place and Florida State’s 4X100 relay team was in need of a runner. Sanders went over to the track, was quickly taught what to do, and successfully ran the second leg of Florida State’s 4X1 relay team; the team ran 40.24. Sanders then went back to the baseball field and had the game winning hit as Florida State beat Cincinnnati. One day, two sports, one athlete, and two Metro Conference Championships. After this, Sanders decided he liked track & field and dabbled in the sport, in 1988 he ran 10.26 in the 100 meters and also ran a leg on the fourth fastest 4X100 relay team in the nation.
Like Sanders, Bo Jackson played both professional baseball and football. During Jackson’s college days at Auburn, he was also a track & field letter winner. He qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in the 60 yard dash in both 1983 and 1984. His best time was 6.18 seconds.
Bernie Williams was signed by the New York Yankees as a seventeen year old in 1985. Williams would make his major league debut 1991 and enjoy a sixteen year career with the Yankees, playing in six World Series. However, prior to signing with the Yankees, Williams was a top junior 400 meter runner. He won four gold medals at the 1984 Central America and Caribbean Junior Championships. He ran 21.99 (wind-aided) in the 200, 49.29 in the 400, and also ran on the winning 4X100 and 4X400 relay teams. Years later, in 2002, at this same meet a guy by the name of Usain Bolt won the same individual events Williams won, the 200 and 400. I wonder what sort of a baseball career Bolt might be capable of?
While there certainly have been baseball players who were fast and contributed to their teams’ success, they haven’t been the stars of their team (Mantle being the exception). Why? Because to be a baseball star you need to be able to throw a pitch near a hundred miles an hour or hit a curveball. Neither of which are helped by your running ability.