Do Speedy Players have Loftier Career Arcs?

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and what about walk rates?

Someone asked in the Scoresheet baseball forum mcscoresheet whether they should keep Derek Jeter or Carl Crawford. The shortstop Jeter is coming off a vintage season of a .900 OB+Slg. Crawford merely a leftfielder hit .830 last year. Brian Fawcett responded, “Isn’t this really a trick question to discover whether the person answering is a Roto player?” alluding to Crawford’s 58 stolen bases which would indeed be valuable to a Rotisserie team, but not coming close to making up the 70 point O+S difference and the position scarcity difference in Scoresheet – or even real baseball. Yet, I looked at Jeter’s age – nearly 33 a time when most middle infielders are in a slow decline not long before a sharp decline, then Crawford’s age – 25 room still for some significant improvement. Noting Crawford’s incredible speed and the adage that speedy players develop power later and last longer than slower players, I thought the choice between them isn’t so easy.


Do speedy players eventually outperform their slower colleagues of the same age and overall ability?


Do they peak later or progress further? That is part of a premise I recall reading from Bill James a couple decades ago. A top notch producer of baseball player projections Ken Warren doesn’t buy this theory. He sees speed as a skill unrelated to the development of other skills such as power, contact rate, and strike zone command. Speed, in fact, is the skill which peaks at the earliest of these major hitting skills, therefore, if a player compared to others of the same age and overall ability derived more of his value from speed, he would have the less progress after the peak age of speed - 24. Of course, we can all name speedy no hit wonders who faded from the major leagues before they reached 30.


There is a logical leap here, though, I’m not prepared to make. There are also many examples of very speedy players who had their best years well into their 30s. As Mitchel Lichtman co-author of The Book – Playing the Percentages in Baseball retorted to Ken in the this article "Projections Roundtable" from the Hardball Times in 2006:


Just because speed peaks early  . . . does not mean that players with speed . . . will “fizzle out” early. For whatever reason, players with speed . . . may retain all of their skills better as they age than players who are not fast.


If having speed has no effect on the other skills, then Ken’s progress structure would make sense. His hitting projections have been shown to be among the most accurate, so, perhaps, he’s right. However, perhaps, they could be better.


The rationale behind James and others who say speed does have a relation to the other skills is that as we lose speed, we are also losing quickness. Hitters get some of their power and their ability to make contact with their quickness. If a player is extremely quick to begin with, then when they begin to lose it, they still have enough left to hit a major league pitch, while when the slower guys lose it, they cannot catch up to a major league pitch.


I cannot find that Bill James article, but I did find this one by Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus. Silver’s 2003 study takes all of the post war hitters who had Isolated Power of 75% [percentile?] or better through the age of 24 with at least 300 at bats. He then splits this into a fast group with 75% speed or better and a slow group with 25% speed or worse, throwing out all the hitters in-between. Then he does several comparisons and graphs of these two groups. The fast guys seem to break away from the slow guys in their mid 20s, then the slow guys rapidly catch up, before gradually splitting apart again with the faster players having ever more productive careers starting from the age of 29.


My qualm with this study is that the two groups are not the same in overall ability. They may have similar ages and power, but speed is an asset in baseball that is a very good thing both offensively and defensively. You would expect that teams would give more playing time and more chances to speedier ball players than to slow ones who are otherwise the same. Arguably, though, collectively any group of players given 300 major league at bats through age 24 are as valuable as any other group of major leaguers with 300 at bats through age 24. Speed or not, they wouldn’t have been given such a chance if they weren’t worthy of it. Hence, you would expect the average speedy player in this group to have less power than the average slow player of equal overall value. So, if you have the same baseline for power (75%), you are excluding the less valuable of the speedsters from the desired subset of players with equal overall ability.


Subject to more rigorous testing, my conclusion is that if speed is the only skill a player has of solid major ability, he will disappear fast. If he has ample talent in the other skills, then those skills will probably last longer and develop to some degree further. How much longer, how much further, and how much of which skill you need for all of this to happen is still out there for us to figure out.


What about high walks rates?


One decade ago the weekly fantasy baseball must-have was Baseball Weekly (now Sports Weekly, I think). They made their own prospect lists with in depth articles. One mantra they often repeated was that players with high walk rates – or, at least, high BB:K rates are more apt to improve than those who didn’t. This seems to be generally agreed upon by baseball experts, now, but I haven’t seen any hard evidence of this. I made a two part study on “Young Stars and their Improvements” and a quick check finds no such correlation among Major League 22 year olds. You can look at the data yourself, but the articles need to be downloaded from the Scoresheetwiz Analysis page. If anyone knows of a more serious study on this, please, share it on scoresheet-talk or mcscoresheet.

John Carter