Run Slowly And Carry A Big Bat

I suppose I have always known that Bengie Molina was slow.

Being a fan in an American League city, and one with a slavish dedication to watching playoff baseball, I’ve been familiar with Molina for some time, thanks to his fine work as catcher for the Los Angeles Angels. Certainly, I have always known that his speed left more than a little to be desired. OK, he’s molasses slow.

But this slow?

Last week, I saw two things happen that I still can’t quite believe from my favorite team’s new catcher. I saw Russ Adams make a very good sacrifice bunt with Bengie running on the play, only to have Scott Kazmir field the ball near the third base line and throw Molina out at third … by ten feet. Two innings later, Molina had hit a long, skipping liner down the right field line that got by the slow-moving Russell Branyan into the corner—a great triple opportunity for most players—only to see Molina thrown out at second base (at least, he would have been thrown out if fill-in shortstop Tomas Perez hadn’t dropped the ball on the tag). Robert Dudek timed Molina’s double, home to second, at 9.7 seconds, which is positively glacial.

The most disturbing thing about the bunt play was pointed out to me later by a friend who asked if I’d seen Molina’s body shaking during the slow-motion replay of his run to third. I laughed and said that I had; whereupon he pointed out that that replay was not in slow-motion.

Bengie Molina fields a bunt by Tampa Bay speed demon Joey Gathright – “The Tortoise and the Hare”

Is Bengie the slowest player in the majors? Maybe, but there are other candidates for sure. Ask any fan and, depending on the team he roots for, you’re liable to get a different answer. Larry Mahnken then proved me wrong by suggesting Molina immediately. Twins fan Aaron Gleeman suggests Matthew LeCroy (and Molina); Robert Dudek suggests David Ortiz and Frank Thomas (and Molina); Brian Borawski suggested Thomas as well.

I decided to do some statistical analysis of the slowest active players in baseball, using both career statistics and 2006 statistics, and with Tangotiger’s 2005 Scouting Report By The Fans, For The Fans as a guide. I used a version of Bill James’s “Speed Scores” for the analytical work; a future version will incorporate THT’s own Incremental Baserunning Runs as an element of the speed score, but for now I looked at stolen base percentage, stolen base attempts, triples, runs scored per time on base, and double plays grounded into. Speed scores work by rating each component on a statistical scale from 0 to 10; the top four scores are then averaged to produce an overall score. E-mail me if you want the full details of the calculations.

Surprisingly, Bengie Molina isn’t the slowest player in baseball, as best as I can figure. For now, you’ll have to wait for who that is. Let’s take a look at some of the data:

10 Lowest Speed Scores, 2005 (100+AB)     10 Lowest Speed Scores, 2005 (350+ AB)

1  Geronimo Gil, BAL        0.3           1  Toby Hall, TB            1.4
2  Todd Greene, COL         0.3           2  Scott Hatteberg, OAK     1.4
3  Mike Jacobs, NYM         1.1           3  David Bell, PHI          1.7
4  Matt Treanor, FLA        1.3           4  Jason Phillips, NYM      1.7
5  Toby Hall, TB            1.4           5  Johnny Estrada, ATL      1.7
6  Gary Bennett, WAS        1.4           6  Jason LaRue, CIN         1.7
7  Mike Redmond, MIN        1.4           7  Daryle Ward, PIT         1.8
8  Scott Hatteberg, OAK     1.4           8  Adam LaRoche, ATL        1.9
9  John Olerud, BOS         1.4           9  Sammy Sosa, BAL          2.0
10 Henry Blanco, CHI        1.4           10 Bengie Molina, ANA       2.0

Geronimo Gil of the Orioles and Todd Greene of the Rockies beat everyone by miles in the competition in 2005, but both were backups who didn’t play much. As speed score lists often are, this list is dominated by catchers or ex-catchers, with a few first basemen or designated hitters. Sammy Sosa represents a rare outfielder to make such a list.

These speed scores correlate quite well with the collected impressions of the fans that were catalogued by Tangotiger in his 2005 Scouting Report. Almost all of these players scored under 20. Mike Redmond did surprisingly well with Twins fans, scoring a 33 for speed (Tangotiger’s scores are out of 100 instead of the more typical 20-80 scale used by scouts) and Gary Bennett a 31. Interestingly, the group with more at-bats did worse generally, perhaps indicating that fans have more confidence that a player is really slow if they see him in the lineup every day.

Lowest Scores for "Speed", 2005 Scouting Report

   Player                "Speed"   2005 Speed Score
1  Matthew LeCroy, MIN       6           1.5
2  Charles Johnson, COL      6      (Not In Study)
3  Matt Stairs, KC           9           3.3
4  Jason Phillips, NYM      10           1.7
5  Bengie Molina, ANA       11           2.0
6  Phil Nevin, SD           11           4.3
7  Sean Casey, CIN          12           2.5
8  Daryle Ward, PIT         12           1.9
9  Paul Konerko, CWS        12           3.0
10 Todd Greene, COL         12           0.3

One-year speed scores, though, are subject to a large number of distorting effects, especially batting order position, manager preferences, and park factors, as well as sample size issues. In order to get a true sense of who the slowest players were, I thought it made more sense to examine career speed score numbers. All players weren’t examined here; just the very slowest in the 2005 database and in the 2005 Scouting Report, and players under 1000 career at-bats were not reviewed except for Gil.

Lowest Career Speed Scores (Active)    Lowest Career Speed Scores (Non-Catchers)

1  Johnny Estrada      1.4             1  John Olerud         2.5
2  Jason Phillips      1.5             2  Scott Hatteberg     2.6
3  Geronimo Gil        1.9             3  Daryle Ward         2.6
4  Bengie Molina       2.0             4  Tony Clark          2.6
5  Mike Redmond        2.1             5  Paul Konerko        2.7
6  Damian Miller       2.1             6  Aramis Ramirez      2.7
7  Matthew LeCroy      2.1             7  Olmedo Saenz        3.0
8  Charles Johnson     2.1             8  Kevin Millar        3.3
9  Toby Hall           2.2             9  Doug Mientkiewicz   3.3
10 Victor Martinez     2.3             10 Frank Thomas        3.3

Yes, the 10 slowest career speed score numbers I found were all catchers.

All things considered, this project has made me realize that what a Fans’ Scouting Database project could really use is stopwatch times on players. I think I had better start bringing my stopwatch to the park. In the final analysis, I think, I can’t anoint Bengie Molina as baseball’s slowest player. That honor, pending objective timing data, will have to go to the only man to beat Molina on every list here. He doesn’t have a cool speed-related nickname like John “Flash” John Flaherty, but we can work on that (suggestions?), and he is Bengie’s teammate:

J… A… S… O… N… SPACEBAR… P… H… I……..

Congratulations, Jason Phillips! You are now the interim titleholder of Baseball’s Slowest Player.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Comments and suggestions are welcome. I’d love to hear your Slowest Player nominations too, or even better your stopwatch times for games you attend … e-mail me if you want to participate and need to know how the scouts do it.

References & Resources
Photography by Aaron Reynolds. Thanks to Batter’s Box writer “Pistol” for the “Tortoise and the Hare” tagline.

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