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Usain Bolt: pinch runner?

May 28, 2010, 9:42 AM EDT

Bolt Braves cap.jpgMatt Stroup over at Universal Sports has noted that sprinter Usain Bolt has some conflicting baseball loyalties.  Recently he was spotted wearing a Red Sox cap. Yesterday, he had on a Braves cap. Jamaica doesn’t have a team so all is forgiven, but the image of the fastest man on the planet in a Braves cap did give me a quick, cheap thrill.

Would it be worth it to sign the guy and make him a pinch runner?  It’s been done before: The Athletics signed track star Herb Washington to be their full-time pinch runner for the 1974 season.  Washington scored 29 runs and stole 28 bases in 91 games without once coming to bat or playing defense.  But even the A’s — who were pretty crazy about pinch runners in general back in the Charlie O. Finley days — didn’t think so much of Washington that they kept him around. He was cut early into the ’75 season and was never heard from again in baseball circles.

The problem: he was just too one-dimensional. And he wasn’t really that great in that dimension: in two seasons he was caught stealing 17 times in 48 attempts, which is below the level of success that makes stealing bases a value-added proposition (you usually want to see a 75% success rate or higher).  Washington’s failure as a pinch runner clearly shows that there is way more to stealing bases than speed. Indeed, there was probably no one faster than him in the game at the time. But you have to be able to read pitchers’ moves and pick your spots, and to do that you need experience.

These days it would be even harder for a guy like Washington — or Bolt — to make that job work because (a) stealing is way less a part of the game now than it used to be; and (b) roster spots are just way too precious to be used on a runner.  In 1974 the A’s basically had a nine-man pitching staff.  Today teams typically carry 12 pitchers and, on occasion, go with 13. Yeah, that’s ridiculous, but it’s how it is, and as a result a baseball team in 2010 would be more likely to sign a chef who only prepares bear steaks than it would be to sign a pinch runner.

The upshot of all of this is that I can see only two situations in which Usain Bolt would ever appear in a major league game. Either as (a) a pure gimmick, on a losing team after the rosters expand in September; or (b) after someone teaches him to shag flies and decides that they can stick him in left-center and thereby eliminate one of their three outfielders.

Given that Nate McLouth is currently patrolling center for the Braves, I’m not sure that a Bolt-Heyward outfield isn’t a bad idea.

  1. Moses Green - May 28, 2010 at 10:18 AM

    With all of the former track stars trying to be wide receivers, you would think one would try to make $350k without getting pounded on. Why not? Make the guy practice baserunning, stealing and bunting every day.

  2. Professor Longnose - May 28, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    If they could teach him to throw the ball over the plate well enough to keep his ERA under, say, 6.00, he’d be as good as most 13th pitchers.

  3. Steve C - May 28, 2010 at 11:13 AM

    The only realistic hope is that he can play outfield. Pitching requires a lot of skill. He has the frame for it at 6’5″, but I doubt he would be any good. Bunting is a good idea and all, but if that is all you can do with the bat the 1st and 3rd basemen will play so far in that the “skill” will be washed out. Simple game theory. For him to be a good bunter, he would also have to be a reasonable contact hitter to keep the fielders playing in an honest position.

  4. Charles Gates - May 28, 2010 at 12:04 PM

    It makes sense to sign him to a minor league deal. I’m not saying he’d pack the house like Jordan did in the ChiSox farm, but he would increase revenue without taking the roster spot from a major leaguer. If he can steal bases, promote him. If not, sell some extra tickets.
    I vote the Wilmington Blue Rocks. But, Dayton Moore isn’t that bright…and his MLB roster is pretty much set anyways.

  5. J. McCann - May 28, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    I wish they did have room on the roster for something like this.
    Before long they will go to 27 man rosters, so maybe then.
    Pitching fast and sprinting both require strong legs and a strong butt, so maybe he can chuck it.

  6. The Wizard - May 28, 2010 at 12:46 PM

    Hey, Usain Bolt is a White Sox fan:
    jpg:
    http://soxbronzetitan.wordpress.com/2009/08/22/usain-bolt-white-sox-fan/

  7. The Wizard - May 28, 2010 at 12:46 PM

    Hey, Usain Bolt is a White Sox fan:
    jpg:
    http://soxbronzetitan.wordpress.com/2009/08/22/usain-bolt-white-sox-fan/

  8. JBerardi - May 28, 2010 at 12:53 PM

    This is cute and all, but I’m thinking that the marginal speed difference between The Fastest Man In The World and, let’s say, Joey Gathright isn’t worth isn’t really worth all that much when they’re only going 90 feet. I suspect that the ability to read a pitcher, get a lead without being picked off, get a good jump, etc, makes your average minor league speedster a far better option for this kind of roll than Bolt.

  9. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - May 28, 2010 at 1:28 PM

    [as always, please check my math]
    It’s not really marginal though. Taking the top two times in history for the 100m and 200m (9.58/9.74 and 19.19/19.32) and breaking them down to a per foot basis, Bolt would beat the 2nd fastest guy by almost 3/4th (0.69) of a foot every 90 feet. It may not seem like a lot numerically, but that’s a huge difference between bang bang play and easy out.
    Also, that’s based on the top two times ever, and Gathright is no where near that fast. However, as for stealing bases, straight line speed isn’t the key. It’s everything else you mentioned about reading a pitcher, getting a lead, etc. Bernie Williams somehow was offered a track scholarship to UCLA due to his “speed” and he was no where near a burner on the basepaths.
    Love the video link although they need to change the description. He doesn’t jump over two cars, he jumps over the same car twice.

  10. awineguy - May 28, 2010 at 1:35 PM

    Why would Bolt take a drop in pay to play MLB ?

  11. Voice of Reason - May 28, 2010 at 4:07 PM

    Dumb idea. Just like a designated hitter. I am a traditionist and I don’t like messing with the game. A player should play the game and not just do one specific job. If you increase the rosters to allow for a pinch runner it would just make the game a farce. If you want to make room on the current roster so be it, but it would rarely work because speed isn’t the only measure of a great base stealer. Dumb idea.

  12. nate - May 28, 2010 at 4:46 PM

    The Giants Andres Torres is a more realistic version of this, in that he was noticed by a baseball scout when he was a high school sprinter in Puerto Rico and convinced to give baseball a try.
    Of course, it’s taken him quite a while to hit well enough to be big league worthy, but he is really really fast and runs with a sprinter’s form around the bases.

  13. CG - May 28, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    Bernie ran the 400 meter, that doesn’t really translate to base running. 90 feet is a little more than 25 meters.

  14. MEL - May 30, 2010 at 12:56 AM

    Bolt was a cricket player in Jamaica. Maybe some skill as a batsman would translate to baseball? I bet if he put his mind to it, he could be a quick study of the game.
    The problem is that his career is in full swing right now, lol. So it makes no sense for him.

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