Who's the fastest?

Originally Published: August 19, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It has all the makings of a reality series we'd actually watch: The World's Fastest Baseball Human competition.

We would start on a baseball field, stopwatches in hand. Then we'd stand back and let our contestants motor -- home to first, first to third, second to home.

They would sprint out triples, simulate inside-the-parkers, see who takes the fewest milliseconds to lead off first base and steal second.

Then we'd move the survivors into the Olympic stadium for our spectacular grand finale -- the AL-versus-NL relay race.

USELESS INFO TRIVIALITY
Three active players came into this season working on streaks of at least five straight seasons with 20 stolen bases or more. Three more players have gotten to five by stealing 20 already this season. How many of those six can you name? Answer below.
Useless Speed Info
"In the 4-by-100, I'd have Juan Pierre run the first lap," said Brewers coach Rich Donnelly. "I'd have Jose Reyes run the second lap. I'd have Jimmy Rollins run the third lap. And then I'd finish it off with Willy Taveras.

"Give me that team," Donnelly laughed, "and I think we could beat Bulgaria."

Hey, they just might. But could that NL team beat the American League? That's what we're wondering.

"I'd like to take Nook Logan, Joey Gathright, Carl Crawford and Chone Figgins," said Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, "put them in that 4-by-100, and we'd crush those National League guys. We'd beat 'em on the way to the race."

And you know what? We would pay to see that race, too. But even if we never actually hold that relay or produce that reality show, we can still ask the question we know you've been kicking around since this column began: Who's the fastest player in baseball?

We've been surveying scouts, GMs, coaches and players over the last week. So it's time now to finally answer that question:

NATIONAL LEAGUE MEDALISTS

GOLD MEDAL: WILLY TAVERAS, ASTROS

Willy Taveras
We didn't expect anybody to win this derby unanimously. But Taveras ran away with this race in more ways than one.

SPEEDY STATS: Has almost twice as many infield hits (60) as anyone in the big leagues. ... More bunt hits (26) than extra-base hits (18). ... Has a chance to join Gerald Young, Cesar Cedeno, Sonny Jackson and Jimmy Wynn as the only Astros 23 or younger to steal 40 bases.

HOWWWWW FAST IS HE?: One scout clocked Taveras from home to first -- from the right-handed side of the batter's box -- in 3.56 seconds on a bunt ("That," the scout said, "is off the chart"). It's ridiculous how many routine ground balls Taveras beats out. "Early in the season," said Houston GM Tim Purpura, "when we hadn't played some of these teams yet, sometimes those infielders who hadn't seen him didn't know how fast he was. So they'd take their time, and next thing they knew, he was a step ahead of them [on the throw]. You'd see them out there, just shaking their heads."

QUICK REVIEWS: "The best way to get Taveras when he's stealing second," Donnelly quipped, "is to just throw it to third and wait for him." ... "His stride is much longer than these other guys," said one scout. "And he really drives through the bag because he runs hard all the way to first." ... "He gets to first quicker than anyone I have seen," said teammate Brad Ausmus. "Even any left-handed-hitting speedsters." ... "Willie Taveras is so fast," Donnelly said, "I think he could beat out an infield single if you made him run all the way to the foul pole. And if he couldn't, it would be bang-bang."

SILVER MEDAL: JOSE REYES, METS

Jose Reyes
Yeah, he needs to walk more. And get on base more. And yada-yada-yada. But when Reyes is on base, he's the most mesmerizing player in New York.

SPEEDY STATS: Leading the league in steals -- so he could be the first Met ever to do that, and the first New Yorker to lead the NL since Willie Mays (as a Giant) in 1957. ... Last month became the first player to steal a base in six straight games since Luis Matos in 2001. ... First National Leaguer with two multi-triple games in the same season since (no kidding) Sammy Sosa in 1990.

HOWWWWW FAST IS HE? Here's your basic Jose Reyes inning: Leads off a June 23 game by beating out a single to short. Then he steals second, moves to third on a ground ball, scores on a balk. ... Runs a consistent 3.9 to first, hitting left-handed -- "but when he's really fun to watch is on those triples," said ex-teammate Mike Stanton. "He takes a second to get going. But once he gets rolling, he's just unbelievable." ... The guy hit seven triples in 10 games in May (only man in the division-play era to do that). Any more questions?

QUICK REVIEWS: "Can absolutely fly," said Ausmus. ... "If he ran in a greyhound race, he'd probably finish third," Donnelly joked. "I think he could beat those dogs -- five of them, anyway."

BRONZE MEDAL: JUAN PIERRE, MARLINS

Juan Pierre
Two years ago, Pierre would have had that gold medal around his neck. But a lingering calf injury and the ascendance of Taveras and Reyes bump him down the list.

WHO ARE THE SLOWEST GUYS?
GOLD: Jason Phillips, Dodgers: Five seasons into his career, still has no stolen bases and no triples. "Could be one of the slowest young guys ever," said one player.
SILVER: Bengie Molina, Angels: "Talk about timing with an hour glass," said one scout. "When he hits a ground ball, he doesn't even come into the picture. The play's over. Guys are running off the field. And then he gets to first base."
BRONZE: Johnny Estrada, Braves: Also triple-less and SB-less in five seasons. "I'd like to see a race," laughed one scout, "between Molina and Estrada."
HONORABLE MENTION: Matt LeCroy, John Olerud, Paul Konerko, Travis Hafner, Damian Miller, Sean Casey, Sal Fasano.
SPEEDY STATS: Just became the sixth player in the last two decades to rip off five straight 40-steal seasons. The others: Rickey Henderson, Otis Nixon, Vince Coleman, Kenny Lofton and Eric Young. ... One SB behind Reyes in his quest to become the first three-time NL stolen-base champ since Coleman (who won six, 1985-90). ... Has the most lopsided triple-to-homer ratio (46 career triples, 9 career HR) of any active player.

HOWWWWWW FAST IS HE?: Our favorite, prototype Juan Pierre game of the year -- June 15 at Wrigley: Bunt single in the first, stole second and scored. Bunt single in the second, went to second on a wild throw. Two-run double in the fourth, then stole third and scored. ... A 4-flat runner home to first, "he's not quite as fast as Taveras because he's got a real odd running style," said one scout. "But he's right up there with anyone, as far as stealing bases and running the bases." ... Would 83 infield hits over the last two years tell you anything?

QUICK REVIEWS: "Juan Pierre reminds me of me," said Kenny Lofton. "He'll walk around like his body's aching. Next thing you know, he just stole a base."

WATCH OUT NEXT YEAR FOR: Rickie Weeks, Brewers

FINALISTS IN FIRST-TO-THIRD SPRINT COMPETITION: Jimmy Rollins, Phillies, and Rafael Furcal, Braves

GET THE MOST OUT OF THEIR SPEED: Ryan Freel, Reds, and Omar Vizquel, Giants

GET THE LEAST OUT OF THEIR SPEED: Endy Chavez, Phillies, and Corey Patterson, Cubs

AMERICAN LEAGUE MEDALISTS

GOLD MEDAL: NOOK LOGAN, TIGERS

Nook Logan
Not only would none of you out there recognize this man if he delivered your mail, we know no one out there can even pronounce his name right (it rhymes with book, not nuke). But he's the consensus choice for swiftest in the land.

SPEEDY STATS: Almost as many bunt hits (10) as doubles (12). ... More infield hits (25) than walks (18). ... Needs to work on stealing first base. He was 0-for-his-last-19 through Thursday after earlier stretches of 0-for-17 and 1-for 22.

HOWWWWW FAST IS HE?: The Nookster's finest moment was this: Scored from first on a wild pitch (helped by a wild throw) May 11 in Texas. ... Another candidate: Looped a single to left and then circled the bases on two throwing errors, Aug. 7 vs. Cleveland. ... Recently clocked at 3.74 from the left side, home to first, on a routine ground ball to the first baseman.

QUICK REVIEWS: "He'd run the last leg on my 4-by-100 team," Ricciardi said. "We threw him out at the plate on a ball to the wall, and I don't know how we got him. He looked like one of those sprinters, banking on the final turn." ... "He's fast, but he's got a funny style," said one scout. "He's all arms and legs. But he's a big, long strider. So he gets down there quick."

SILVER MEDAL: JOEY GATHRIGHT, DEVIL RAYS

Joey Gathright
It isn't easy to be the fastest of the Devil Rays when Carl Crawford is one of your teammates. But Gathright is one of the all-time burners.

SPEEDY STATS: After his first 380 professional games (320 in the minor leagues, 60 in the big leagues), Gathright's steal-to-homer ratio was a fascinating 181 to 1. ... What has he done that Scott Podsednik hasn't done this year? Stole a base in four straight games. ... The only AL rookie with more stolen bases than Gathright this year (10) is Tadahito Iguchi (14), who had 261 more at-bats through Thursday.

USELESS INFO TRIVIALITY
ANSWER: Bobby Abreu (now up to seven in a row), Luis Castillo (six in a row through last year, but only eight SB this year). Rafael Furcal (now at six), Jimmy Rollins (now at five), Ichiro Suzuki (now at five) and Juan Pierre (now at five).

Useless Speed Info

HOWWWWW FAST IS HE?: A slice of Gathright utopia: He just had a game in Anaheim in which he turned a soft hit to center into a hustle double, then scored from second on a wild pickoff throw. ... Recently timed to first in 3.78 from the left side. ... Such a great athlete, he was first spotted by a Devil Rays scout jumping over a car in a parking lot. But his contract now bans him from car jumping (they're just no fun, those Devil Rays).

QUICK REVIEWS: "If Carl Crawford tells me [Gathright is] faster than him," says one scout, "I know he's fast." ... "I can't decide what he is," said one scout. "Omar Moreno. Eugene Kingsale. Tom Goodwin. He may be the fastest guy in the big leagues, for pure speed. But he's as crude as they come."

BRONZE MEDAL: CARL CRAWFORD, DEVIL RAYS

Carl Crawford
Some guys show up faster on the stopwatch, home to first. But Crawford is the most exhilarating runner in the game, home-to-third or first-to-the-plate.

WHICH IS MORE INTIMIDATING -- SPEED OR POWER?
THE CASE FOR SPEED: "To me," said Houston GM Tim Purpura, "power is almost a one-on-one game. It's all about the pitcher-hitter confrontation. Whereas speed affects everybody. It makes all the fielders a little more on their guard. It creates more mistakes. And the pitcher can really get out of sync when those things happen."
THE CASE FOR POWER: "Speed can be unnerving, but I'll take power," said Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi. "Speed is like slow death. You're throwing over. You're holding guys on. You're stepping out. The whole game slows down. Power is quick death. One swing, and you're done. If I had a choice, I'd take power. You look at teams like the Red Sox and Yankees, with all their power. If you don't throw strikes, that power will end up crushing you. When you put those guys on base, they kill you with the three-run homer. That's more dangerous to me than a team like the Devil Rays that tries to create havoc by running the bases. If guys don't get on base, speed is a nonfactor."
SPEEDY STATS: Over the last three seasons, Crawford has 148 steals and 41 triples. Devil Rays media-relations genius Rick Vaughn reports that only four players in history ever matched those numbers over any three-year stretch -- Juan Samuel (1984-86), Max Carey (1922-24), Ty Cobb (six times) and Honus Wagner (three times). ... Just two players since 1900 had more steals and triples than Crawford (157 SB, 46 triples) before turning 24 (which Crawford did this month) -- Ty Cobb (254 and 63) and Sherry Magee (200 and 65). ... Needs three triples to become the first player with back-to-back seasons of 15-plus triples since Jim Rice in 1977-78. And 16 more steals could make him the first with back-to-back 50-steal, 15-triple seasons since Cobb (1911-12-13).

HOWWWWW FAST IS HE?: Crawford is the ultimate "triple" threat. He has hit at least one triple in 18 consecutive months, if you don't count his two games in Japan in March 2004. (Next-longest streak is five, by Juan Pierre -- eight if you don't count his three games last October.) ... Not a home-to-first sprint champ (timed at 3.95-4.0). But that's misleading. "I don't know if he's lightning fast, but he's quicker than everyone else," Stanton said. "He hits those triples because he does it right off the bat." ... "He runs funny," Lofton said. "But man, he runs fast."

QUICK REVIEWS: "When Carl Crawford runs, he looks like a runaway hub cap," Donnelly quipped. "Ever seen a hub cap rolling downhill, leaning to one side? That's him." ... "Best baserunner in the league and best base stealer in the league," said one scout. ... "He hit a triple against us one time," Donnelly said, "and I swear his feet only hit the ground four times. We had skid marks on the infield."

HOW'D THEY MISS THIS LIST: Scott Podsednik, White Sox, Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners, and Chone Figgins, Los Angeles Angels

FINALISTS IN FIRST-TO-THIRD SPRINT COMPETITION: Crawford and Figgins

GET THE MOST OUT OF THEIR SPEED: Julio Lugo, Devil Rays, and Brian Roberts, Orioles

GET THE LEAST OUT OF THEIR SPEED: Bernie Williams, Yankees, and Nook Logan

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com