In baseball, speed often separates pros from wannabes

SIDELINES

July 13, 1992|By Pat O'Malley

Speed.

Like it or not, it has become the main factor for success in athletics in the modern era, especially in the great game of baseball. There is no substitute for speed offensively and defensively.

We are seeing more and more speed in professional baseball and on the elite college baseball teams, young athletes who can put the ball in play and outrun the defense. Power is still very important, but speed has become more critical to success.

With the demand for speed increasing, studies on how to increase speed have appeared, and some are even useful.

Most college and major-league scouts today rate speed and hitting above power in importance for position players. It used to be that the outfielders on the corners -- right and left -- were rated on power first and speed last. Speed was the top priority for center fielders only.

No more. In the modern era, the emphasis is on speed, hitting and fielding. A lot of college and pro scouts search for guys who can fly and make contact because of AstroTurf fields that turn some games into pinball machine contests.

The Baltimore Orioles' No. 1 draft pick, outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds of Stanford, is noted for his exceptional speed. He signed over the weekend for $1 million, the largest bonus ever for a college player.

Kevin Gibbs of Davidsonville, the young outfielder from Washington's St. John's High, was the only Anne Arundel countian selected in the June Major League Baseball free agent draft. Gibbs was chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the late rounds. Why was Gibbs the only one?

Speed, that's why. Gibbs can hit and covers the 60-yard -- in 6.6 seconds, which is above average major-league standards.

Just look at the top players in the big show today, guys like center fielder Kirby Puckett of the defending World Champion Minnesota Twins, second baseman Roberto Alomar of the Toronto Blue Jays, outfielders Ken Griffey of the Seattle Mariners, Joe Carter of the Blue Jays, Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A's, Roberto Kelly of the New York Yankees and Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds of the Pittsburgh Pirates. All of those guys run well.

The two players having the best seasons for the amazingly improved hometown Orioles, All-Star Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux, are noted for their speed.

It is imperative that athletes improve their speed to progress to the higher levels such as high school, college and professional baseball.

But maybe you say that can't be done. Well, an athlete can improve his speed if he's willing to put in a lot of hard, boring work, which we will get to shortly.

Just remember, exceptional speed cannot be taught and is a natural God-given talent, but the average or below-average runner can improve his speed through diligence.

Speed by the radar gun is for pitchers and separates the contenders from the pretenders. High school, college and pro coaches and scouts are always searching for young kids who can throw in the 80s and above.

Those who can run the ball up there in the mid-80s and above usually go a long way in baseball, while others lacking the speed fall by the wayside. Pitchers who possess the arm speed don't have to worry about running speed.

It doesn't matter what a pitcher runs if he can throw gas, but the position-players must be able to run, and their speed is measured by the stopwatch. If a young player can't run below 7.0 seconds in the 60-yard --, his chances of advancing are slim.

The 6.9 to 7.0 time is considered average. Anything below that means a player has above-average speed. The times provide a universal standard derived from thousands of timings.

Any time a young player attends a pro baseball tryout camp, he will be asked to run the 60 while a scout triggers his stopwatch for a time. Usually the kids run in pairs to maximize the effort via a competitive race.

In game situations, scouts clock players from the time they make contact with the ball to the point when the runner's foot touches first base (90 feet).

Average times are 4.3 seconds for a right-handed hitter and 4.2 for a left-handed hitter.

Merely watching a player run without a stopwatch can be very deceiving, which explains why so much emphasis is put on getting actual times.

For instance, some little guys take many more steps to get to first than a tall, long-legged guy. That may give an illusion of being really quick. That type of little guy may appear to have good or better speed when he actually might be just a fair runner, because he takes more steps to get there.

The long-legged player might give the impression of being slower because of his long stride, but may actually be quicker than the little guy. To avoid the guesswork, the stopwatch becomes the scout's bible.

To lengthen your stride, the "Downhill Run" method devised by Joe Gardi and Frank Costello of the University of Maryland athletic department is highly recommended by the Baltimore Orioles.

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