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
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
Using Statcast data, we can answer this question!
segment 1.0 - reveal tracking samples
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.
segment 1.1 - morph samples to chart
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.
segment 1.2 - smoothing window
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.
segment 1.3 - all plays
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.
segment 1.4 - highlight one play
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.
segment 1.5 - highlight qualifying plays
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.
segment 1.6 - morph to averaged profile
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)
quickly they leave the batter’s box, 2) how fast they accelerate, and 3) what their
speed is. We characterize the key components of running as:
Key Step – Time to cover the first three feet towards first
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
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
momentum, the first 1.5 seconds give us a good idea of how quickly players are able to accelerate.
will see shortly, this is exactly where Jose Altuve shines.
Sprint Speed - Maximum amount of feet covered in a one-second
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.
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.
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
in the field. There are many plays in baseball that require burst as well as top speed and now with
we are able to identify the players who have the fastest burst!