Burning up the bases: Baseball's fastest runners

Burns leads baseball with 3.85-second average time to first

February 22nd, 2016

Think about baseball's fastest runners out of the box, motoring from home to first. You're probably thinking immediately of Billy Hamilton, who has a job in the bigs almost entirely due to his breathtaking speed. Maybe you're thinking of Dee Gordon, who became the first player to lead the National League in batting average and steals since Jackie Robinson in 1949.
Both would be excellent choices, and both rank in the top three, as MLB.com continues with a look at 2016's best teams and players in our favorite Statcast™ metrics. But neither one is atop the list. No, our fastest home-to-first player was a 32nd-round pick in 2011 who was later traded for one season of 4.87 ERA ball from lefty reliever Jerry Blevins. Meet Oakland's Billy Burns, king of out-of-the-box speed in 2015.
Best home-to-first averages on "competitive plays" (minimum 3 qualified plays)
1. Burns, LH, 3.85 seconds
2. Gordon, LH, 3.91 seconds
3. Hamilton, LH, 3.95 seconds
4. Delino DeShields, RH, 3.96 seconds
5 (tie). Jose Altuve, RH, 3.98 seconds
5 (tie). Ichiro Suzuki, LH, 3.98 seconds (at 41 years old!)
Immediately you're asking, "What's a qualified play?" Similarly to how we did it when we ranked baseball's best outfield throwing arms, we needed a way to remove the thousands of non-competitive jogs to first on a doomed popup or a no-chance grounder. As a totally random example, do you care that it took Anthony Rizzo 7.1 seconds to leisurely trot out a sacrifice fly on June 28? You do not. Neither do we. 
In order to find a way to identify plays in which a batter was truly running at max effort, we identified the 90th percentile speed for each player as a baseline, then took the average of all tracked runs above that. That allowed us to single out only the plays where measuring time to first would really tell us something. In Burns' case, that math allowed him to edge out Gordon and Hamilton by an eyelash, and that'll happen when you can lay down a bunt and motor to first like this:
Gif: Billy Burns hustles to first
But despite leading baseball in average competitive home-to-first time, Burns didn't have the single fastest run of the season. That belonged to -- who else? -- Hamilton, who burned his way down to first in just 3.52 seconds to beat out a drag bunt against the Twins in late June:
Gif: Billy Hamtilon Race to 1B
Interestingly enough, when we turn to team rankings, the top team isn't the A's, Marlins or Reds. (We're looking at this as a preview, so team rankings include offseason player moves, making Ben Zobrist a Cub, Denard Span a Giant, and so on.) It is, believe it or not, the same team that led the outfield arms rankings: Houston.

That's partially due to the high ranking of Altuve, but he's not alone: Jake Marisnick, George Springer, Carlos Gomez, Carlos Correa and Preston Tucker all put up above-average numbers. Getting out of the box and down the line isn't the same thing as being a great basestealer; that said, Houston's 121 steals did rank third in baseball. It's an athletic team that can move -- and remember that DeShields, the No. 4 player on the list, was lost by the Astros to the Rangers in the Rule 5 Draft last offseason.
Gif: Jose Altuve beats throw
Let's return to our full list of 397 qualified player entries to review the bottom, for context. Remember, the top guys can make it to first base in under four seconds.
394. Wilson Ramos, RH, 4.89 seconds
395. Albert Pujols, RH, 4.92 seconds
396. Michael Morse, RH, 4.94 seconds
397 (tie). Billy Butler, RH, 4.95 seconds
397 (tie). Curt Casali, RH, 4.95 seconds
As you'd expect, the bottom of the list is largely catchers, first basemen and designated hitters, with the occasional corner outfielder thrown in. 
Let's take that information and compare the spread of times across positions. Wherever possible, projected 2016 positions were used, so Jason Heyward is a center fielder, Hanley Ramirez is a first baseman, etc.

As expected, center fielders and second basemen make for the fastest runners, though it's interesting how second base ranks ahead of shortstop, largely thanks to Gordon, Altuve and Micah Johnson. Nick Swisher, from each side of the plate, is responsible for each of the right-field trailing marks, unsurprising given how many knee problems he's had.
And Burns? Well, he stands alone. It makes sense, really. Burns is hard to catch on the bases. He's hard to catch on the speed rankings, too.