Brad Zimmer Is Ridiculous

I’m not a particularly fast person. I was born in Jamaica, though, and Usain Bolt has practically been the country’s patron saint for the last decade, so particularly fast people amaze me. And what’s most amazing about Bolt isn’t even his raw foot speed, but rather that foot speed relative to his height. At 6-foot-5, he stands out among the crowd, from the blocks to the finish line, taking up to 15% fewer strides while breaking records.

We sort of have our own Usain Bolt in the major leagues. His name is Brad Zimmer and he patrols center field for the Cleveland Indians.

Of course, part of this is hyperbole. Bolt is among the fastest men in the universe and traveled 40.2 feet per second in his record run. Brad is the second-fastest man in baseball and is averaging 30.1 feet per second this year. But they’re roughly the same height, and that’s meaningful — even if the average baseball player is a couple inches taller than the average sprinter.

Take a look at where Zimmer ranks if you plot this year’s players by foot speed and height. He’s the red dot.

Yeah, so he’s an outlier. His teammates apparently call him The Machine. And his combination of speed and length means he can do fun things like this:

And this:

Jordan Bastian talked to Andrew Miller after those two catches, and the Indians reliever characterized the phenomenon well. “I think he’s so big compared to what we think of as the speedy guys. Whether that’s just getting from home to first, beating out a ground ball, running in a gap, stealing a base, it’s a little bit confusing to the eyes. You’re used to seeing the little guys that are the speedsters.”

There are a couple non-baseball reasons you usually see speedsters come in smaller packages. One has to do with drag. According to The Journal of Sports and Medicine (and Newton’s second law), “[T]he acceleration of the body is proportional to the force produced but inversely proportional to the body mass… This implies an inverse relationship between height and performance in disciplines such as sprint running.” Or, as Edward McClelland paraphrased it for Slate: “It’s hard to produce enough power to overcome the drag of a big body.”

Perhaps Bolt and Zimmer counter this by being rail thin. More likely, it’s about good running form. Carl Crawford, who encountered injury after injury to his hamstrings, once pointed out that it was because of his poor form. He told me once that he can “get too long with the stride, and that causes hamstring problems.”

In that same Slate story, McClelland points out that Bolt’s running coach shortened the sprinter’s stride and wanted to ensure that he kept his knees up. Sage advice. Though it doesn’t seem Zimmer needs it, if you watch those clips from above, what’s maybe most confusing to the eyes is that his strides aren’t the long, loping strides you might expect. They’re a blur, even though they’re long.

“I’d take him in a race with just about anybody,” his teammate Miller told Bastian that day. Seems like Zimmer’s ready for the competition.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Daniel Kingmember
4 years ago

Drag seems like the wrong word to use (though that is what McClelland said). It’s more that there’s more mass to accelerate which takes more energy! Air resistance only makes a small difference.

4 years ago
Reply to  Daniel King

There’s also “time to full speed” / acceleration rate. A shorter person will take more steps in the same distance over the same time span than a taller person and get that many more steps/pushes to get up to speed in x distance. Baseball plays that look very athletic/speedy like closing the gap on a sinking liner or stealing a base seem to favor the best accelerators.

4 years ago
Reply to  Daniel King

I’m holding my breath until I see a “Mike Trout is a Coefficient of Friction Outlier” post.

4 years ago
Reply to  Daniel King

The proper term is inertia.