Does speed force errors?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It's a well-known baseball saying that speed puts pressure on a defense. Is there any truth to this cliche or is it meritless?

Speed forces defensive errors. At least that's what many baseball people would have you believe. Errors have been part of baseball history since the trio of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance was immortalized in poetry in 1910 (they only made 78 errors that year). We don't talk too much about errors anymore, mostly because we realize that other defensive metrics do a much better job of capturing defensive ability. Practically, there's no difference between getting to a ball and flubbing it and never getting there in the first place. Errors can penalize rangier fielders who have more opportunities to make plays, and therefore, errors.

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Still, errors occur, and some wOBA formulas, including this one, include them. The thinking goes that batters who are fleet of foot can force more defensive errors, which gives them an advantage which is not captured in the traditional BA/OBP/SLG slash line. Every baseball fan has seen Ichiro Suzuki fly down the line and reach base after a defender makes the slightest of bobbles. Conversely, what fan hasn't had their hopes raised after seeing the opposing team's fielder kick a grounder around only to have them dashed at the realization that Jose Molina or David Ortiz is plodding down the line?

Clearly, speed plays a factor in some defensive errors, our eyes can tell us that much. But, how much of an effect does speed have on forcing defensive errors overall?

Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoki reached base via error 14 times in 2013, the most in the major leagues. Aoki is pretty speedy, and his left-handed swing allows him to get out the box fairly quickly. But, he also had 674 plate appearances, over 550 of which resulted in a ball in play, due to his extremely low 5.9 percent strikeout rate. Furthermore, he hit 328 ground balls, the most in the majors by a wide margin.

To get a better look at the effect speed has on forcing defensive errors, I restricted the errors to ground ball errors, since a batter's speed doesn't have any effect on a fielder misplaying a fly ball or line drive. Also, I took into account the number of times the batter put the ball on the ground. The final product measures the percentage of a hitter's ground balls which resulted in a defensive error. I limited the list to players who reached base at least eight times via error in 2013, and at least 30 times between 2008-13.

2013 ROE% 2008-13 ROE%
A.J. Ellis 7.1 Jason Bay 6.0
John Mayberry 7.1 Marlon Byrd 4.8
Brandon Barnes 6.0 Corey Hart 4.8
Ian Kinsler 6.0 Freddy Sanchez 4.6
Mike Trout 5.8 Vernon Wells 4.3
John Buck 5.6 Ian Kinsler 4.2
Andrelton Simmons 5.6 Matt Kemp 4.2
Vernon Wells 5.4 Jose Bautista 4.2
Marlon Byrd 5.2 Rickie Weeks 4.1
Domonic Brown 4.7 Nelson Cruz 4.1
Mark Trumbo 4.5 Michael Cuddyer 4.0
Austin Jackson 4.5 Johnny Damon 4.0
Carlos Santana 4.4 Jose Lopez 3.8
Norichika Aoki 4.3 Omar Infante 3.7
Dustin Pedroia 4.2 Jayson Werth 3.7
Howie Kendrick 4.0 Stephen Drew 3.7
Robinson Cano 3.9 Carlos Lee 3.5
Starlin Castro 3.7 David Wright 3.4
Chris Denorfia 3.7 Mark Teixeira 3.4

So there you have it. There are some speedy guys on the lists, but there also plenty of plodders. Trout is up there, but so is John Buck. Kinsler is high on the 2008-13 list, but Cruz is just behind them, and the moving refrigerator that is Carlos Lee ranked ahead of Elvis Andrus. On balance, there doesn't appear to be much of a connection between speed and reaching on error. If anything, there seems to be more of a connection with right-handed pull hitters. Note that Damon and Drew are the only left-handed batters from the 2008-13 list, and Teixeira is a switch-hitter.

Of course, there could be some bias with the official scorers, who may be more inclined to give a hit to a speedy batter following a misplay by a fielder. If you want to look at a nice case study of the times Aoki reached base via error in 2013, there are plenty of illustrative GIFs in this Jeff Sullivan article.

In the end then, the saying that "speed forces errors" is true, but only to a limited extent. It's just one factor in causing defensive errors, and a small one at that. Other variables, such as a batter's propensity to put the ball into play, the speed of the batted ball, the inclinations of the official scorekeeper, and plain old luck of the draw cause far more fielding errors than the batter's speed.

. . .

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and BaseballSavant

Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

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