2010 Area Code Games, Day Two

LONG BEACH, Calif. — The 24th annual Area Code Games continues at Blair Field, with SPARQ test results being distributed to all in attendance.

Sponsored by Nike, SPARQ testing has been a fixture at the ACG for a decade.

Each athlete participates in (or suffers through, depending on his perspective) four different athletic tests: 60-yard dash, vertical leap, rotational power ball throw and shuttle test. The SPARQ staff records individual event scores and then a mathematical formula is used to record a cumulative grade for each player.

The top SPARQ rating for 2010 was achieved by Nick Williams, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound outfielder from Galveston Ball High in La Marque,Texas. Here is a stunning fact: Williams is a member of the 2012 class, and is only 16 years old. He recorded an 82.87 overall score.

Of course, all of the tests and numbers simply reignite an old baseball debate: How valuable is the SPARQ test (or any physical tests) in determining if a particular prospect can actually play baseball?

Upon receiving the test results, one scout disdainfully commented, “None of this (expletive) tells me if a guy is gonna hit!” True, the unique combination of extraordinary hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes required to be a great hitter can’t be measured. However, SPARQ results do open a window into other valuable physical skills necessary in baseball.

BA spoke to Andrew Knepper, an ACG organizer who has assisted in conducting SPARQ tests all over the country. Knepper broke down each test and applied it to baseball: “60 yard dash speed speaks for itself. We also incorporate 30 yard dash (90 feet, the distance from home to first) speed in the measurements.”

Knepper continued: “The vertical jump measures not just leaping ability, but explosion. Most people don’t realize how important the abs are in the vertical jump. The shuttle test measures an athlete’s lateral movement. Obviously, that’s important for middle infielders and outfielders.”

Finally, Knepper added: “The rotational ball throw measures core strength. Many actions in baseball are rotational, in which the hips and center of the body are used-hitting, throwing, pitching, etc.”

The most exciting—and the most visceral—aspect of the SPARQ tests is pure speed. Virtually all scouts skip past the other measurements and focus on the 60 yard dash times. Here are the top 5 finishers:

1) Fernelys Sanchez, NY Yankees 6.35
2) Johnny Eierman, White Sox 6.41
3) Desmond Henry, Brewers 6.47
4) Charles Tilson, White Sox 6.54
5) Derek Starling, White Sox & Connor McKay, Reds 6.56

Most seasoned baseball observers will no doubt assert that knowing how to use speed is significantly more important than raw speed. Two examples come to mind: Perhaps the fastest man in baseball history was Herb Washington, a world class sprinter from Michigan State hired by Charlie Finley exclusively to pinch run for the A’s in the mid 1970s.

In the ninth inning of the second game of the 1974 World Series, Dodger relief star Mike Marshall humiliated Washington by picking him off first by 2 feet. When the series shifted to Oakland, Washington again pinch ran and was on first with Marshall on the mound. Washington took a lead that could be measured in centimeters.

Several years ago, I spoke to a long time scout who is now affiliated with MLB’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton. He told me, surprisingly, that Rickey Henderson usually clocked only around 6.6 in 60 yard dashes. What made Henderson a great base stealer, the scout said, was his ability to get an incredibly quick jump and then reach peak speed in a minimum number of strides.

No doubt, the chicken and egg debate over the validity of physical skills tests in baseball will continue. No test, SPARQ included, can reveal if a player has a strong and accurate throwing arm, fluid fielding actions, baseball instincts and the unique set of complex coordination skills needed to hit—only a scouts observations can reveal those characteristics.