The fastest man in baseball says he can go even faster
By Tyler Kepner
The fastest man in the major leagues sounded almost embarrassed. Yes, Garrett Mitchell, a rookie center fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, had a home-to-first sprint speed of 4.01 seconds last season. Yes, that was the fastest time of more than 500 players tracked by Major League Baseball’s Statcast system.
No, Mitchell was not impressed.
“To me, that wasn’t that fast,” Mitchell said while standing by his locker at the Brewers’ complex in Phoenix before a game last week. “My fastest time that I’ve ever had, home to first, was like 3.89 or 3.91. So when people say, ‘Hey, you have the fastest time,’ I’m like, ‘Well, that was kind of slow. I could be a lot faster than that.’”
As MLB tries to encourage speed this season, with bigger bases and limits on pickoff throws, players like Mitchell are poised to make an impact. The major league leader in stolen bases last season was Miami’s Jon Berti, with 41, far from the record of 130, set by Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson for Oakland in 1982.
Henderson set the mark in Milwaukee that summer and got a ride to the postgame news conference from John Counsell, who worked for the Brewers. John’s 12-year-old son, Craig, hopped onto the golf cart with Henderson. Craig Counsell, now the Brewers’ manager, doubts he will recreate that moment with Mitchell — but he’s eager for a running revival.
“The era that we saw, I don’t think we’ll ever see that again,” Counsell said. “But the number for the league leader in stolen bases will be higher this year than it was last year. And I think we can go back to a world where we’ll see that player more, for sure. So I think it’s a fun thing.”
And Mitchell is a fun player, even if he’s not the biggest star in his family; his wife, professional softball player Haley Cruse Mitchell, has more than 850,000 followers on TikTok. She is part of a support system Mitchell credits with helping him thrive despite his Type 1 diabetes, a disease that may have scared off some teams before the 2020 draft.
Mitchell — who was first diagnosed at age 9 — hit .349 with 18 steals as a sophomore at UCLA. But he played only 15 games as a junior before the coronavirus pandemic ended the season. With less time to see his skills, the Brewers believe, rival teams may have overemphasized Mitchell’s medical condition.
“The COVID draft hurt him some because he couldn’t put another full year of really good performance out there,” said Tod Johnson, the Brewers’ vice president for domestic scouting. “And so, I think that let some people worry more about some of the other things that weren’t the performance.”
The Brewers — who are trying to develop position players to match their deep group of homegrown pitchers — were thrilled that Mitchell fell to them with the 20th overall pick. He made an immediate impression at his first spring training, in 2021, verifying the top-of-the-scale speed grade (the little-used “80”) that the Brewers gave him as a prospect.
“You look at him, and he’s not a small guy, not somebody you’d expect to run that way,” Johnson said of Mitchell, who is 6-foot-3 and 224 pounds. “His first game here, he hit a ground ball to second, and the second baseman had all kinds of time, but you could see him panic when he saw where Garrett was. I don’t know if he beat it out or not, but he certainly made that player speed up his game. And that’s what he does — he hits first gear really quick, accelerates from there and just takes off.”
Mitchell played only 132 games in the minors, with 34 steals in 37 attempts and a .382 on-base percentage. Promoted to Milwaukee in late August, he batted .311 in 28 games and swiped eight bases without being caught.
“The mindset I had was like: No one’s going to beat me here,” Mitchell said. “And it ended up working in my favor, a good amount of the time, which was nice. But it just reminded me about confidence.”
Mitchell, 24, has several examples of players with Type 1 diabetes who had substantial major league careers: among others, the list includes Hall of Famer Ron Santo, former pitchers Bill Gullickson and Jason Johnson, and former third baseman Dave Hollins.
Another, Sam Fuld, encouraged Mitchell in a phone call when Mitchell was a top high school prospect in Orange, California. As a boy, Fuld had met Gullickson at a game in Boston, and he told Mitchell how the discipline required to manage the disease could actually help him.
“It is a giant pain in the rear end that requires a lot of constant care and maintenance and patience — but ultimately, if you stay on top of it, you can use it to your advantage, because you are going to be in tune with your body and what you put into it,” said Fuld, who is now the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.
“And the reality is, it gives you a little bit of a chip on your shoulder, because there still is a stigma attached to the disease, not nearly to the extent that there was 50 years ago, when Ron Santo was playing, but there’s still people who have reservations in, say, committing to a professional athlete, or even an amateur athlete, and trusting that that person is going to be able to regulate their blood sugar and be able to stay on the field.”
Fuld spent much of his career as a reserve and said the sudden adrenaline rush from being called to pinch hit could sometimes cause his blood-sugar level to spike. He wears a glucose monitor now, but as a player, from 2007 to 2015, he would check his levels by pricking his finger every few innings.
“There’s a piece of your brain that’s occupied at all times: Where is my blood sugar? What am I eating? What was my exercise in the last 24 hours?” Fuld said. “You know, all these variables that affect your levels and your management. More than anything, it’s like a constant stress that exists, and there’s just no running from it.”
While an estimated 27 million adults in the United States have Type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1.6 million or so have been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that requires insulin as treatment. Mitchell keeps an insulin pump — about half the size of a cellphone — in his back left pocket during every game. The device serves the same purpose as shots, pumping insulin from a cartridge through a tube and into his body. Mitchell said he changes the infusion site every three days with a poke in his backside.
The disease, Mitchell knows, is part of his identity, and he is so open about it that he lists “Type 1 Diabetic,” along with his team name and a Bible verse, atop his Twitter and Instagram pages. He wants to inspire fans with more than his speed.
“I love meeting kids off the field who are diabetic — like, ‘Hey, Garrett! I’m Type 1! Type 1 Warrior,’” Mitchell said. “Things like that, it’s really cool.”