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Draft : : Prospect Scouting Reports
Speed Can Be A Tricky Tool To Scout
Anup Sinha    
Published: Wednesday, December 10, 2008

All you need is a stopwatch. You time him in the 60-yard dash, you time him home-to-first—and then you’re done. You know right then and there whether he can steal bases in the big leagues. You know whether he can be a shortstop or a center fielder, or if he’s limited to catcher or first base. Right?

We hear it all the time among scouts. So-and-so will hit, throw and make the plays at shortstop. But then he runs a 7.0-plus 60 time and everyone says he has to move to second base (if he’s undersized), third base (if he’s too big) or catcher (if he’s too slow). It’s formulaic.

Major league clubs have “present” and “future” columns for scouts to grade each tool. Conventional wisdom holds that an amateur player can lose speed between 18 and 25, especially if he gains weight. But very few scouts will do the opposite . . . put a higher future grade on speed than present.

THE 2008 ALL-STAR GAME: Moment of Truth

I was at a sports bar in Manhattan watching this year’s All-Star Game, which was taking place just miles up the road in Yankee Stadium.

Texas Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler got on base, and I made the comment to a friend that “Kinsler can’t run a lick”.

He glared at me as if I didn’t know a thing about baseball. “He was in the 20/20 (HR/SB) club last year,” he stammered.

“What?”

I was remembering the Ian Kinsler that I had scouted in high school, the player who ran a 7.11 in the 60 at a Team One Showcase I worked at the time—the same player who ran a 4.4-plus getting out of the box from the right side.

Sure enough, Kinsler stole 23 bases in 25 attempts during the 2007 season and did even better this year (26-of-28). He’s playing in the middle of the diamond and runs consistently above-average home-to-first (4.2) from the right side. Kinsler is a legitimate plus runner.

No one who saw him at the showcase as a high school player would have projected him as a base-stealing second baseman as a big leaguer, much less an all-star. But we mis-evaluated his speed as an amateur. Badly. Perhaps that is why he didn’t earn much playing time as a sophomore at Arizona State and lasted until the 17th round of the 2003 draft as a University of Missouri junior.

The bottom line is that he got faster. Whether it was through technique, maturity or conditioning, Kinsler went from being a below-average runner to a plus runner. And he’s not the only big leaguer who has gotten faster over time.

TOP 10 MAJOR LEAGUERS WHO DIDN’T “RUN WELL ENOUGH”
I’ve gone through the list of major league middle-position players (center field, shortstop, second base) and stolen-base leaders to look for players whom I recall as being ‘slow’ amateurs. By conventional scouting wisdom, none of these players should have been able to fulfill their current role in the big leagues. I’ve looked at 10 players, comparing their speed as high school players and major leaguers.

1. Brian Roberts, 2b, Baltimore Orioles
HIGH SCHOOL:
Ran 7.3 and 7.2 in the 60-yard dash in 1993 and 1994 as an underclassman. As a rising senior in 1995, he ran twice in the average range (6.85, 6.90). But I most vividly remember him getting picked off 4-5 times during that last event. MAJOR LEAGUES: After leading the NCAA Division I ranks in thefts in a college career that took him from North Carolina to South Carolina, Roberts went from being an undrafted player out of high school to a supplemental first-rounder of the Orioles three years later. He has become one of the best base-stealers in baseball, with 226 stolen bases in his career while finishing in the American League’s top eight in each of his six full seasons from 2003-08. Roberts led the junior circuit in 2007 with a career-high of 50. He’s also a plus defensive second baseman with plenty of range.

2. Carl Crawford, of, Tampa Bay Rays
HS:
No one ever would have called Crawford ‘slow’ at any point in his life; certainly not on the football field. But I did time him by hand at a less-than-blazing 6.8 in the 60-yard dash at the December, 1998 Perfect Game World Showcase in Fort Myers; Fla., If taken literally, it would have graded out as solid-average 50-55 speed on the standard 20-80 scouting scale.
MLB: Crawford, a second-round pick of the Rays out of a Texas high school, is one of the fastest players in the game. He’s led the American League in steals four times in six full seasons. Lack of radar and the presence of fellow burner B.J. Upton are what keep him from playing center field for the Rays, but he could play there for other teams.

3. Dustin Pedroia, 2b, Boston Red Sox
HS: Ran a 7.11, 60-yard dash as a rising senior. He would have measured 5-foot-6 or 5-7 tops, in height, had they brought out the tape.
COLLEGE: My scout card on Team USA and Arizona State had him timed from the right side consistently between 4.43 and 4.53 seconds. That is well below-average, a 30 runner on most scales, where 4.3 is considered an average (50) runner. Undrafted out of a California high school, he became a second-round pick of the Red Sox after three productive seasons at ASU.
MLB: Pedroia won a Gold Glove award in 2008, went 20-of-21 in stolen-base attempts and hit No. 2 in the order the whole year for the Red Sox. Pro scouts timed him consistently at 4.2-4.3 going to first and he will break up a double play as a matter of routine. Yes, he was the American League MVP.

4. Chris Young, cf, Arizona Diamondbacks
HS: Ran a 6.94 in the 60 as a rising senior, and his lack of blazing speed was a factor in his being selected in the 16th round of the draft by the Chicago White Sox.
MLB: Considered a pure center fielder with very good range, Young appears to be a perennial candidate for the 30-30 club despite playing for a non-running team. He just missed qualifying as a rookie in 2007, when he hit 27 homers and stole 32 bags. His play in center has pushed the exceptionally-fast Justin Upton to right field for the D’backs.

5. Ian Kinsler, 2b, Texas Rangers
(see above)

6. Troy Tulowitzki, ss, Colorado Rockies
HS: Ran a 7.25 in the 60 at the Team One West Showcase as a rising senior. Because of his arm strength and power potential, he was considered by most scouts to be a natural third-base conversion.
COLLEGE: Ran 4.2-4.3 home-to-first, which graded out as ‘solid average’. He played a strong shortstop at Long Beach State, but was still considered to be too big and too slow to stay there in the long term. Yet he was still drafted in the first round by the Rockies, after going undrafted out of high school.
MLB: Tulowitzki had a solid, though injury-plagued sophomore year, but was spectacular as a rookie in 2007, leading the Rockies to the World Series. Though he hit .291-24-99, it was his play in the field that made his season special. Tulowitzki not only stayed at shortstop, but showed good range and turned in a remarkable .987 fielding percentage.He didn’t win the Gold Glove (losing out to Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins), but there were many scouts who believed he deserved to, as well as the Rookie of the Year Award (he finished second to Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun).

7. Orlando Hudson, 2b, Arizona Diamondbacks (Free agent for 2009)
HS:
Ran a very average 6.9 in the 60 in 1995.
MLB: Hudson is most noted for his plus-plus range at second base, winning Gold Gloves in both 2006 and 2007. He has played for two non-running organizations (Toronto and Arizona), which has inhibited him from stealing more than 10 bags in a year.

8. David Wright, 3b, New York Mets
HS: Ran a 7.22 in the 60 in early 2000 and a 6.95 at the East Coast Professional Baseball Showcase the same year. He had played in numerous showcases already and there was no question he hustled, but it was thought that the times he did produce were deceivingly fast because of his experience running the 60 at events.
MLB: Wright is one of baseball’s best players with an all-around game that includes a speed element. In four full seasons, he’s stolen 17, 20, 34 and 15 bases and is a pest taking the extra base. Wright has also shown good feet at third base, winning the last two National League Gold Gloves at the position. He could easily play a good second base and probably shortstop, as well.

9. J.J. Hardy, ss, Milwaukee Brewers
HS: Ran a 7.17 in the 60 in 2000. Slugger Prince Fielder, a future Brewers teammate, ran the exact same time on the exact same field a year later! Scouts who saw Hardy never timed him less than 4.4 down the line during his senior season at an Arizona high school. “Doesn’t run well enough to play shortstop,” was a worn-out phrase in describing Hardy prior to his being drafted in the second round by the Brewers.
COLLEGE: Hardy is still not a demon on the base paths (career-high two SBs in 2008), but he’s played a solid defensive shortstop for the Brewers while developing into a perennial 25-homer threat. He has yet to play an inning at any other position.

10. Nick Punto, util, Minnesota Twins (Free agent for 2009)
JUNIOR COLLEGE/MINOR LEAGUES: Scouts who saw Punto early in his career swear he was a 40 runner from both sides of the plate. Being a little guy at 5-foot-9, it’s no wonder why the 40 runner with no power lasted until the 21st round in 1998 out of Saddleback (Calif.) JC.
MLB: Punto is a plus runner who steals bases (69 in his career), hits triples (19 in 1,857 ABs) and plays all over the field, including 61 games at shortstop in 2008. He’s mastered the small-ball, poke-and-run game as a switch-hitter.

CAN PLAYERS REALLY INCREASE THEIR SPEED?
You’ll never turn Red Sox slugger David Ortiz into Jamaican Olympic spring champion Usain Bolt, but yes, there is plenty of first-hand evidence that a player can improve his speed. It is my belief that some players simply become stronger and more coordinated at a later age. We do see high school players pick up tenths of a second from year-to-year, and it’s very likely that some continue to do so even into their 20s.

There’s also the difference between raw speed and baseball speed. Some players are simply faster when they’re chasing after a fly ball or hustling out a grounder. They’re inspired by game situations.

As far as home-to-first times, much of it depends on getting a good jump out of the box. A hitter who gets out very quickly might have as much as a 0.2-second advantage, which is the difference between a 50 grade (average) and a 30 (well below-average).

The 60-yard dash is especially tricky and its merits are debatable. Many (including myself) have questioned the relevance of knowing how fast a player runs 60 yards in a straight line when he never has to do so in a game. In addition, there are cheating tactics by players that can also lead to deceptive times.

WHAT’S THE MESSAGE TO YOUNG PLAYERS?
The bottom line of what all this says to players is you don’t give up on your running game. A 60-yard dash time isn’t necessarily a death sentence. The American League All-Star Game team would have included Kinsler, whether he ran a 7.11 or a 6.50 time in the 60 in high school. It became irrelevant.

Not only can a player’s speed improve, but it is possible to play the middle positions in the big leagues and do it well even with below-average speed. If your anticipation and your feet are honed to the crack of the bat, you will do just fine.

THE MESSAGE TO SCOUTS?
Scouts are advised to not just look at the stopwatch. Actually watch the kid run. It may lead you to ask several questions. What kind of stride does he have? What kind of body does he have? What kind of running technique does he have? Are his times slow simply because he doesn’t know how to get out of the box or pump his arms?

Most importantly, watch him play second, short and center field. Maybe he gets pretty good jumps and his feet work better going at angles than they do running in a straight line.

I sure would have liked to have been the scout who signed Kinsler in the 17th round, or Punto in the 21st. The big reason both lasted so deep into the draft was because they “couldn’t run,” and couldn’t “profile in the middle”. As the above list shows, we could have written off a lot of good big league players with such an instant dismissal. The scouts who signed the two players were able to look past that.

THIS YEAR’S SHORTSTOP CROP
Incidentally, the speed issue will come up frequently with this year’s shortstop class. It so happens that the five highest-rated shortstops by PG Crosschecker are average or below-average runners. Will every one of them move to another position via conventional wisdom? Or will they not only stay at shortstop but play it well and steal bases to boot? Here’s a quick look at the top five (the player’s national ranking is noted in parentheses).

1. Grant Green, ss, University of Southern California (PG-X rank: 5)
Ran a 6.81 in the 60 in 2005. He stands 6-2, 190, and very good feet and a plus arm makes him a shortstop prospect despite his size.

2. Robbie Shields, ss, Florida Southern College (PG-X rank: 23)
Ran a 7.1 in the 60 on scout day as a sophomore. Has a larger frame at 6-1, 200.

3. Ryan Jackson, ss, University of Miami (PG-X rank: 39)
An excellent college defender, but his 6-2 frame and well below-average home-to-first times (4.4-4.5) make him less than the prototype for scouts.

4. D.J. LeMahieu, ss, Louisiana State University (PG-X rank: 43)
At 6-4 and having run a 7.1 in the 60 in 2006, LeMahieu is the most likely of the five to move to third base. But he played very well at short as a college freshman and during the summer in the Cape Cod League. He is a draft-eligible sophomore in 2009.

5. Scooter Gennett, ss, Sarasota (Fla.) HS (PG-X rank: 64)
At 5-9, he has the right body-type to play shortstop, along with quick feet. His running times in the 60 are very average (7.0 at the East Coast Professional Baseball Showcase) and solid-average home-to-first (4.15).

Taking the scale literally, you have two average and three below-average runners among the five top-ranked shortstops in the 2009 draft class. Yet this is the cream of the crop for the most athletically-demanding position on the field; the best shortstops available in the draft. Having witnessed what I have over the years, I would expect someone from this group is going to become a faster runner as a major leaguer. And by then, his 60 yard-dash time at a showcase will be long forgotten.


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