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A Story of Sprint Speed and Burst

How is José Altuve able to keep up with elite speedsters?

In Game 1 of the 2017 ALCS, José Altuve stepped to the plate against Masahiro Tanaka. It had been an incredible year for Altuve up to that point, with his .346 batting average the best in the majors, and his 24 home runs tying a career high. One of Altuve’s most dangerous weapons is his ability to get on base via ground balls (0.354) as he ranked sixth among all qualified hitters in batting average on ground balls in 2017 (min. 100 ground balls).
Batting Average on Ground Balls Leaderboard
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On the second pitch of his at-bat against Tanaka, Altuve grounded the ball up the box and he was off to the races. Altuve got down the line in a blazing 3.8 seconds to beat the throw from Starlin Castro. He then used his speed to steal second, and came around to score on a Carlos Correa single to give the Astros an early lead in the game that the eventual World Champions would go on to win 2-1.

It was just one example of Altuve using his speed to change the game in 2017. His sprint speed in 2017, however, was an above average but not elite 28.4 feet per second. How is it possible that Altuve can use his speed so well on the basepaths, but doesn’t rank at the top of the sprint speed leaderboard?

Using Statcast data, we can answer this question!

Statcast Data

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To start, we will evaluate how MLB players run to first base. We will focus on right-handed hitters looking to beat out a throw to first base.
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Using Statcast, we’ve calculated Altuve’s instantaneous speed for every tenth of a second along his path to first base. The play in question is a ground ball to first in the 8th inning of a game against Kansas City on 4/8/2017.
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Feet per second is shown on the y-axis and time is represented on the x-axis. Sprint speed is defined as the maximum distance covered in any one-second window in any given play. Sprint speed measures sustained speed over a full second, ensuring that runners are able to maintain their speed for about seven full-effort strides. We can see here that Altuve reaches 25 feet per second around 2.5 seconds into the run, and then reaches his maximum sprint speed of 29.3 as he nears first base.
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Of course Altuve doesn’t always use his speed in the same way. Here is a chart of all of Altuve’s runs to first base in 2017.
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Highlighted is a play from 4/21/2017 against the Tampa Bay Rays where Altuve hits a ground ball directly back to the pitcher. After Altuve decided against exerting maximum effort, it took him 7 seconds to reach first, reaching a top sprint speed of only 16.8 feet per second.
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Sprint speed is calculated by taking the best two-thirds of runs to first base in order to isolate plays where we can reasonably assume a player was giving maximum effort.
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After taking an average of the sprint speed across these plays and including his speed on two-base runs, we arrive at Altuve’s average sprint speed of 28.4 feet per second.


To explain why Altuve gets to first base at such an elite clip, we will need to introduce some new terms.

Components of Speed

Sprint speed is just one component of a player’s running profile. We are primarily interested in 1) how quickly they leave the batter’s box, 2) how fast they accelerate, and 3) what their peak speed is. We characterize the key components of running as:
Key Step – Time to cover the first three feet towards first base after contact. This can be thought of as the time it takes to leave the box for the hitter after completing their swing. As one might imagine, Ichiro Suzuki had the fastest “Key Step” in the majors in 2017.
Burst - Amount of feet covered in first 1.5 seconds after the key step. After having established that the player has finished their swing and established forward momentum, the first 1.5 seconds give us a good idea of how quickly players are able to accelerate. As we will see shortly, this is exactly where Jose Altuve shines.
Sprint Speed - Maximum amount of feet covered in a one-second window.

Run Comparison

To demonstrate how these statistics work we can compare how Jose Altuve and Trea Turner, the fifth-fastest player according to Sprint Speed in 2017, progress towards first base on a typical run.

Key Points…
After the first 0.7 seconds both Altuve and Turner have finished their key step and progressed three feet towards first base. Ichiro Suzuki and Norichika Aoki were tied for the quickest average key step times at 0.5 seconds in 2017.
Burst is the first 1.5 seconds after the key step, and at this point we see where Altuve is able to keep up with the top runners in the game. Whereas Altuve’s sprint speed only ranked 115th in 2017, he ranks 30th on the burst leaderboard, covering an average of 31.7 feet. Turner covers an average of 31.9 feet, ranking 18th in burst and 4th in sprint speed. The leader in burst in 2017 was Jarrod Dyson.
On average Jose Altuve reaches first base in an average time of 4.1 seconds, a tenth of a second behind Trea Turner. While Altuve’s jump is elite, Turner used his superior top speed to gain a slight advantage.

Conclusion:

Sprint speed is a statistic that helps us contextualize speed in baseball. But as we’ve seen, it doesn’t tell the full story. Players like Altuve use their burst to great effect not just on the basepaths but also in the field. There are many plays in baseball that require burst as well as top speed and now with Statcast we are able to identify the players who have the fastest burst!

Burst Leaderboards will be coming soon!