If you are like me, then you enjoy reading scouting reports on prospects. It is fun to read about how a 3rd round draft pick has a 70 fastball and a 60 for command. Or the 4th round pick has a grading of 60 hit and 60 speed. One grading element that always make me chuckle is discussion of batspeed.
Scouts love to talk about how one hitter will hit for power because he has tremendous batspeed, or another prospect might not hit .275 because he lacks elite batspeed. The problem is, determining batspeed is very, very hard. It is nearly impossible to discern say an 85 mph swing-speed from an 80 mph swing speed with the naked eye. Think about it, how difficult would it be to say how hard a pitcher throws without a radar gun? Even if you use video (like me), measuring an object that is moving in three dimensions in two-dimensional video is problematic.
Even if you could measure batspeed, there is the question of where to measure it. Do we measure batspeed when the bat enters the hitting zone or at the end? Or in between? I hope you get the point. Talk of comparing hitters in terms of batspeed is more than likely inaccurate and at best misguided.
So what do we do? In my opinion, you grade swings on things that can be measured and compared: swing time and swing path. We will focus on swing time today.
Swing time is very important. It tells how fast a hitter can go from uncommitted to contact. A quicker swing time means a hitter can wait longer to swing, allowing him to see and judge the pitch longer. And it helps you catch up to big-time fastballs.
So how do we measure it? Simple. We start a timer when the player starts the swing - when the front heel drops - and stop the timer when contact is made. The requirement is the pitch is a fastball and the player did not make a timing adjustment.
Let's try it out. Below is a Brandon Moss. The timer starts when his front heel drops and stops when he makes contact. His swing time is 5 frames on a 30 frames-per-second camera, roughly .167 seconds.
How about Seth Smith. I made the GIF before he was traded, so I might as well get some use out of it.. Let's count his swing time . Again, we see 5 frames.
I like to shoot video at 60 fps to get better detail. We can still do the same counting, except when the heel drops we start at 2. We see the same thing with Cespedes - 10 frames or 5 at 30 fps.
How about John Jaso? Same thing. Five frames. Notice a pattern? If you were to look at a distribution of MLB players swing times it would heavily centered at .167 with a very small variance. That's why it is the first thing I do when I look at hitters' video. It is crucial that hitters have a certain swing quickness to hit at MLB level. Even for players whose swings I don't like (Moss), if they can come in at 5 frames they have a chance. A good chance.
There are exceptions. Below is Josh Donaldson. Notice by 10 on 60 fps, Donaldson has already made contact. His swing is quicker than the guys above.
Donaldson's swing time is flat-out elite folks. Cespedes showed some sub-5 frame swings in 2012, but I haven't seen any in 2013. Bryce Harper has some swings at 9 frames at 60 fps. Mike Trout is sub-5. But not many guys out there can do it. Some guys go past five frames, like Nate Freiman.
See by 5 frames he hasn't made contact. Not good. I have shown before how Kevin Kouzmanoff's swing time is a little slow. He is close to 5 frames, but not quite there.
Of course, these guys are lightning fast compared to the slowest swing time I have seen - Jeff Francoeur.
I once read that the Braves measured swing speeds of their players some years back and Francoeur's was the fastest (I tried my damndest but I couldn't find a link.) His problem isn't batspeed, it is swing time. IF Francoeur hits it, it goes a mile. Otherwise........ Having a plus-5 frames swing time means you better be really, really good at pitch recognition or you are going to have a hard go against MLB pitching.
As a side note, my dream is to become an organizational hitting coordinator or instructor so I can capture high speed video to measure swing times and help hitters improve. I think it is better feedback to show hitters actually improved their swing time instead of just saying "your swing looks better." Swing time can also be used to get valuable insight on potential draftees, so teams can take guys with elite swing times (Mike Trout) over guys who don't (Grant Green).
It seems crazy, but maybe swing analytics can factor into improving a ball team. I once saw a movie about how a baseball team used analytics to overcome having an outdated ballpark and low revenue. If it worked in Hollywood, maybe it can work in real life!
Until then, just keep in mind that batspeed doesn't paint the whole picture for hitters. And accordingly to at least one guy, swing time is more important.
Next week we return to the Offseason Homework Assignments. I will continue this series on another holiday when I feel like assignments are poor form. Maybe Groundhog Day.