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March 25, 2009

Speed and Power

Who's Got It and Who Doesn't

by Christina Kahrl

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Let's face it, the word "Moneyball" has been so overused-as a catchall for the game's great Satan, or as its foil to the hoary wisdom of "the book"-that it has almost lost its meaning. However, the book's core concept, searching for market inefficiencies to dig up something extra that gives you a leg up on the other guys running those other teams, still has import. Whether it's OBP in the Nineties, or pitch counts and defense in the Aughties, researchers have been doing new work to give us better valuations of players, and front offices have been similarly beavering away over that data and their own with an eye toward building better ballclubs. So, what's the next big thing?

Here's one gal's argument that it's going to be speed as an augmentation to always-popular power, meaning that we might be headed back to the exciting times of the '80s, when tactical diversity was the rule of the day, and teams were more aggressive in exploiting offensive talent because they understood that, when it comes to scoring runs, there's more than one way to skin that particular cat. It's worth remembering the age of Rickey Henderson-tasty combinations of the Billyball A's of 1980 and '81 or the Rickey and Donnie Baseball run-scoring machine of the '85 Yankees-and we should also remember the other teams that did their enemies in by using every available weapon. The '86 Mets had Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez, but Straw also swiped 28 bags as part of a crew of baserunners that included Wally Backman, Mookie Wilson, and Lenny Dykstra attacking the basepaths just as readily as that lineup dented fences from home plate. And how about the even more amazing power/speed combination that came with dropping Jack Clark onto the Whiteyball Cardinals to propel the Birds to a pennant in the high-octane outlier of the '87 season?

So, like the geniuses at Reese's figuring out what to do with milk chocolate and peanut butter, some things go together so well they make you want a second cup-in this case, two different flavors that represent equal doses of athleticism and skill. Power is something we can measure rather easily, because a double's a double, a triple's a triple, and a home run's instantly on the board, so whether you want to use simple slugging percentage or the equally straightforward Isolated Power (ISO), we know how to measure the ability of a player to create extra bases with the stroke of a bat.

What about speed, though? Stolen bases by themselves may have worked for something like Bill James' old-school Power/Speed Number back in the day, but we already have better valuations of base-running value, because this is an area where major statistical innovations have been taking place. At Baseball Prospectus, we've been at the front edge of the curve with the development of Equivalent Baserunning Runs by performance analyst Dan Fox. (As further proof of how many smart people there are inside the industry instead of on the outside looking in, Fox has since moved on to join the Pittsburgh Pirates as their Director of Baseball Systems Development as part of the Bucs' rebuilding effort.) In short, EqBRR is a metric to evaluate what additional run-scoring skills individual players and teams possess when it comes to stealing bases, advancing on outs, or taking that sometimes key extra base on a base hit.

When you consider last season's best players by EqBRR when it comes to helping to score extra runs with their blends of pure speed and on-base intelligence, the names shouldn't surprise you: Ichiro Suzuki was the game's best, giving the Mariners an additional 12.7 runs with with his fleet feet, while the Rockies' Willy Taveras led the senior circuit with 11.9 EqBRR. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Rays Dioner Navarro cost them 8.0 EqBRR, and Prince Fielder finished last in the NL with 7.1. When you look at that spread, we're talking about a 20-run swing from the best to worst. Using the stat-head's rule of thumb that 10 runs equals a win, that's a difference of two wins, which these days can be the difference between a wild-card bid or an early October tee time.

As we gear up for the 2009 season, it's interesting to posit whether teams that boast the best blend of power and speed will have an advantage over those who don't. Using Baseball Prospectus' Player Forecast Manager and the PECOTA-projected player performances in ISO and EqBRR, we can evaluate which teams are best equipped to deliver equal measures of these two offensive components. Using our projections for team-level EqBRR and park-relative ISO, we can get a quick sense of who's going to finish where in each category by normalizing the leagues-wide performance in the two categories, and then multiplying each team's normalized values together to get a combined measure of that team's relative balance of power and speed.

With that bit of throat-clearing aside, here are the top five and bottom five teams in terms of their projected balance in power and speed, with a reference to each team's projected lineup age weighted for playing time to see if youth-which we associate with speed-is a factor:

Team     EqBRR   ISO  NrmEqBRR  NrmISO  Mult    Age
Padres   -7.99  .143   -1.88    -1.08   2.04   29.6
Marlins   6.28  .170    1.64     1.10   1.80   26.7
Braves   -3.71  .143   -0.83    -1.06   0.88   28.1
Phillies  1.68  .172    0.50     1.26   0.64   31.6
Orioles   2.80  .165    0.78     0.69   0.54   29.0
ChiSox   -3.99  .172   -0.89     1.27  -1.13   29.3
Rockies  -5.04  .169   -1.15     1.05  -1.21   27.9
Angels    6.23  .146    1.63    -0.84  -1.36   29.4
Cards    -7.60  .170   -1.79     1.12  -2.00   28.4
Twins     5.22  .130    1.38    -2.10  -2.89   27.1

OK, that's more math than even I'm used to, but a tip of the cap to BP's Clay Davenport for generating the data. This might not seem to make much sense, because nobody thinks about the Padres as likely MLB leaders in anything besides losses this year, but because the Pads are terrible at hitting for power (which their park contributes to), and lack any real burners on the bases, we get the sadly amusing statistical oddity of San Diego boasting the most evenly bad blend of power and speed.

Getting past that freak show, though, when we look at the teams that rank much more positively in their Normalized EqBRR and ISO, we get the relatively unsurprising result that relatively young and/or athletic teams like the Marlins and Phillies, and an Orioles team that has Brian Roberts and an outfield stocked with men who can run, are the best power/speed blends that will give you thunder at home plate and excitement on the bases. The Fish and the Phils will be part of what should be an especially exciting year in the NL East, so it'll be fun to see if their multiplicity of offensive weapons gives them an edge over the Mets and the Braves.

The trailers are equally unsurprising, in that they're made up of teams that are weaker in one component or the other. In the NL, that means a Cardinals team that's sluggy on the basepaths and at the plate-Whiteyball's not just buried in St. Louis, it might take a team of archaeologists to dig up its bones. In the junior circuit, there's no surprise that we find both the Twins and the Angels, and their more speed-oriented, low-powered lineups. We've complained early and often about the Angels' need to replace Mark Teixeira, but it's worth remembering that one of the areas where the Twins could and should help themselves as well is by adding some power lest they come up short again in the AL Central.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Surprise Teams,  The Who,  Speed

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Aren't the Braves higher than the Phillies in the chart? Shouldn't it be:

The Fish and the Braves will be part of what should be an especially exciting year in the NL East, so it'll be fun to see if their multiplicity of offensive weapons gives them an edge over the Mets and the Phillies.

Mar 25, 2009 16:16 PM
rating: -1
Dave Pomerantz

Sliceshs, unless I'm reading this wrong, the Braves are in the same boat as the Padres - they've got negative normalized numbers for both power and speed. Which means they're bad at both.

Mar 25, 2009 16:53 PM
rating: 1

Bah, I apologize for reposting below what you already posted here. Looks like I need to refresh more frequently to ensure that I'm not being repetitive.

Mar 25, 2009 18:04 PM
rating: 0

Teams play the kind of game their personnel allow them to. You can't play the slugging game if you don't have sluggers, and you can't play the running game if you don't have fast guys. To pick one at random (Cardinals fan that I am...), it'll be interesting to see how the impending arrival of Colby Rasmus, and the possible eventual arrival of the even more toolsy Daryl Jones, affects the St. Louis placing a couple of years out. Of course, at the same time, ponderous Brett Wallace will move into a corner slot with thunder in his bat and lead in his large legs, so maybe there'll be no effect at all.

To me, an interesting question is whether there are big differences among the way teams' draft choices are selected to reflect the speed/power balance. Kevin G, got anything on that?

Mar 25, 2009 16:24 PM
rating: 1

forget speed/power balance, you want BOTH speed and power, right???

Mar 25, 2009 17:06 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff

Absolutely, ScottyB--mass quantities. The point of this exercise was just to see who's getting equal helpings of both, and right now, we're projecting the Marlins to be the team that get the best of both, and, for lack of a better way to say it, that the Padres get the dubious honor of being the most reliably bad at both. In that sense, it's better to be the Cardinals or White Sox, and at least have something going for you, slugging, personality, whatever.

Mar 25, 2009 17:18 PM

The Braves arehigher according to Christina's "Mult" value, which is the product of "NrmEqBRR" and "NrmISO," both negative values for the Braves. It, like the Padres' bad-positive value, is high on the chart because the Braves both run slowly and swing a light stick. "Mult" values will only be positive and high if teams are both very good at running and slugging or very bad at running and slugging.

Mar 25, 2009 18:03 PM
rating: 0

"Getting past that freak show, though" made my day!

Mar 25, 2009 18:24 PM
rating: 0

Gosh, I don't know -- I've got a queasy feeling deep in my bones that I'm about to say something really stupid.


If you're going to multiply the normalized values for speed and power, wouldn't you be better off normalizing them to 1 rather than to 0? You'd then be working with all positive values, with greater than 1 being better than normal.

That way the product of the two normalized values would show which teams have the better combination of both speed and power -- the greater the product, the better the combination.

Alternatively, if you normalize to 0 (as it looks like you did here), then the absolute value of the difference between the two normalized values would be a better indicator of the balance/discrepancy between a team's speed and power. A bigger difference would indicate a greater discrepancy; and a smaller difference would indicate a greater balance (regardless of whether the team's speed and power are both good, both bad or both kinda "eh").

(My niece is soon to graduate from Belmont College with a degree in Mathematics -- I'm hoping I osmosed enough from her during her recent visit. My apologies if it turns out that I still "just don't get it".)

Mar 26, 2009 08:26 AM
rating: 1
Richard Bergstrom

A quibble...

Players who have (or have potential) for power and speed tend to be highly valued, so finding market inefficiencies in that area is harder. However, even ISO might not tell a complete story since it gives a lot of value to home runs, and triples can be a function of luck. Maybe instead of HR and SB, it would be more insightful to look at 2B and EQBRR. This would even be more important for younger players, who would not have "old player" skills and may see some of those doubles turn into home runs. This might be a good strategy for the Rule 5 Draft in identifying minor league vets who are a bit better than your average "tweener".

Mar 26, 2009 09:40 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff

It's quibbly, but an interesting point. For me, I hate making a value judgment on an extra-base hit--while I was certainly amazed and amused on a fine day in old Comiskey Park when Danny Pasqua ripped an improbable triple, it's still an extra-base hit, and of the type that might, more generally, be credited as a component of speed. We might as well segregate out certain elements of advancing on the bases due to shoddy defense from EqBRR, and after skinning that many cats, I'm not sure it's worth building a whole new coat out of what you've gotten out of the exercise.

Mar 26, 2009 10:12 AM
Richard Bergstrom

Perhaps then, instead of looking at extra bases per-se, some combination of the line drive and fly ball rates and the hit tracker can be used to come up with some way to measure power. Maybe this can be done by measuring the average distance the ball travels when a player hits it.

Mar 26, 2009 12:58 PM
rating: 0

I see this article from the demented perspective of a Reds fan, which is to say it's a veiled tribute to Eric Davis!

Mar 26, 2009 10:50 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff

Like Salome at the end of a long night at the office, veiled no longer, then. ;)

Mar 26, 2009 11:49 AM

"sluggy on the basepaths and at the plate" - love it.

Mar 26, 2009 13:37 PM
rating: 0
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