Eli White is very fast. Don't believe me? Check out his Sprint Speed percentile ranking:
With an average sprint speed of 30.5 ft/sec, White ranks 3rd out of 557 qualified players on Baseball-Savant's Sprint Speed Leaderboard. But names on a leaderboard don't show speed. For that, we need to actually see him run.
It's the bottom of the 4th of a game in late June. White hits a dribbler to the pitcher, Chris Bassitt, and even with a great play on the ball, Bassitt is just late on the throw.
Even with the slight hesitation after hitting the ball, White still gets down the line at just a little over 4 seconds (4.15 seconds by my amateur timing). This is right in line with his average HP to 1st time.
For context, if Seattle Mariner Dylan Moore hit that, there's a good chance Bassitt's throw gets him. Moore isn't slow (28.4 ft/sec), but he's a full 2 ft/sec slower than White. The gap between White and Moore is the same gap between Moore and Travis d'Arnaud, who ranks in the 27th percentile in Sprint Speed.
But the thing is, Moore is actually a better baserunner than White. It’s not even all that close.
But why is this? To find out, we need to talk about the correlation between Sprint Speed and a stat called BsR.
BsR is FanGraphs stat for baserunning. It’s basically WAR for running. Stealing, taking extra bases, and avoiding double plays are all ways to increase your BsR. Conversely, getting thrown out on the basepaths and grounding into double plays hurt you.
The correlation should be straightforward, if you're fast, like Byron Buxton or Trea Turner, you should be a good baserunner. If you're slow, like Albert Pujols or Willians Austudillo, you should be a bad runner.
But if you look at BsR and sprint speed, it isn't a straight line:
This is a chart of everyone who had 10 sprint speed opportunities plotted against their BsR. As you can see, there are some outliers.
One reason for this is because BsR is a cumulative stat, while Sprint Speed is an average.
That's how you can have some really fast players, like Jose Siri (30.4 ft/sec) only accumulate 0.1 BSR. He only played in 21 games. (maybe see if you can make it BsR/game to properly account for this?)
But then you have some weirder ones.
White’s one of them. White only managed 0.2 BsR despite his blazing speed. Unlike Siri, however, White can’t blame it on short sample size: he played in 64 games—3 times the number of Siri.
The big culprit for White is caught steals. He stole 4 bases, but he got caught stealing 3 times. In baseball, a 57% success rate isn’t going to cut it (you want to be around 75% to make it worth it).
This is where Moore, the above-average speed player, runs laps around the elite-speed White. Moore stole 21 bases while only getting caught 5 times. This comes out to an 81% rate, well above the league overage rate of 76%. Because of this, Moore is a much more valuable baserunner than White (1.6 BsR to White's 0.2).
And if you're wondering just how beneficial it is to not get caught, let's look at Max Scherzer. Yes, the pitcher.
Baseball-Savant doesn't make pitchers' sprint speed public, but it's safe to assume a 37-year-old Scherzer isn't exactly peak Terrance Gore out there.
Yet, in 2018 and 2019 Scherzer posted BsRs better than White ever has (0.2 and 0.4). How did Scherzer do this? He stole three bases over those two seasons without getting caught. Let's watch the speed demon:
Not being held and getting a massive jump made this steal a guarantee. Scherzer knows the importance of not getting caught, and takes advantage of the situation.
White's not alone in struggling to learn the skills Scherzer has mastered. In fact, plenty of fast players underperforms their speed. Let's take a look at the ten fastest players in MLB by sprint speed.
All ten players have an average speed above 30.0 ft/sec. If you were to only look at this chart, you could assume that each one of these players is an above-average runner. After all, they're 3 ft/sec faster than league average.
But if you take a look at their BsR, you'll see another story.
Of the Top 10 fastest players, only Trea Turner and Byron Buxton rate as above average by BsR. Even if you include Jorge Mateo, who is at the cusp with 1.9 BsR in 89 games, that still only makes 30% of the fastest runners in the league as above-average baserunners.
That doesn't seem right.
Further, of the top 10 baserunners by BsR, only Fernando Tatis Jr. had a sprint speed above 29 ft/sec.
So how do you pull ahead of the pack in BsR while being 2 ft/sec slower than the fastest players in the league? There are a few ways.
Exhibit 1: Run Often and Don’t Get Caught
At 28.4 ft/sec, Starling Marte is fast, but no faster than Adolis García, whose BsR was -1.4. The difference between the two? García stole 16 bases but was caught 5 times. This puts his SB% at just the breakeven mark. Throw in 15 GIDPs and things are going to start hurting quickly.
What about Marte? He stole 47 bases and was only caught 5 times. His success rate was a whopping 90%! On top of that, he only grounded into 6 double plays all year. These two figures helped Marte accumulate an insane 12.3 BsR (rank in MLB?).
Exhibit 2: Hardly Run. Do It Incredibly Well
Chris Taylor is faster than Starling Marte by 0.4 ft/sec, but he stole 34 fewer bases. Despite this, he still ranked 9th in BsR with 6.5. His secret? Don’t get caught.
Taylor only got caught once all season. If Taylor was running, you weren’t going to catch him. At 93%, Taylor ran at a better clip than Marte, albeit far less frequently. Couple that with only 5 GIDPs all season and you have a BsR darling.
Exhibit 3: Run Sometimes. Avoid GIDPS
Ozzie Albies ranks right in line with Marte at 28.4 ft/sec. Albies stole more bases than Taylor but did it at a worse rate (20/24 for an 83% rate).
He was able to have a higher BsR than Taylor by avoiding the GIDP. Despite having 104 more plate appearances than Taylor, Albies actually grounded into one fewer double plays than Taylor (4 to Taylor’s 5).
By running occasionally at an above-average rate and essentially avoiding GIDPs, Albies managed an impressive 8.3 BsR, good for 3rd behind Marte and Tatis Jr.
So, what can players like Eli White do to avoid hurting their team on the basepaths?
Unfortunately, it seems to vary on the player. For White, the issue is clear: it’s the caught steals. To fix it, he either needs to stop running altogether or choose his spots more carefully (the latter being preferred in this writer's opinion).
For other players, the fix is a little more complex.
Jo Adell has been a basebummer (my term for runners who should be better than they are) for two straight seasons. Despite his elite sprint speed (29.9 ft/sec), his BsR was negative (-0.3) in 2021, and this was an improvement over 2020 (-1.6 BsR in just 38 games). Adell only attempted 3 steals (swiping 2 bags) last season, and only grounded into 3 double plays. Doesn’t sound too terrible, right?
The reason then for his negative BsR is likely short sample size. 67% success rate on steals isn’t good, but it’s not very telling when it’s only 3 attempts. If you were to expand the 3 GIDPs across a full season of plate appearances (roughly 600), he was only on track for 12 GIDPS.
Adell has never been a proficient base stealer, either. In the minors, the most swipes he ever had was 15 in 99 games in 2018.
It’s easy to say, “just get better at stealing,” but for a player like Adell (and maybe even White), the solution to improve their baserunning is to stop stealing unless they have almost complete certainty they can take the next base.
With their speed, they should rely on simply taking extra bases on balls in play (the one aspect of BsR we haven’t spent much time on).
That’s how players like Tony Kemp, a below-average runner by Sprint Speed (26.6) can become an above-average runner by BsR (3.8).
Lastly, while it's important to mention that fast baserunners aren't always elite baserunners, the inverse isn't necessarily true.
The slowest player with anything close to an above-average BsR is Wilmer Difo (24.6 ft/sec but a 1.4 BsR). The slowest player with a BsR above 2 is Paul Goldschmidt (26.2 ft/sec with a 2.3 BsR).
In baseball, it's easy to be fast and be a terrible baserunner, but it is very difficult to be slow and be a great baserunner.
While Sprint Speed won't tell you who runs the bases well, it can give you a good indication of who won't.