The Big League Athlete Combine – How to Better Test for Baseball Playing Ability

No athletic performance test or series of tests will ever be able to accurately predict baseball performance due to the strong emphasis that the game places on skill.  You don’t need have blazing speed if you can “hit ‘em where they ain’t”. 

Today’s high level baseball players demonstrate a blend of physical abilities (Speed, Strength, Agility) coupled with baseball specific skills (throwing accuracy, hitting, fielding).  Some players rely more on skill while others may lean on their abilities.  The really good ones have a lot of both.

The following article and the accompanying excel spread sheets (“scoring” and “norms”) are designed to be a tool that you can use to better evaluate baseball players in regards to their physical tools.  The information that you get from these tests will give you a ton of information about a player’s athletic abilities which you can combine with your own assessment of baseball skill in order to project that player’s overall potential.

Covering All of Our Bases

The series of test’s that I am suggesting (60 yard dash, Pro-Agility, Vertical Jump, Lateral Jump) is not much different than what most coaches and scouts already implement .  However if we dig a little deeper we can get some better information on specific types of athletic ability some of which are more important as it relates to baseball compared to others.

For example when you only look at how high professional baseball players can jump there is no difference between minor league players versus major league players. But if you dig a little deeper and simply take into consideration their body weight to get an idea of how much power and force each player can produce the differences between big leaguers and minor leaguers becomes clear. (5)

Force = Acceleration x Mass

 

This is where the “scoring” spread sheet comes in handy because it is already formulated with calculations to give you all sorts information about different athletic abilities.

griffey jump

Griffey Jr demonstrating his MLB lower body power

Combining body weight and running speed can also provide us an idea of how much energy (kinetic) a player can produce with what’s known as the Kinetic Factor.  If you look at positions where power is very important (pitchers and corner INF & OF) the kinetic energy score a player produces might be more important than the actual time it takes them to complete the test.  The study where I got the idea to use the kinetic energy formula showed that the players with the fastest times did not have the highest kinetic energy scores.  Seven of the ten fastest times belonged to outfielders but six of the top ten kinetic factors scores belonged to pitchers and catchers.  (11)

The importance of Kinetic energy in baseball is that it can be directly transferred to the ball during the throwing action (4) or indirectly through the bat and ultimately to the ball when hitting (13).

kinetic energy

Ryan Howard “Running Into One” – Big Time Energy Transfer

***The amount of energy that actually does get transferred to the ball (throwing or hitting) relies heavily on bio-mechanics.  However knowing just how much kinetic energy an athlete has available is still very useful and can provide clues as to where each athlete needs to spend more time and effort, on field or in the weight room.

What’s a Big League Athlete?

One of the spread sheets is labeled “norms” which is where you will find tables that I have complied from various studies in order to give you an idea of where each athlete ranks.  The majority of the studies that I have used got their data from professional baseball players (5,8,9).  While it is no guarantee that an athlete that can produce major league power in a vertical jump or 60 yard dash is going to succeed at the big league level it’s a piece of the puzzle that we can use in order to make a well informed decision.

Here is just one of the “norms” tables:

10 Yard Dash
Level and/or Age Weight (kg) Time (sec) Speed (m/s) Kinetic Factor (J)
Rookie Ball 92.0 1.57 5.82 1559.0
“A” 92.0 1.59 5.75 1520.0
“AA” 96.0 1.58 5.78 1606.3
“AAA” 99.5 1.55 5.90 1729.9
MLB 101.2 1.52 6.01 1829.6
Pro (16-19yrs) 90.5 1.65 5.54 1388.5
Pro (20-22yrs) 92.7 1.64 5.57 1439.6
Pro (23-25yrs) 95.9 1.63 5.61 1507.7
NAIA/NJACC Righties 84.0 1.62 5.64 1336.9
NAIA/NJACC Lefties 79.9 1.66 5.51 1211.1
Pro Position (16-19) 89.4 1.65 5.54 1371.6
Pro Position (20-22) 90.0 1.63 5.61 1414.9
Pro Position (23-25) 94.5 1.63 5.61 1485.7

The Big League Athlete Combine Tests

My criteria for selecting tests were

  1. Easy to implement
  2. Results must be able predict baseball playing ability
  3. Provide clues about how to better train each athlete
  4. Data must already exist in order to rank and measure athletes.

Below I will describe each test and how it meets these requirements.

**I didn’t mention it but you need to get the body weight of each athlete.  This type of information is usually provided and more often than not inflated**

The 60 Yard Dash Test

Running the 60 yard dash has long been a tradition in baseball despite the fact that you never run 60 yards in a straight line on a baseball field.  We are still going to run a sixty because it is traditional and this game is built on a strong foundation of tradition.  All I want to do is merely make a couple of suggestions on how to improve it.

willie mays hays “Get That Guy a Uniform” 

If all we did was take a couple of split times (10 yard, 30 meter and 60 yard) we could gain a better idea about how each athlete sprints during the different phases of the 60 yard dash.

Here are the phases that make up sprinting:

  • Pure Acceleration: How fast you can get going from a stationary start.  It has been described as the first 15 meters (10) but for our purposes we will use 10 yards because there is more information about how a ten yard dash time relates to baseball performance.
  • Transitional Acceleration: How well you can “change gears” and transition towards your maximal running speed, defined as your 15 m to 30 meter time (10).  We will look at this split (30 meter time minus 10 yard dash time) as well your straight 30 meter time since a lot of data exists for this particular test.  When you measure out the 60 yard dash and mark the 10 yard split make put a cone just shy of the 33 yard mark (32.8 yards to be exact).
  • Maximal Running Speed: Top running velocity.  Here we will look at how long it takes the athlete to go from the 30 meter mark to the end of the test at the 60 yard line.  This “flying start” allows  each to player to display their maximal running speed and while this attribute isn’t as important in baseball as acceleration it is still a good athletic quality to look at.  Plus it doesn’t require any extra set up so why not. In his classic book “The Physics of Baseball” physicist Adair reports top speeds of 9.14 to 10.05 m/s from elite level players (1), this is very fast by the way.   It can also indicate if an athlete may require more technique work on their ability to accelerate if they have a high max running speed but produce a relatively slow 60 yard dash time.

If you don’t have a couple of extra coaches and stop watches I would suggest running all three separately.  Running a 10 yard and 30 meter dash would serve as a good warm up and potentially reduce the risk of injury.

Here is some more information about the importance of each acceleration phase.

Pure Acceleration: First 10 Yards

Strength and Conditioning Coaches at the University of Nebraska have concluded that after years of testing various athletic qualities that the 10 yard dash was the number #1 predictor of athletic performance (6).  From a baseball specific point of view the 10 yard dash time was a predictor of a player’s ability to steal bases (5).  These numbers were gathered using players at all levels of the Detroit Tigers organization.  This same study also found that the MLB players had a significantly faster 10 yard dash time than their minor league counterparts (5).

billy hamilton

Billy Hamilton (CF – Reds Organization) – Reported 3.65 Home to First Time (7.5 m/s)- World Class Acceleration

Another study found that pure acceleration was the most important factor in having a fast home to first time (2).  This study was performed by the Houston Astros and it looked at home to first times for their players and their opponents (n=302) from 2006-2012 during actual games.  The distance they used for their “pure acceleration” was from home plate to the start of the running lane (45 feet / 15 yards) which is the exact halfway point to first base.  One coach in their dugout was responsible for taking all of these split times.  They used the time it took each player to cover the second half as their “transitional acceleration” time which statistically didn’t matter as much as pure acceleration in terms of their overall home to first time times.

To check out an article that I did about this study follow this link:  https://lehmansbaseball.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/accelerate-your-game-how-to-improve-your-game-speed/

Transitional Acceleration: 10 yards to 30 meter time                                             

While pure acceleration isn’t as important when it comes to reaching first base safely there are many times when a baseball player must run in a straight line beyond the 15 meters requiring them to display their transitional acceleration speed.  The distance between each base is a little short of 30 meters (90 feet= 27.4 meters) while outfielders routinely display their transitional acceleration to cover the gaps.

Pro Agility Test

Another easy test to set up that can provide you with some great insight.  The pro-agility requires an athlete to accelerate out of a crossover stance much like a base runner stealing a bag or a fielder getting a jump on the ball.  After this an initial acceleration the athlete must decelerate, change direction and accelerate two more times to complete the test.

pro agility jeter

Jeter decelerating so he can change directions and accelerate

It has recently been reported that pro-agility times had a pretty good correlation to the defensive ability of outfielders.  And when the player’s pro-agility time and vertical jump average power scores were looked at together they did an even better job at predicted defensive ability for every position (9). Part of the explanation for this is due to the fact that players must accelerated to a ball hit then deceleration order to “set the feet” in order to make a strong throw just like what Mr. Jeter is displaying in the picture above.

How do you test for defense?

It’s tough to test for “soft hands” or to see if someone can just flat out “pick it”.  This study that I referenced (9) looked at pre-season performance of various athletics tests correlated these results to that player’s defense over the course of an entire year.  They used the ultimate zone rating which is sabermetric that divides the field of play into 64 zones of responsibility.  I believe that this rating system places an emphasis on athletic ability because it can rewards players for making plays outside of their defined zone of responsibility which takes some athletic ability just to get there let alone make the play on the ball.  That being it said it also punishes an outfielder who zoo’s a ball and doesn’t get charged with an error.

Vertical Jump Test

The vertical jump is not very specific to the sport of baseball.   Vertical jump height doesn’t correlate to throwing velocity (7) or level of play (5).  The real benefit of measuring the vertical jump is that you can punch that players jump height and body weight into a formula that gives you a power output in Watts (w).  This is where you start to tell who can hit the ball harder and who plays at a higher level (5).

trout catch

In his description of the importance of power Dr. Harman, the guy who created the formula you’ll find in the “scoring” sheet to measure power, uses the following example:

“two individuals of different body weight might be able to jump vertically the exact same distance  However, the heavier individual’s jump would show the ability to generate greater power, which could provide an advantage in activities which involve manipulation of mass outside the body (e.g. baseball batting, putting the shot, football blocking, weight lifting).” (3)

We’ll use two different formulas that give us a score for both peak and mean/average lower body power.  Your vertical jump peak power tells you how much force you can produce as you “take off” during the jump whereas your mean lower body power shows how much power you averaged over the course of the entire jump (3).

Here are some questions that lower body power (jumping power) might be able to provide some answer too:

Q: Can this player make the JUMP to the next level?

A: “Players in the MLB had significantly greater peak and mean jump power than players in Double A, Single A and Rookie leagues” (5)

Q: Does he get a good JUMP on the ball?

A: “Though variability existed between individual defensive positions, mean lower-body power, followed by pro-agility where the best predictors of defensive value for all positions.” (9)

Q: Does the ball JUMP of his bat?

A: “Correlation revealed significant positive relations between lower-body power performance and home runs, total bases and slugging percentage.” (5)

***The same was said for grip strength and lean body mass in this study (5).  Good grip strength and high amounts of lean body mass usually relate to jumping ability.  A strong grip usually means that the athlete has overall strength and high amounts of lean body mass means there’s lots of muscle.  Both of which obviously help getting you off the ground.  Testing for both grip strength and lean body mass require extra tools which aren’t always available and in the case of lean body mass requires some skill to accurately assess body fat.***

Lateral Jump Test

This test is probably new to most of you but I had to include it because it was hands down the best test I used in my thesis to predict throwing velocity.was my research thesis (7).  My thesis looked at various lower body tests including all of the ones that are in this combine but none of them could predict throwing velocity except of course the lateral jump, description below.

When you look at how the throwing action occurs it makes sense that a lateral jumping ability off one leg can translate to throwing velocity since both actions happen in the same plane of movement (frontal).

Here’s an interview I did with Eric Cressey about my research: http://www.ericcressey.com/developing-baseball-power-what-the-latest-research-says

lateral jumpLateral Jump In Action 

This study didn’t look into how jump distance in relation to body weight contributed to throwing velocity but it would make sense that the two would be related.  Numerous studies including mine have shown a positive correlation to throwing velocity anyways (7, 14).

Coaches and scouts can look at this score to see how it relates to each players throwing velocity to see where they can improve.  If a guy throws hard but doesn’t have a good lateral jump that could mean they have sound mechanics and could benefit from more training to improve the amount of power they can produce in the direction towards their target (frontal plane).  Whereas a guy with good jumping ability and low throwing velocity might need to work on their lead leg strength to harness the power generated from the back leg and/or other mechanical issues.

To learn more about the importance of a strong lead leg check out an older post of mine: https://lehmansbaseball.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/the-stride-leg/

The “norms” sheet while provide you with the jumping distances from the subjects in my study which were all college level baseball players.

** To complete this test have the athlete stand on their right leg and instruct them to bend and jump as far as possible to their left and land on both feet.  Measure the distance between these two points (outer part of right foot upon landing and the inner part of the right foot prior to take off)**

Where To Go From Here?

E-mail me (graeme.lehman@gmail.com) for the excel spread sheets.  The first has all the formulas to calculate power, kinetic factors and velocity so that you can get a more complete assessment of each players various athletic abilities.  All you have to do is fill in the spread sheet with a couple of pieces of information and then you will receive more stats about each player than you will know what to do with.

The second worksheet has a giant list of “Norms” from pro, college and high school players from various studies in order to get an idea of where your athletes rank.

The use of a skilled strength and conditioning coach can look at the numbers gathered during this combine to make personalized training programs that suits each athlete’s particular needs.  This type of information goes well beyond the scope of this article which is already getting close to 3,000 words.

I hope you found this information to be useful and please pass along any data that you have gathered using this combine since it will allow us to generate better “norms” for the young aspiring baseball athlete.

Sincerely,

Graeme Lehman, MSc, CSCS, BBA

References

1) Adair, RK. The Physics of Baseball. New York, NY: Harper-Collins Publishers, 2002.

2) Coleman, EA, Amonette WE.  Pure acceleration is the primary determinant of speed to first-base in major-league baseball game situations. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jun;26(6):1455-60.

3) Harman, E.A., Rosenstein, M.T., Frykman, P.N., Rosenstein, R.M., and Kraemer, W.J. (1991). Estimation of Human Power Output From Vertical Jump. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research, 5(3), 116-120

4) Hirashima, M, Yamane, K, Nakamura, Y, and Ohtsuki, T. Kinetic chain of overarm throwing in terms of joint rotations revealed byinduced acceleration analysis. J Biomech 41: 2874–2883, 2008

5) Hoffman JR, Vazquez J, Pichardo N, Tenenbaum G J. Anthropometric and performance comparisons in professional baseball players. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Nov;23(8):2173-8.

6) Kielbaso, J.  Ultimate Speed and Agility. Plymouth, MI: Crew Press, 2011.

7) Lehman G, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Correlation of throwing velocity to the results of lower-body field tests in male college baseball players. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Apr;27(4):902-8.

8) Mangine GT, Hoffman JR, Fragala MS, Vazquez J, Krause MC, Gillett J, Pichardo N. Effect of age on anthropometric and physical performance measures in professional baseball players. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Feb;27(2):375-81.

9) Mangine GT, Hoffman JR, Vazquez J, Pichardo N, Fragala MS, Stout JR. Predictors of Fielding Performance in Professional Baseball Players.  Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013 Jan 23.

10) McFarlane B. A basic and advanced technological model for speed. NSCA J 25: 57–61, 1993

11) Priest JW, Jones JN, Conger B, Marble DK. Performance measures of NCAA baseball tryouts obtained from the new 60-yd run-shuttle. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Oct;25(10):2872-8.

12) Spaniol, FJ. Baseball Athletic Test: A Baseball-Specific Test Battery. Strength Cond J 31: 479-491, 2003.

13) Welch, CM, Banks, SA, Cook, FF, and Draovitch, P. Hitting a baseball: A biomechanical description. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 22: 193–201, 1995.

14) Werner SL, Suri M, Guido JA Jr, Meister K, Jones DG. Relationships between ball velocity and throwing mechanics in collegiate baseball pitchers. J Shoulder Elbow Surg. 2008 Nov-Dec;17(6):905-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jse.2008.04.002. Epub 2008 Aug

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One comment

  1. Michael Turgeon

    Graeme: great work, very interesting.  I would be interested in the excel spreadsheets.   Best regards, Mike

    >________________________________ > From: Lehman’s Baseball >To: turgeon1@yahoo.com >Sent: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 5:45 PM >Subject: [New post] The Big League Athlete Combine – How to Better Test for Baseball Playing Ability > > WordPress.com >Graeme Lehman posted: “No performance test(s) will ever be able to accurately predict baseball performance due to the strong emphasis that the game places on skill.   You don’t need to be blazing speed if you can “hit ‘em where they ain’t” but then again “speed never goes in” >

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