By In Baseball

Slowest Player in Baseball

You know that dream where you are running and running but are not actually getting anywhere. I know people have all sorts of theories about this dream and what it means. Some say it indicates that you have too many things going in your life and can’t quite keep up. Some say it’s the body reacting to being in a sleep state. Some say it doesn’t have any specific meaning at all, but it just an outlet for your brain.

I have come to believe that dream is simply about Kansas City designated hitter Billy Butler.

Billy Butler is slow. Spectacularly slow. It is in his nature. Butler came up when he was 21 years old, a bit of a prodigy when it came to hitting a baseball, and he promptly posted a 108 OPS+. He could hit right away — I predicted from Day 1 that he would win a batting title someday, and I still think he will. But he was spectacularly slow even then, even as a kid. In 2009, he hit .301 with 51 doubles. He was spectacularly slow. The next year he hit .318/.388/.469. He was spectacularly slow. Now, at age 27, he’s an established guy, an All-Star, a lifetime .298 hitter with more than 1,000 career hits an a lifetime 122 OPS+. He remains spectacularly slow.

I have long said that the slowest measurement known to man is a “Molina” and that all players can be measured against it. It’s sort of the opposite of the speed of light — the theory goes that nothing can go faster than the speed of light and so it can be a constant in formulas like the classic E=MC2. Well, I have long believed that nothing on earth moves slower than a Molina — Bengie, specifically, but none of the Molinas are exactly Usain Bolt — and so every player can be measured by Molinas. Jacoby Ellsbury, for instance, is 584,372 Molinas. Meanwhile, someone slow like Paul Konerko is closer to 1.21 Molinas.

One theory about the speed of light is that if anything COULD move faster, it would actually go backward in time. My scientific theory is that anything that moves slower than a Molina would actually stop time or, at least, hit into many double plays.

Billy Butler moves slower than a Molina. It’s part of his enormous charm. There are numbers that show his ultrasonic lead-footedness. He has hit one triple since Sept. 1, 2009. He has hit into more double plays than any player over the last five seasons. He has stolen five bases in his career. Among players with more than 4,000 plate appearances only nine players — among them the legendarily slow Gus Triandos, Cecil Fielder, Dick Stuart, Victor Martinez and, of course, Bengie Molina — have stolen fewer bases.

But more than the statistics, there is the extraordinary joy of watching Billy Butler play baseball. His running is only part of it. Butler is listed at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds and it’s possible that both numbers are exaggerated to the good (more on this in a minute). His uniform pant legs seem about four sizes too big, so that the bottoms bunch up around his shoes and it looks like he is wearing a hand me down from a much older brother. I remember when Billy came up to the big leagues, the other guys on the team gave him a pretty hard time because of his size and age and body type ad speed and because Billy is just a good-hearted lug who commands that sort of ribbing. Anyway, he was taking some pretty decent abuse when someone told him the only comeback he would ever need for such situations.

“Yeah,” Billy was told to say, “but I can hit.”

He can hit, boy. He has a wide stance and perfect balance and his batting swing is absolutely pure. He steps back with his left leg then steps in, utterly in sync, like a dance step, and his eyes lock in on the ball, and his bat rips through the zone, and it’s a thing of beauty. The best word for that swing is gorgeous. Only Robinson Cano has hit more doubles than Butler the last five seasons, and you know Billy ain’t legging any of those out. The man crunches line drives into gaps and smashes shots down the third base line and launches balls off the wall. For him they are doubles. For almost anyone else, some would be triples.

And he runs. You can feel the ground move. There has never really been any question about Butler’s effort. He doesn’t loaf like MannyBManny. He simply moves his legs and his body doesn’t go anywhere. It’s like some kind of magic trick. He will hit a ground ball to short and you will see him start running up the line. Then you will follow the ball to short, follow the throw to first and look back … and Billy’s in the same spot where your eyes left him.

The game has a marvelous history of impossibly slow players. Gus Triandos. Ernie Lombardi. They called Charlie Hickman “Piano Legs” and he was considered an especially slow runner — but he hit 91 triples and stole 72 bases in his career so that doesn’t seem to match up. Boog Powell, however, was famously slow as were other Orioles like Elrod Hendricks and Ken Singleton and Richie Dauer. Baltimore manager Earl Weaver didn’t really care about speed. Incidentally, Dauer does not not get enough credit for his slowness — he had 984 hits, only two were triples, and he was caught 13 of the 19 times he tried to steal a base.

Shanty Hogan was a huge, slow guy famous for eating all the time — it was said once, when ordered by John McGraw to lose weigh, Hogan decided instead to buy a suit way too big for him so that it would LOOK like he lost weight. It didn’t work. Hogan, like Billy Butler, was listed at, 6-foot-1, 240 pounds. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think 6-foot-1, 240 pounds is not an actual height and weight, it’s a code for something else. Call it the Da Shanty Code.

Players with 1,000-plus games in big leagues listed at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds:

— Shanty Hogan.

— Billy Butler

— Bob Hamelin

Willie Mays Aikens is one of the most amazing stories in baseball history. When he was born, the doctor named him after Willie Mays … and he actually made it to the big leagues and hit 20-plus homers three times. Think of the odds of that. And then, think of the odds of that someone being named Willie Mays and him probably being the slowest player in baseball. Willie Mays Aikens was like the opposite of Willie Mays Hayes. He was so slow that when he hit a triple in the 1980 World Series, the reaction in the Kansas City dugout was not joy as much as it was insane laughter.

Anyway, it’s a proud role, being the slowest guy in baseball, and I’ve long though that Billy Butler had that all wrapped up. Then, the other day, John Dewan over at Baseball Info Solutions said that in their research they have been timing runners to first base on ground balls that are potential double plays. He has promised to send over some more detailed information, which I will add to the post, but for now here are the five slowest:

1. Wellington Castillo, Cubs, 4.84 seconds

2. Billy Butler, Royals, 4.81 seconds

3. Paul Konerko, White Sox, 4.77 seconds

4. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays, 4.67 seconds

(Tie) Yorvit Torrealba, Rockies, 4.67 seconds

Hmm. I’ve got to see the Welington Castillo character run.

Addendum 1: Great add from BR Blair. He tweeted: “4.84 seconds over 90 feet … linear extrapolation says that’s a 6.45 forty.” Could you imagine looking up any prospect in the NFL and seeing something like, “Strong player and has a great attitude. One drawback is that he runs a 6.5 forty.”

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46 Responses to Slowest Player in Baseball

  1. Miguel Cabrera is disqualified on basis of injury, I assume?

  2. ck says:

    Isn’t the best part of the Willie Aikens story that the doctor got to name the baby? Was this common? Does it still happen? Is it like a stadium naming rights deal, in which you pay less for medical services if you let the doctor name the kid?

    • Tonus says:

      His parents should be eternally grateful that the doctor was a fan of the baseball Giants. Because Yelberton Abraham Tittle Akiens would’ve made for an awkward adolescence.

  3. No Billy Hamiltons, that’s for sure. . . . What about Eddie Gaedel? Monty Stratton?

  4. steak says:

    The margin between Billy Butler and Paul Konerko is .04 seconds, or four one-hundreths of a second, or 40 milliseconds, or 1/10 the blink of an eye. Which means that by all real measures Billy Butler and Paul Konerko are equal. The issue of sample size comes up here, but even if the samples were large and the difference was real, the question becomes does .04 seconds make a practical difference (as opposed to a statistical difference).

    I’m always surprised at the accuracy of first base umpires. Often I’m sure a player was safe (or out) when in fact the umpire had a different call and was clearly right as seen by instant reply.

    So what is the difference of .04 seconds? One comparison is that .04 seconds is equal to a single frame in a 24fps video (movie industry standards). Is that the difference between safe and out as seen by an umpire in real time? I don’t know the answer to that. But what I do know is that Paul Konerko is not 1.21 Molina’s if Billy Butler is <1.0 Molinas. However, Billy Butler's teddy bear rating is well above the mean whereas Paul Konerkos TBR is much below the mean. Perhaps that is leading to confirmation bias.

    • parinella says:

      90 feet / 4.84 seconds = 18.6 ft/sec. 18.6 ft/sec * .04 sec = 0.74 feet = 9 inches

    • Even small margins can be important… sometimes the difference between death or glory is just the blink of an eye.

    • steak says:

      Both of you are correct. I’m not minimizing the fact that a difference may exist. Likewise, if a difference does exist it could be important.

      I do want to clear up the math a little bit. 9 inches can be a lot depending on what you are measuring. However, races are not measured by distance alone – they are also measured by time.

      If two slugs were in a race and one slug was 9 inches ahead of the second slug, the race wouldn’t be considered particularly close. This is not because of the distance between the two gastropods, but because slugs move so slowly that the human brain is easily able to reconcile the distance over time.

      If two race cars were 9 inches apart when they crossed the finish line it would be considered a photo finish and a virtual tie. The tie would have to be broken using ultra high speed cameras.

      Billy Butler is more slug than race car, but in a race between 18.59 ft/s (Butler) and 18.86 ft/s (Konerko), the human eye would have a very hard time deciding who won the race.

  5. mickey says:

    this is the wrong year to rhapsodize about the hitting prowess of Billy Butler. Home runs way down (14 compared with 29 last year. Doubles in decline (26, compared with 51 in ’09 and in the 40s the next 2 years), and a league-leading 26 DPs. Walks are up significantly, so his OBP is steady, but everything else makes it hard to imagine you really believe what you wrote–that he will win a batting title some day. The question is whether this is a down year for his power numbers, or has he begun the downward track of his career. I believe the history of big lumbering guys is that their descent is fast and furious.

  6. Frank says:

    Pete Rose probably makes it to first base faster on a walk than Billy Butler on a hit.

  7. Mark Daniel says:

    Wow, interesting. I just looked it up, and in his career, Billy Butler has hit into a DP once every 5.5 plate appearances with a man on 1st and less than 2 outs. The Grand Poo-Bah of DPs, Jim Rice, only did it once ever 6.6 PAs.

    • Matty Boy says:

      the flip side of all this…darrell evans, who was among the ten slowest players in baseball for most of his career, only beat into 133 double plays in over 10,000 plate appearances, or about once every 80 PAs. an amazing number.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I don’t think Darrell Evans was historically slow. He had 98 career stolen bases and had a 59% success rate. At age 32 he was successful on 17 out of 22 attempts. I’m not saying he was fast but I recalled him as one of those guys who was faster than people thought. That’s why I looked him up.

    • Frank says:

      Ok, but Brooks Robinson hit into four TRIPLE-plays.

    • Mark Daniel says:

      Matty Boy, when you correct for DP opportunities (i.e. man on 1st with less than 2 outs), the rate comes down to 1 DP in 14.9 plate appearances. Still, your point is well taken because that number is incredibly good for anybody. As an example, Willie Wilson hit into a DP once every 13.9 PAs in those situations. Who would have thought Darrell Evans better at avoiding DPs than a guy who stole 663 bases and led the league in triples 5 times?

    • dshorwich says:

      How about Rob Deer? He grounded into a DP once in every 24 PAs when batting in a potential DP situation. Darren Daulton: 1 per 25.1. Neither of these guys were speed merchants. (Major league average is about 1 per 9 PA.)

      As we see, it’s not all about speed when it comes to avoiding the GIDP: flyball hitters who walk and/or strikeout a lot are often better at it than their fleeter compatriots.

  8. Matty Boy says:

    one of the many (many, many) ‘baseball abstract’ one-liners that has stuck with me for lo, these many years is the following: he was writing something about a meaningless statistic that had been trotted out repeatedly over the previous season…the stat has long since escaped my brain, but the idea was that without context it didn’t mean much. the line: “hank aaron is the all-time leader in GIDPs. the guy must have run like gus triandos’ mother.” gold, as usual, and it had the added benefit of sending me to my baseball encyclopedia to look up gus triandos.

  9. Rich King says:

    This is just great. Thanks for writing about one of my favorite players for so many of the reasons you’ve listed here!

  10. “It’s like some kind of magic trick. He will hit a ground ball to short and you will see him start running up the line. Then you will follow the ball to short, follow the throw to first and look back … and Billy’s in the same spot where your eyes left him.”
    Lord, is that true.

  11. olderholden says:

    Teixeira doesn’t appear because he was timed with sundial.

  12. Doug says:

    Sal Bando’s running style was described as “like he carries a steel safe on his back”

    • Rob Smith says:

      Sal Bando is the guy who got thrown out by Joe Ferguson, cutting in front of Jimmy Wynn, and firing a cannon shot from medium deep right center. It was a great play, but it wouldn’t have been an out if anyone but Bando was running from 3rd. In fact, if Bando had tried a half decent slide instead of almost stopping as he came to the catcher, he probably still would have been safe.

    • olderholden says:

      A friend of mine on our high school basketball team was described by our coach at the end-of-the-year awards banquet, “He runs hard. Too bad it’s in the same place.”

  13. Wilbur says:

    Wellington Castillo? You should see his backup, Dioneer Navarro, run.

    At least Castillo has the excuse of hitting right-handed, which slows his time to first.

    Like my father used to say about Ron Santo “He runs like he’s got a piano on his back”.

  14. KHAZAD says:

    How slow is Billy Butler? I have a story which regular guys might relate to.

    Last summer, My wife and I arrived at the ballgame early and were walking around the outfield experience. There is a place where people (It’s mostly for kids) can run 90 feet against the times of various Royals. Most people choose Billy. The posted time for Billy is 4.6 seconds, a time which, as your Dewan stats attest to, I don’t think I have actually seen him match in an actual game.

    As there were not very many kids there yet, I decided to run it for fun and see if I could beat Billy. I had just had a Burrito at Dixon’s Chili on the way to the ballpark, (They are huge) and washed it down with a refreshing ballpark beer upon arrival. I was wearing old, very worn down tennis shoes. I am 48 and overweight,(some might use the word fat) have some minor problems with my left foot and arthritic knees, and had not even attempted to sprint at all in half a dozen years. When I looked up for my time, it said 4.6 – the same as Billy’s alleged time.

    I was actually a little disappointed, because (a quarter of a century and many pounds ago) I used to be kind of fast, but Billy should be the one who is really disappointed, because he was matched by an old fat guy whose muscles hadn’t even been asked to move fast in half a decade.

  15. Schere says:

    I woulda sworn Matt Wieters was the slowest player in the big leagues.

  16. I long for footage of a Terry Forster sacrifice bunt in ’85…

  17. It’s always struck me as odd to see guys who can’t run but have quick bats. I mean, Benji’s brother Yadier Molina is hitting .315 this year. To be able to turn on a major league fastball requires incredible quickness, and yet these big slow sluggers lumber out of the box like they’re stuck in cement. How can your arms be so fast when your legs are so slow?

  18. It’s always struck me as odd to see guys who can’t run but have quick bats. I mean, Benji’s brother Yadier Molina is hitting .315 this year. To be able to turn on a major league fastball requires incredible quickness, and yet these big slow sluggers lumber out of the box like they’re stuck in cement. How can your arms be so fast when your legs are so slow?

  19. Kirk Hoyer says:

    This may have been pointed out elsewhere, but linearly extrapolating the 30-yard time to 40-yards is going to give a slower time that if you clocked him in reality (presuming he is fit enough to run the extra 10 yards at top speed). You’d get a better estimate by adding the split time for the last 10 yards to his 30-yard time.

  20. Jason Dennis says:

    In this world of NFL forty times, people don’t realize how slow most people are. When I tried out for the baseball team, they timed everyone’s 40’s after a 20 minute jog. Out of about 75 people, exactly one got under 5 seconds. The average was about 5.7.

  21. Funny you should make this particular comment, Joe, because tonight I was at the Royals-Mariners game at Safeco, and in the first inning I was impressed at how quickly Raul Ibanez had run down the line on what I thought was an obvious double play ball, and then in the fourth I saw Billy Butler not being halfway down to first base when he was doubled up on a similar play. When you make Raul Ibanez, who is closer to my age than he is to the age of the entire Mariner infield, look like Usain Bolt, you’re really slow.

  22. Matt says:

    To paraphrase a Tommy Lasorda line: in a race against a pregnant woman, Billy Butler would finish third.

  23. Radiobobks says:

    Great story. Lots of KC fans are down on Billy this year, as it SEEMS as if he hits into a double play in every DP situation, at least in tight games (which is about all KC has played). Plus, as you note, he actually LOOKS incredibly slow. I mean, he LOOKS slower than Willie Mays Aikens. By the way, in the only World Series game i have ever witnessed in person, I saw that triple by Aikens. The only thing I can compare that to is seeing Harmon Killebrew, playing for the Royals in his last season, at age 39, steal second. It was a perfect storm: pitcher ignoring him, Killer got a huge lead, breaking ball near if not in the dirt. But what i remember is the catcher (I have no idea who) doing what seemed like a comic double take. If it was a cartoon, his eyes would have bugged out, so he hesitated before throwing. Killer reached second more like landing than sliding, and the ump hesitated and then signaled safe. Killer could have been on your list, by the way. 19 steals in two decades, caught 18 times. Somehow, 24 triples. Only led the league in GIDP once, but if my memory serves, Killer didn’t hit it on the ground all that often.

    • brhalbleib says:

      First thing I thought was well, he must have got those triples for the Senators, because Griffith Stadium was massive. Turns out I was wrong. 7 of them were actually in 1961, the first year of the Twins. Metropolitan stadium was big (certainly much bigger than its successor, the Metrodome), but it wasn’t massive like Griffith Stadium. Of course he did get nearly a third of his career triples in 1961, when he was 25 years old

    • KHAZAD says:

      Killebrew, in that year with the Royals, was also the first person I ever saw thrown out at first by the right fielder.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I looked at the Met’s dimensions, and actually they were pretty short. Then I looked up the game log, and yes, every triple Killebrew hit that year was on the road. All in parks with big dimensions in some areas. Comiskey, Baltimore Muni, Yankee Stadium, Fenway and Griffith.

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  25. David says:

    Rusty Staub, with the Tigers, looked like he was running UP rather than forward. He was like an elevator trying to run. The harder he tried, the higher his vertical elevation–from two inches, up to at least two-and-a-half. Only air currents wafted him forward.

    It was the damnedest thing, but he sure was a smart hitter. Staub held the bat like a girl, threw like a girl, ran like nothing of any gender I’ve seen, but somehow he was a superb ballplayer.

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