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Compared with the major contact sports of football and hockey, it would seem that professional baseball players don’t really have to be as large to succeed. But, is that really so? Does height and size matter in baseball?
While some diminutive baseball players succeed or even thrive in Major League Baseball (MLB), overall, the game’s insiders prefer bigger body sizes, especially for pitchers. The reasons vary, including injury prevention, considering the huge salaries of modern professional baseball players.
This is especially true for pitchers, particularly starting pitchers who endure a tremendous amount of strain on their shoulders and elbows after throwing dozens upon dozens of pitches at full effort. Even relief pitchers can be challenged physically, when popped into high-stress situations with short notice where they must exert maximum energy to succeed.
Durability also is a consideration for position players, though for them, baseball scouts and executives look for size more in terms of power potential with the bat. Baseball players just have gotten bigger and bigger in recent decades, for a number of reasons. Let’s look at some.
Big Baseball Pitchers
They say throwing a baseball overhand is not a natural physical movement for human beings. That’s debatable, but what is not is the fact that more baseball pitchers than seemingly ever are suffering significant and career-threatening injuries.
The preference of MLB clubs for bigger-sized pitchers goes back many years, at least to the mid-1990s when the Los Angeles Dodgers chose to trade away future Hall of Fame hurler Pedro Martinez, because they thought his career would be short due to his thin body build. He was 5-feet 11-inches tall but weighed “only” 195 lbs.
He went on to win 210 games in his career and is considered by some to be among the best pitchers in MLB history. However, once into his 30s, Martinez did begin to suffer more injuries, and his performance numbers declined noticeably in his final seasons.
Pro baseball scouts definitely consider and search for size in pitchers to draft. Not only is a bigger body less prone to breaking down — a problem especially for very thin pitchers — a tall and thick pitcher standing atop the raised pitcher’s mound can be more intimidating to batters. Think Randy Johnson and his 6-feet, 10-inch frame. Taller pitchers also have higher release points, increasing the downward angle of the coming ball making it harder to hit squarely.
Size and Power with Pro Baseball Hitters
It’s no secret that strength plays a role in how far, or maybe even how hard, a player can hit a baseball. How much so is debatable, however. Hitting a baseball coming at you with a round bat is considered the hardest single action in sports — something Jeff Bagwell noted when he said taking Androstenedione, a steroid hormone, did not help him hit baseballs.
Nonetheless, muscle strength and body mass do contribute to baseball power numbers like home runs. It’s a major reason why so many players tinkered with dangerous steroids before scandal swept that problem from the game. (Note that some players took steroids not for strength but to more quickly recover from injuries therefore return to the field faster and generate statistics needed for big contracts).
Even without steroids, big and strong players today still pack a wallop, like Giancarlo Stanton of the New York Yankees, among the strongest and most-powerful hitters in the game.
All this does not preclude young players small in stature from developing into outstanding professional baseball players. Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros is a prime example, getting both foot speed and hitting power out of his 5-foot, 6-inch, 165-lbs. body.
Other “size-challenged” superstars to note are Joe Morgan, who won back-to-back most valuable player (MVP) awards with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s, and the entire Los Angeles Dodgers infield of that era, where none of the 4 players exceeded 5-feet, 10-inches tall.
In older days, bigger players were reserved for pitchers, catchers, and maybe some tall first basemen or bulky corner outfielders. That began to change in the 1980s when Cal Ripken became a very big, slugging shortstop. He was followed by bigger, slugging infielders like Ryne Sandberg and Alex Rodriguez, and today some shortstops are among the hardest-hitting players around.
- Perception. For a long, long time, baseball scouts considered defense the primary focus of middle infielders — the shortstop and second basemen. You had players like Mark Belanger who could barely hit but was thought to have defensive skills that would help prevent runs from scoring.
- Ripken, not only for his size but exceptional fielding skills, began to change that. Sandberg also, at second base, was a superb fielder despite being larger than most other players at his position.
- That shift, from the erroneous perception, that players at some positions were not expected to hit long balls, resulted in more young players sticking to infield positions even as their bodies grew bigger.
- Add to that less value on defense skills in baseball, pretty much at all levels. Gone are the days of the 1-0 pitchers’ duels of the 1960s, in favor of more home runs and game slug-fests all too often promoted by MLB officials with juiced balls, smaller stadiums and rule interpretations favorable to hitters (like umpires’ shrunken version of the strike zone).
All these factors contribute to the value placed on player sizes by American professional baseball scouts and officials.
True at the School Level, Too
Baseball scouts eyeing high school or college players have taken size into consideration for decades. If a very young player is considered a borderline pro, but is only 5-feet, 9-inches tall for example, it would be very hard for him to capture attention from scouts. The same talent level on a player who is 6-feet, 2-inches or more, or who weighs closer to 200 lbs, will attract more interest.
It’s interesting to note that MLB teams more than ever are looking at college players to draft, instead of grabbing players right out of high school. The reason is twofold, starting with the fact that play at high-level colleges is considered the equivalent of the highest minor leagues, and therefore statistics for college players are available and can be reliable for comparisons.
The other reason is, many human beings still grow from age 18-on, and it is hard if not impossible to determine how large they will be when they reach around 22 or 23 years old, or the age when players usually crack major league rosters.
Size might not be a primary factor when evaluating young talent for pro baseball … But it definitely is a major consideration.
Question: Who was the smallest Major League player?
Answer: Eddie Gaedel of the St. Louis Browns in 1951, but his single at-bat was considered a publicity stunt to attract fans for a moribound franchise. At 3-feet, 7-inches tall, Gaedel’s tiny strike zone resulted in a base on balls after 4 straight errant pitches. The next day, baseball’s commissioner said rostering Gaedel made a “mockery of the game” and voided his contract.
Q.: Who was the biggest?
A.: Pitcher Jon Rauch was the tallest ever, at 6-feet, 11-inches tall. He retired after the 2014 MLB season, after a lengthy career playing for the White Sox, Expos (and later, Nationals), Diamondbacks, Twins, Blue Jays, Mets and Marlins. Weight-wise, Walter Young played briefly with the Baltimore Orioles in 2005, at 315 lbs. (and 6-feet, 5-inches in height, as a first baseman and designated hitter). Prior, a player named Jumbo Brown weighed as much as 295 lbs. and played in MLB from 1925 to 1941.