Old-school speed: These are MLB's fastest teams
For the 2023 season, speed is going to be the name of the game, and not just in terms of "how fast are the pitches thrown" or "how hard is the ball coming off the bat." We’re talking old-school speed, running speed, which might just become a little more important given the rule changes that are in large part meant to emphasize speed and skill on the bases and in the field.
Through three calendar days of the season (35 games), there have been a total of 49 steals on 56 attempts (87.5% success rate). During that same timeframe in 2022 (34 games), there were 17 steals on 26 attempts (65.4%).
We already know who the fastest players are, because Statcast has been tracking this since 2015. (Last year’s fastest player was Arizona’s Corbin Carroll. Over the entirety of the tracking era, it’s a tie between Trea Turner and Byron Buxton.) But what about fastest teams? Which clubs are best-situated to take advantage of what might be a new era for speed?
To answer that question, we looked back (at recent Statcast sprint speed data) and ahead (at FanGraphs’s 2023 projected depth charts, as of the morning of Opening Day). By combining the two, we can weigh the expected playing time for the upcoming season, and apply all the speed data we have appropriately.
(For players with Major League experience who did not appear in 2022, like Michael Conforto or Fernando Tatis Jr., their speed from their most recent Major League season was used. For new players who are expected to play in the bigs in 2023 but who had no previous Major League tracking data, like Anthony Volpe or Jordan Walker, their MLB Pipeline scouting report number [the 20-80 scale] for speed was taken and converted into an equivalent sprint speed.)
So, given all that: Which teams are expected to be the fastest in 2023? (For context, note that all numbers below are on the scale of 27 ft/sec being average, and 30 ft/sec being elite.)
It's the Phillies. Like this team needed yet another reason to be extremely entertaining.
Well, sure. It helps when you go out and sign Turner, who has been, repeatedly, at or near the top of Statcast’s sprint speed ratings every single year since it came online in 2015. In fact, if you go look at the combined all-time leaderboard, for all the years we have data, he’s tied with Buxton atop it. Yet while many of his peers have slowed, Turner has simply not. He’s still as elite here as he’s ever been, and he’s primarily replacing Didi Gregorius, who was merely average (27.3 ft/sec) overall, yet below-average among shortstops.
Last summer’s trade for the speedy Brandon Marsh (28.9 ft/sec) helps, and as crushing as the loss of Rhys Hoskins is for so many reasons, at least in this narrow view, Darick Hall shows up as slightly faster. But the real secret weapon here, as always, is behind the plate. We’ve been writing about how athletic J.T. Realmuto is for more than half a decade now, and it hasn’t really changed. Just look at the last five years: Aside from part-timer Jorge Alfaro, there isn’t a regular catcher nearly as fast as Realmuto (28.7 ft/sec in that time). So while other teams are plodding along with Salvador Perez (25.5 ft/sec) or Alejandro Kirk (24.3 ft/sec), the Phillies are the rare team with speed from their backstop.
A good place to start is at the bottom. Last year’s two slowest Rays (Ji-Man Choi, 24.9 ft/sec; Mike Zunino, 25.5 ft/sec) are both elsewhere. It’s true that one of last year’s fastest Rays (Kevin Kiermaier, 29.2 ft/sec) is gone as well, but he’s mostly being replaced by what Tampa Bay expects will be a full season out of midseason acquisition Jose Siri (30.4 ft/sec), who is one of the truly elite speedsters in the sport. Luke Raley is faster than a player with exactly zero Major League stolen bases should be expected to be, but mostly this is about depth -- the Rays have 11 different players, from Siri down to Yandy Díaz (27.5 ft/sec), projected for at least 100 plate appearances with average or better speed.
This makes sense, because how can you be everybody’s favorite speed-and-contact-and-pitching-and-defense team without the speed aspect of it? They were, as you’ll see below, 2022’s fastest team, which more than matches the eye test, and they’ll remain pretty close to the top this year, in part because they’re expected to give so much playing time to Amed Rosario, Myles Straw, Andrés Giménez, Oscar Gonzalez, José Ramírez and Steven Kwan, who all have good-to-great speed. They’ve even cut ties with Austin Hedges, who, at 24.5 ft/sec, was one of baseball’s slowest players last year.
That said, they’ve also lost the most speed (-0.5 ft/sec) from last year. That’s in part because you have to be great in the first place to have the most to lose, of course, but it’s also because new additions Josh Bell and Zunino are somewhat leadfooted, and neither Naylor brother is known for his speed. Regardless, this Cleveland team should have speed to burn on the bases again.
Like seemingly everything else for this high-variance Texas roster, this rating is based a lot on if things go well. In Bubba Thompson and Leody Taveras, the Rangers have two players with extremely good speed, players they’d like to -- and are projected to -- give a nice amount of playing time to. On the other hand, Thompson struggled badly to hit (.614 OPS) in his 2022 debut, and Taveras’s up-and-down career is currently on hold as he works back from an oblique injury. If either or both gets playing time -- say the same for infielder Ezequiel Duran – Texas will run wild. If not, then Marcus Semien (28.9 ft/sec) will be the fastest regular Ranger, and Texas will slide down these rankings.
5) Three-way tie between the Royals, Orioles and D-backs
These three clubs have some elite speedsters -- Bobby Witt Jr., Jorge Mateo and Carroll, among others -- but get weighed down enough in other areas that they don’t quite match up to the top four here.
1) What did the actual 2022 season rankings look like?
In 2022, the Guardians paced the league, unsurprisingly, right ahead of the Royals, Rays and Pirates (tie), and Phillies & Dodgers (tie). For the most part, speed stays relatively constant from year to year, with only a minor aging curve, so it’s unsurprising that these were the same teams. (Cleveland was the fastest in 2021, as well.)
The slowest 2022 teams were the White Sox, Mariners and Giants. That’s right, last year’s slowest team is projected to be 2023’s slowest projected team, despite a number of changes in their lineup. This could change if speedster Bryce Johnson claims a larger share of time than expected, but otherwise, they don’t have any regular player faster than the good-not-great speed of Thairo Estrada at 28.3 ft/sec.
2) Which new players are projected to have the best speed?
Looking only at players with no Major League data -- so not “rookies,” because Carroll is still considered a rookie despite his late-season 2022 cameo -- we’ve got three players with projected time on the FanGraphs depth charts who were given a 70 running grade by MLB Pipeline on the 20-80 scouting scale. That’s Milwaukee outfielder Sal Frelick, who didn’t make the Opening Day roster, but he's widely expected to see time later; Reds top prospect Elly De La Cruz, who tore up Double-A last year and should make it to Cincinnati this season; and Red Sox infielder David Hamilton, who stole 70 bases in the Minors and is projected for a small handful of fill-in appearances in the bigs.
3) Which team added the most speed?
That’s a tie between the A’s and Reds, who each added +0.5 ft/sec over last year’s ratings. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, since each are fielding quite young rosters, and we know how well age correlates to speed. Oakland cut loose a few of its slower veterans, and plans to give plenty of run to newly acquired Esteury Ruiz, who stole 85 bases -- 85! -- at three levels of the Minors last year. The Reds no longer employ Mike Moustakas or Colin Moran, and Joey Votto’s availability is uncertain; instead, Will Benson, Stuard Fairchild and eventually De La Cruz ought to add some speed in Southwestern Ohio.