Last summer, we introduced Sprint Speed — the first time a direct measurement of a player’s running speed was available publicly. As expected, Byron Buxton and Billy Hamilton were at the top of the leaderboard, and a slew of designated hitters and catchers like Albert Pujols and Brian McCann were at the bottom. One of the nice things about the new metric was how closely it aligned with your expectations of who was fast and wasn’t.
One of the exceptions to that rule was the man sitting at No. 3 overall, just behind Buxton and Hamilton. It wasn’t Dee Gordon, Trea Turner or Lorenzo Cain. It was Bradley Zimmer, a rookie outfielder for Cleveland, and that one stood out. It’s not that he’s not fast; he stole 44 bases in 2015 and 38 more in ’16 in the Minor Leagues. It’s that he’s big. Listed at 6-foot-5, Zimmer is one of the tallest players in baseball. He’s also one of the fastest.
The fact that this was a surprise — that a speed demon doesn’t have to be the prototypical small slap hitter — made us think about whether big players are underrated, speed-wise, due to their size. Just look at Zimmer’s scouting reports, for example. In 2016, MLB Pipeline referred to “Zimmer’s above-average speed.” FanGraphs, in ’17, said only that he has “long, efficient strides,” and gave him a 60 run grade on the 20-80 scouting scale. Nowhere did you see “Buxton-esque.”
Just look at what Zimmer’s teammate Andrew Miller told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian in early July, after a pair of fantastic Zimmer catches.
“He’s so big compared to what we think of as the speedy guys,” Miller said. “Whether that’s just getting from home to first, beating out a ground ball, running in a gap, stealing a base, it’s a little bit confusing to the eyes. You’re used to seeing the little guys that are the speedsters.”
That’s exactly right. You don’t think of big guys as being fast, so let’s go ahead and change your mind about that right now. We have the listed heights of every Major Leaguer, and we now know the Sprint Speed of each Major Leaguer. Who are the fastest “tall” players, and are they thought of as being fast?
The average Major Leaguer in our sample is listed at 6-foot-1, and the average Sprint Speed is 27 feet per second. We’re not looking for players who are slightly above average, we’re looking for those who are well above average. The way we’ll define that is to find players who are at least 6-foot-4 and who have an average Sprint Speed of at least 28 feet per second.
As it turns out, that gives us 10 names, which is perfect. Here, ordered by Sprint Speed, are the 10 qualifying “fast, tall” players. You’ll never underestimate them again.
1. Zimmer, 6-foot-5, 29.9 feet per second
We just discussed Zimmer, of course, but it’s also worth pointing out that when he arrived in the Majors last summer, he was successful on 18 of 19 stolen-base attempts. The one time he did get caught, it was in his eighth Major League game, and it wasn’t even a traditional caught stealing. Reds pitcher Blake Wood caught Zimmer leaning, and he was eventually thrown out on a 1-5-4 pickoff.
That means that there’s still not a single catcher in the Majors who has thrown out Zimmer stealing. Yes, he’s that fast.
2. Aaron Altherr, 6-foot-5, 28.5 feet per second
In 805 Major League plate appearances, Altherr has stolen only 18 bases, and he hasn’t been a particularly notable defender. He did steal 20 or more bases in the Minors three times, but not since 2013, and he missed some time in ’17 with a right hamstring injury. Even still, the data shows that Altherr is both well above average overall and one of the fastest Phillies, too. The speed was there when he was younger, and it doesn’t appear he’s lost it at the highest level.
3. Hunter Pence, 6-foot-4, 28.5 feet per second
We learned right away that speed tends to peak young, so the inclusion of the 34-year-old Pence on this list somewhat stands out. Like Atherr, Pence dealt with left hamstring issues last year, but our limitation here is that we don’t have data prior to 2015. Was Pence faster when he was a younger player in Houston and Philadelphia? If so, he could have declined and yet still remain above average. We can’t say for sure. What we do know is that Pence’s Sprint Speed has remained relatively consistent in the three years of Statcast™, and he’s still above average.
4. Cody Bellinger, 6-foot-4, 28.4 feet per second
You don’t generally expect to see a slugging first baseman — Bellinger hit 39 homers and slugged .581 last year — on a list of speedy players, but then again, Bellinger isn’t your typical slugging first baseman. First of all, he’s still only 22 years old, so youth is on his side. Second of all, Bellinger is not strictly a first baseman. Though that’s where he will see the majority of his playing time, he started 40 games in the outfield corners and three more in center. Bellinger could easily spend the next few years as a plus defensive outfielder, if that’s how the Dodgers choose to play it.
5. Jake Marisnick, 6-foot-4, 28.4 feet per second
This one, at least, isn’t a surprise. Marisnick actually is considered to be fast — he’s a strong defensive outfielder, mainly in center — and he’s had three seasons of double-digit steals, despite never being a full-time player. His off-the-bench profile is all about speed and defense, regardless of his height.
6. Dexter Fowler, 6-foot-5, 28.2 feet per second
Like Marisnick, Fowler’s speed has been a big part of his game; last year was the first time in his career that he didn’t steal at least 10 bases. As he ages, however, there may be evidence that his speed is beginning to decline. In 2016, at 30 years old, Fowler’s Sprint Speed was 28.8 feet per second. Last year, that was down to 28.2 feet per second. It’s still above average, and very good for a big man. It’s just not going in the right direction, and Fowler has been moved from center to right field for ’18.
7. Kris Bryant, 6-foot-5, 28.2 feet per second
This one might be a surprise, because Bryant is a slugging third baseman, albeit one who has stolen 28 bases in three seasons. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be; not only has he just recently turned 26 years old, he’s played 108 games in the outfield over his three-season career, too. Back in college, one scouting report said Bryant’s speed was only a 30 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Maybe he’s improved. Maybe it’s difficult to imagine a big slugger can be fast. Whatever it is, it’s real.
8. Steven Souza Jr., 6-foot-4, 28.2 feet per second
It’s interesting how often we keep coming back to the “This guy is big and slugs, so you don’t think he is fast” idea, but perhaps that’s the story right there. Souza is a good outfielder (+9 in Outs Above Average, a strong mark), he stole 16 bases last year, and he stole 20 or more in the Minors four times. Back in 2014, one report indicated that Souza had “has only average speed.” It’s clearly hard to accept a big man can move this well.
9. Max Kepler, 6-foot-4, 28.2 feet per second
Kepler turns 25 this week, so he’s still young, but he’s rarely been a basestealer. He grabbed 19 in the Minors in 2015, but never more than seven in any other season. That said, Kepler is a good outfielder (+8 in OAA), and stolen bases are about more than just speed. He has struggled to get on base, which limits the chances he’s had. As we can see, the speed is there if he needs it.
10. Avisail Garcia, 6-foot-4, 28.2 feet per second
Finally, there’s Garcia, who is somehow only 26 despite being around in the Majors since 2012. Like several of the others here, he was able to steal bases in the Minors (20 in 2010, 23 in ’12), but he has never translated that into Major League success, with just 23 swipes in parts of six big league seasons. All the way back in ’12, MLB Pipeline accurately said that he had “20-20 potential in the future.” He hasn’t made it there yet, but he has the speed to make it happen.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.