For nearly a century, MLB scouts used the 60-yard dash to evaluate foot speed. Here's why that’s changing.

At this week's MLB Draft Combine, prospects instead ran a 30-yard dash.

PHOENIX — To the eye of a traditionalist baseball scout, something would have looked amiss at the 2024 MLB Draft Combine.

The 60-yard dash, long a staple of the baseball showcase experience akin to the 40-yard dash in football scouting, had gotten a haircut and a facelift. Once upon a time, the running exam was hand-timed by armies of scouts using stopwatches. But those days are long gone. Instead, all the amateur players at Chase Field ran a 30-yard dash.

A player would line up at the start line in a steal position, feet perpendicular to the running lane, right elbow dangling at the ready. A 2-foot-long runway stretched from the right-field foul line into the green expanse. Lining the runway, placed at 5-yard intervals, were electronic sensors topped by circular LED screens that displayed a player’s split times almost instantaneously as he jetted past them.

It was all fittingly futuristic, a sign that MLB’s amateur operations staff is trying to adapt to the times. But the biggest, most drastic change to the sprint test was the distance itself. The 60-yard dash, long the accepted distance by which scouts assessed foot speed, had been chopped in half.

For more than 80 years, “the 60” was a crucial part of baseball evaluation. With the explosion of the high school showcase industry in the late 20th century, it became only more essential. MLB hopefuls trained specifically for the event, trying to get their run times underneath the seven-second mark that most talent evaluators considered around average. The idea of an MLB-organized showcase without a 60-yard dash would’ve been inconceivable even 10 years ago.

In fact, most current major-league position players can recall, almost immediately, the fastest 60 times they ever ran. “7 flat,” Royals first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino remembered. “On turf at James Madison.”

The origins of the 60-yard dash date to the early days of American track and field. The 1904 St. Louis Olympics featured the event, despite confusion from visiting athletes about the imperial system. Baseball likely adopted the practice at some point in the mid-20th century. Rod Nelson, a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) scouts committee, explained to Yahoo Sports that while the exact origins are hazy, it’s likely that legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey was involved.

“Rickey was a strong advocate for the universality of speed and emphasized the speed tool as being prerequisite in player evaluation,” Nelson said.

Rickey, who is best known for being the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager involved in Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier, is also considered the godfather of modern scouting. Across a four-decade stretch as an executive in the game, Rickey was the brains behind many innovations. The modern farm system, for instance, is his invention, and much of modern scouting parlance can be traced back to Rickey. The 60-yard dash is no different.

Howie Haak, a disciple of Rickey’s in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, was quoted in “Dollar Sign on the Muscle,” perhaps the most important book in baseball scouting, waxing poetic on the importance of the 60.

“Rickey was a fanatic about speed, and I guess I am, too. And you can see for yourself: the [teams that] are built on speed win. I like to get a stopwatch time on a kid in a 60-yard dash, because in baseball you run 60 yards more than you do anything: first to third, second to home, center field to right-center.”

Al Campanis, another student of Rickey’s, once said the following about watching the legendary Roberto Clemente run the 60 for the first time:

"Everybody’s running about 7.2, 7.3, which is average major league time. Then Clemente came and ran a 6.4-plus. That’s a track man’s time! And in a baseball uniform! I asked him to run again, and he was even a little faster. He could fly! Hell, the world’s record then was only 6.1. I couldn’t believe it."

Pat Gillick, one of the most respected baseball executives of the past half-century and a living, breathing encyclopedia of scouting, explained to Yahoo Sports why he and many other veteran evaluators valued the 60.

“It’s a great way to evaluate stride and athleticism. You can see, does he have a quick two or three steps? Can he maintain that speed? Making guys face off, lining 'em up against each other, that’s a great way to see how competitive they are.”

Before advancements enhanced and complicated the scouting process — long before motion-tracking tech such as StatCast and Trackman could measure batted ball data — the 60-yard dash was the only objective measurement around. Even radar guns, which became commonplace in the mid-1970s, were inconsistent and subject to user error. The 60-yard dash gave evaluators something much more reliable, grounded and factual.

“It was more than just the time. It was how the kid was running the 60,” Gillick said. Home to second, first to third — these were useful things to see.

But what Gillick once saw with his eyes can now be evaluated by technology.

Today, there are a plethora of ways for teams to gather hard data, many of which were on display at this year’s Draft Combine. Force plates measured how much power players impart into the ground when leaping into the air. There was also a “grip strength” station, where players squeezed a contraption that measured how many pounds of force they generate with their hands. There were range of motion exercises, balance tests, stretching and flexibility assessments. And, of course, there’s all the ball-tracking technology that has revolutionized the game over the past five years: batted-ball distance and velocity for hitters, pitch speed, break and spin for pitchers.

All that forward progress made MLB reevaluate why exactly it was having players run the 60. And so, since the first MLB Draft Combine in 2021, the league has exclusively featured the 30-yard version. Other showcase companies still offer the opportunity to run the 60, but it’s gradually falling out of fashion as evaluators find more meaning in the shorter distance.

Why? It’s simple: Baseball players never run 60 yards in a straight line.

Yes, the distance between three bases is 180 feet, but players in games are turning left as they move. That adds more distance to the tally and means the sprint involves a lot more agility, a similar but distinct type of athleticism to straight-line speed.

Adding split times into the sprint test also allows evaluators to investigate not just a player’s total time but also how quickly he gets up to top speed. That’s especially vital in assessing defensive ability. So many plays are won or lost within the first second of action. A player’s “jump” is often a more determinative factor than his raw foot speed. Who cares how fast a car can go if it takes forever to get there?

Admittedly, scouts, officials and players are much less familiar with this new paradigm. Baseball people know what a bad, good or elite 60 time is. The shorter distance makes things much less intuitive. For instance, a Florida prep shortstop named Kellon Lindsey ran the quickest 30-yard dash time at the combine on Thursday, at 3.538 seconds. The 15th-fastest time was only 0.129 seconds slower.

But according to MLB front-office personnel and players of all ages, the shift to the 30 is a welcome step in the right direction. For years, the 60 was considered archaic, an outdated and unnecessary appendage from an era of scouting gone by. The 30 is much more insightful, another helpful tool as teams sift through the hundreds of players they see each year.

As Rickey wrote in a 1954 article in Life magazine: “Baseball people are generally allergic to new ideas. … I remember that it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms. ... It is the hardest thing in the world to get big league baseball to change anything — even spikes on a new pair of shoes. But they will … eventually. They are bound to.”

Continual change is a given, an inevitability.

“If we’re being honest,” one high-level evaluator told Yahoo Sports. “The 10-yard dash is actually even better.”