Commentary

Coaches from national power programs give their thoughts on speed as one of the five tools

Originally Published: October 15, 2010
By Victoria Sun | Special to ESPNHS.com

Baseball detractors have long criticized the game's slow pace.

But baseball's perceived lack of excitement is unwarranted.

"Speed has a tremendous effect on the game," says University of Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido. "In truth, the results are about speed.

"Baseball is a deceptive game because it doesn't appear that way but it is that way."

Speed, specifically how fast a player can get on base or run down a ball on defense, is one of the five tools used to measure a player's ability.

When Garrido, who has five national championships, was the head coach at Cal State Fullerton in the late 1970s, Jesse Flores, a scout for the Minnesota Twins, taught him a simple exercise to help players improve their speed. During warmups before practice, each player would consciously try to keep their bodies moving forward and lengthen their stride over 40 yards. Players would count the steps it initially took for them to reach the distance, and then lengthened their strides to lessen the amount of steps.

"You didn't run hard. It was about body alignment, efficiency, balance and rhythm and proper techniques. You wanted to keep everything going straight ahead. Some of our players took as much as 4/10 of a second off their 60-yard dash.

Garrido said running speed is probably the easiest area for a high school, junior college or college coach to make the greatest impact to help a player improve for the Major League Baseball scouting bureau.

LSU associate head coach David Grewe calls speed a critical factor.

"That's definitely one of the tools I highly focus on. If a guy can run, he's a great athlete. That's the No. 1 overall factor. Does he perform and is he an athlete?"

While many MLB scouts and college coaches consider a player's 60-yard dash time as a foolproof indicator of speed, Grewe disagrees.

"I don't care one iota about the 60," Grewe said. "You can have a kid that starts out slow and 40 yards or 50 or 60 yards down he picks up speed because he has long strides.

Grewe and UCLA head coach John Savage agreed that the 60-time is a good indicator of how fast a guy is, but not the only one.

"If we get into that 6.5-6.9 range we know he's a good, solid runner and then we have to see how that relates to his game," Savage said. "Sometimes big swings will slow runners down, then there will be swings that enable players to get out of the box and have good times."

To cut down on base running errors, LSU coaches work with players on base-running every day in practice.

Though speed is obvious when watching runners try to beat out throws or when trying to steal a bag, it is sometimes more subtle but equally important on defense. Outfielders must be quick enough to track down balls and position infielders must be quick to react.

"I think defense is undervalued a lot of times in terms of going to get the ball in the outfield and the range of players in the infield," Savage said. "It just helps when you have guys who can move forward and laterally quickly."

Savage noted the way speed affects the game by putting pressure on the opposition. The Bruins ranked 29th in the nation in total stolen bases and second in the Pac-10. UCLA reached the College World Series Championships Series for the first time in history this year and finished with a school record 51 wins.

"We want good percentages in terms of stolen bases," Savage said. "The percentages of a guy scoring if a guy gets to second are higher than if a guy is at first base. So speed and stealing have a lot to do with putting pressure on the starting pitcher.

When evaluating prospective players, speed or lack thereof will cause Savage to take a chance on a recruit or not. Depending on what position he plays, speed may mean the difference between a player getting a scholarship or being overlooked.

"If a guy can hit, the hitting will usually overrule the speed factor," Savage said. "But if a guy can't hit and he's an average tool guy, then speed is going to be the determining factor. You may pass on a guy because you don't project him to be able to move at the pace you want him to on offense or defense."