Stealing First: Speed and Batting Average

Ed Zurga

It's often said that speed kills. In baseball, speed is most often appreciated on the basepaths and as a defender. But how much does speed help a hitter's batting average?

I recently was rereading through George Will's Men At Work: The Craft of Baseball for the umpteenth time. If you haven't read it, I recommend it. Even though it's 20 years old, it's still a fascinating look at the game. As I was saying, I was skimming through the book, and found this interesting quote...

Reggie Jackson, who can not be accused of under-emphasizing the importance of power, is mightily impressed by the sort of speed possessed by Vince Coleman. Jackson notes that in 1988, 34 of Coleman's 160 hits never left the infield — they were infield hits and hits on bunts. Take those away and Coleman would have hit .205 instead of .260. "So he ran .055 points. He's got to hit .200 and run .100 to bat .300."

Now, Coleman's speed is something that this game has rarely seen. That sort of speed can entirely alter a game. It allowed him to essentially "steal first" on infield hits that should have been outs several times over the course of a season. So, despite what Tim Raines says, maybe it is possible to steal first base, at least occasionally.

It got me wondering, what players in recent history have benefited the most from their speed in the realm of batting average. In addition, what would their numbers have been like had they been an average runner? And just for the fun of it, who would've benefited the most from being a bit quicker?

So to start looking at this, I gathered all the data on infield hits, bunt hits, etc. for qualified players since 2002 (The first year FanGraphs had all the data needed). From there, I calculated the year-by-year league averages (For the qualified players) of infield hit percentage and bunt hit percentage. Possibly the biggest surprise to me of this whole exercise was that the league average bunt hit percentage was consistently hovering around 30%.

Season Average BUH% Average IFH%
2002 33.5% 5.92%
2003 31.07% 5.99%
2004 30.89% 7.15%
2005 30.49% 5.86%
2006 29.08% 5.87%
2007 30.03% 5.93%
2008 35.19% 6.05%
2009 31.23% 6.34%
2010 32.11% 6.73%
2011 32.64% 6.91%
2012 36.07% 6.55%

At this point, all that was needed was to get the expected number of bunt and infield hits for each player assuming he was an average runner. This is just the rounded off infield hit/bunt league average times their number of opportunities for each scenario. Below are the top 25 individual player-seasons who benefited from their speed.

Season Player IF Hits Bunt Hits Exp IF Hits Exp Bunt Hits AVG Exp AVG Diff
2005 Willy Taveras 37 31 14 20 0.291 0.233 0.058
2009 Ichiro Suzuki 50 6 20 3 0.352 0.300 0.052
2010 Ichiro Suzuki 53 7 23 4 0.315 0.266 0.049
2008 Hunter Pence 40 0 15 0 0.269 0.227 0.042
2007 Luis Castillo 36 16 19 10 0.301 0.259 0.042
2004 Ichiro Suzuki 57 4 29 3 0.372 0.331 0.041
2002 Ichiro Suzuki 41 9 19 5 0.321 0.281 0.04
2007 Ichiro Suzuki 44 7 20 4 0.351 0.311 0.04
2004 Rocco Baldelli 33 6 16 4 0.280 0.243 0.037
2004 Luis Castillo 38 10 23 5 0.291 0.255 0.036
2003 Luis Castillo 37 10 18 8 0.314 0.279 0.035
2011 Peter Bourjos 23 17 11 12 0.271 0.237 0.034
2006 Ichiro Suzuki 41 1 18 1 0.322 0.289 0.033
2012 Norichika Aoki 34 8 17 8 0.288 0.256 0.032
2006 Luis Castillo 40 4 18 7 0.296 0.264 0.032
2008 Ichiro Suzuki 40 8 21 5 0.310 0.278 0.032
2005 Johnny Damon 35 2 15 2 0.316 0.284 0.032
2005 Scott Podsednik 24 17 13 12 0.290 0.258 0.032
2009 Michael Bourn 29 18 16 12 0.285 0.254 0.031
2008 Jason Bay 28 0 10 0 0.286 0.255 0.031
2011 Cameron Maybin 30 6 15 5 0.264 0.233 0.031
2010 Brett Gardner 26 7 13 6 0.277 0.247 0.03
2003 Carl Crawford 34 6 17 5 0.281 0.252 0.029
2009 Emilio Bonifacio 19 17 11 12 0.252 0.223 0.029
2004 Juan Pierre 38 24 24 19 0.326 0.298 0.028

Many expected names on that list. The only potential surprise could be Jason Bay's 2008 season. His 10 SB that year were the lowest of the players on the list. For other surprises from the top 50, try 2007 Jose Guillen and 2006 Jose Lopez (Both with 0.022 Diff and 5 SB). For reference sake, the league average Diff was -0.0002, explained by the rounding error involved in calculating Exp Avg.

Does this mean that Ichiro was really a .280 hitter all those great years? Of course not. It's just interesting to see how speed can really benefit a batting average. And now, just for fun, let's see the batters whose running hurt them the most. Or, "The guys who run like an ice truck."

Season Player IF Hits Bunt Hits Exp IF Hits Exp Bunt Hits AVG Exp AVG Diff
2004 A.J. Pierzynski 8 0 15 1 0.272 0.289 -0.017
2009 Yunel Escobar 8 1 15 3 0.299 0.316 -0.017
2011 Alex Avila 2 0 9 1 0.295 0.313 -0.018
2004 Lyle Overbay 4 0 14 0 0.301 0.318 -0.017
2010 Prince Fielder 3 0 13 0 0.261 0.279 -0.018
2008 David DeJesus 6 0 13 2 0.307 0.324 -0.017
2005 Aubrey Huff 4 0 14 0 0.261 0.278 -0.017
2007 Dmitri Young 2 0 10 0 0.320 0.337 -0.017
2004 Tino Martinez 3 0 11 0 0.262 0.279 -0.017
2004 Mike Piazza 3 0 11 0 0.266 0.284 -0.018
2003 Jason Varitek 3 0 9 2 0.273 0.290 -0.017
2007 Victor Martinez 2 0 12 0 0.301 0.319 -0.018
2010 Alberto Callaspo 7 0 16 1 0.265 0.283 -0.018
2012 Jeff Francoeur 2 1 13 0 0.235 0.253 -0.018
2003 Placido Polanco 9 0 14 4 0.289 0.307 -0.018
2009 Brian McCann 2 1 10 2 0.281 0.299 -0.018
2009 Yadier Molina 7 0 14 2 0.293 0.312 -0.019
2005 Sean Casey 5 0 15 0 0.312 0.331 -0.019
2009 Daniel Murphy 2 2 12 2 0.266 0.285 -0.019
2011 Paul Konerko 1 0 12 0 0.3 0.320 -0.02
2012 Adrian Gonzalez 2 0 15 0 0.299 0.320 -0.021
2004 Johnny Estrada 2 0 12 0 0.314 0.335 -0.021
2010 A.J. Pierzynski 6 0 14 3 0.270 0.293 -0.023
2008 Skip Schumaker 6 0 17 2 0.302 0.326 -0.024
2009 Andy LaRoche 3 0 14 2 0.258 0.282 -0.024

Lots of catchers and DH-types. No real surprises there either, though Placido Polanco did go 14 for 16 in SB attempts in his year. Other surprises in the bottom-50 include 2002 Orlando Cabrera (25 SB, -0.016 Diff) and 2003 Brian Roberts (23 SB, -0.015 Diff).

Now, some of these comparisons aren't entirely fair. I mean, David Ortiz wouldn't be expected to beat out many infield grounders because he's not built to do so. He's built for power. But this still can bring up interesting questions for players. What's going to happen to Jose Reyes (0.0048 Diff in 2012) as he ages? He probably won't beat out as many infield hits, and his average could potentially suffer.

Ichiro could be a potential example of this. You'll notice 7 of his 11 seasons in the dataset land in the top 25 of Diff. What were his two worst seasons for Diff? 2011 and 2012, when he posted Diffs of 0.0177 and 0.0127 with batting averages of .271 and .283. His Diffs still highly respectable compared to the rest of the league, but low by his lofty standards. And his batting averages were by far the two worst of his career. It's entirely possible that his Diff number will continue to creep toward 0 or worse as he ages, and think where the average could go if that happens.

This Diff measure could be used to look at a few different questions: Whether lefties really have an advantage coming out of the box on infield hits. How much a player's speed diminishes with age. It would probably be possible to regress age vs. Diff to try to predict a player's batting average as he ages. But for the moment, it's just meant to be an interesting look at who benefits the most from their speed.

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