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The height of players in major American sports can vary greatly – a phenomenon created by the particular demands of each game. The commonly stated average height of a Major League Baseball player is 6’ 1.5”, or basically not quite 6’ 2”. Note that this is well above the 5’ 9” average height of today’s American male.
Among major sports in the United States, only hockey players are smaller on average, at about 6’ 1”. Average National Basketball Players are 6’ 7” and pro football players are around 6’2” tall. If you consider NASCAR a major sport, they are the smallest at an average of a little more than 5’ 8” tall.
Does Height Matter in Baseball?
New or average fans may not know this, but in baseball the legs are where the power lies, and the longer, the better. Taller pitchers take advantage of long legs and big thighs to generate velocity on pitches, and also to release the ball closer to the plate which shortens the time a batter has to decide whether to swing. Some say tall pitchers also have an advantageous high release point making their pitches arrive at a steeper, harder-to-hit downward angle.
Taller batters can be at a disadvantage, because of a larger strike zone up and down. However, less-than-average-height batters lose power due to their shorter body frames. Batters generate much power from their hips and upper legs.
Baseball might appear to be a game of arms, but deep down much depends on the legs for power, and feet for mobility and nimbleness.
What’s the Minimum Height Requirement in the MLB?
There is none. However, tinkering around with very short players to shrink strike zones and therefore gain more base on balls is generally frowned upon.
The smallest player in MLB history was Eddie Gaedel, a 3’ 7” pinch-hitter who drew a walk in his only at bat in 1951. It was a publicity stunt during World War II when crowds were sparse with the war efforts, and Gaedel was later banned from the game for making a “mockery” of it.
Still, shorter players do indeed benefit from shorter strike zones. It’s why many of them are placed atop batting lineups, to get on base however possible like by base on balls, for the sluggers behind them to move them around the bases to hopefully score runs.
MLB Player’s Height By Position
There are no rules for heights for baseball players per the positions they play – but there are tradition-based suggestions. Managers often prefer tall players at first base, to expand their range to grab balls thrown to them and also to provide a big target for other infielders to aim at. Catchers are rarely very tall considering all the squatting and close-to-the-dirt play. Pitchers, especially in modern times, tend to be taller.
In the past, middle infielders used to be quite thin and small, but the trend shifted starting with Cal Ripken and Ryne Sandberg in the 1980s, and Alex Rodriguez and Jeff Kent in the 1990s. Most middle-infielders today are expected to swing the bat with authority and not just be defensive specialists a la Mark Belanger of the Baltimore Orioles circa late-1960s to early 1970s.
Pitchers, first-basemen and right-fielders log in at the same height, on average the tallest of MLB players. The generally accepted average MLB players’ heights, by position:
- Pitcher: 6’ 2.5”
- Catcher: About 6’
- First-Baseman: same as Pitcher and Right-Fielder, 6’ 2.5”
- Second-Baseman: 5’ 11”
- Third-Baseman: 6’ 1”
- Shortstop: Bit over 6’
- Left-Fielder: Just over 6’
- Center-Fielder: 6’ 1.5”
- Right-Fielder: Same as Pitcher and First-Baseman, 6’ 2.5”
For a designated hitter, just consider what position he played prior to becoming a DH. Few players, if any, progress through the minor leagues just as a DH; and many designated hitters still roam the field at times, like J.D. Martinez of the Boston Red Sox today, who could be seen in the outfield or even at first base at times. (Martinez is 6’ 3”).
Some players defy expectations with their height per their position, or overall size compared with the era they played. Hall of Famer Honus Wagner, for instance, was considered a behemoth at shortstop at 5’ 11” and 200 lbs. at the start of the 20th century. He was a superb hitter, and was considered a very good if not excellent fielder.
Minnesota Twins standout Joe Mauer was very tall for his catcher position, at 6’ 5”. Then again, he was known more for his hitting prowess than defensive abilities. Whitey Ford and Tommy Lasorda were just 5’ 10” – Ford landed in the Hall of Fame, Lasorda didn’t pitch much in the majors but later made fame as a manager.
- Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson brought attention to pitchers’ heights when he started dominating hitters in the 1990s. He is 6’ 10” tall.
- Chris Young of the San Diego Padres gained headlines for his 6’ 10” frame, from 2004 to 2017. Later in his career, he teamed with the tallest MLB player ever, Jon Rauch at 6’ 11” tall. Next up: the MLB’s first 7-footer?
- Height does not matter? The infield for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the latter 1970s into the early ‘80s broke a record for playing together for the longest period of time. Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey won a World Series and played in three other fall classics, with all of them well under 6 feet tall.
- At the other end of the spectrum, today’s second-baseman Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros is the shortest MLB player at 5’ 6” tall – and he’s considered a superstar.
- Babe Ruth was 6’ 2” tall, way above the average American’s height at the time. American males have grown consistently taller since then, though the trend appears to be stalling in recent years.
- A reason the Los Angeles Dodgers stated for trading away young pitcher Pedro Martinez was his small body frame, which club officials believed would make him prone to career-threatening injury. Martinez is 5’ 11” with a playing weight of 195 – still solid compared with average American sizes – and he went on to a long career and election into the baseball Hall of Fame.
Can a tall batter fiddle with the strike zone, such as by exaggerated crouching?
Yes and no. The strike zone is determined by a player’s batting stance as he or she is ready to swing at a pitched ball. This is important, because sometimes a batter starts with an exaggerated stance, only to naturally rise as he prepares to actually swing. It’s during this latter part of a swing that an umpire sets the strike zone.
Therefore, crouching dramatically before a pitch does little before a swing. However, it could provide an optical illusion to the umpire that the strike zone is smaller, and also lead to a batter swinging while still kind of in a crouch (probably not a good thing hitting-wise, though).
The strike zone itself has been adjusted many times. Today, it’s upper portion is at the mid-point between the top of the shoulders, down to the bottom of a player’s knees. There have been several top-bottom adjustments over the years, but in every case the ball also must pass over a portion of home plate to be called a strike.
Are there any other tips to help an umpire determine a batter’s strike zone?
Some batters believe wearing the uniform a certain way helps. For instance, former batting champion Bill Madlock famously wore his pants high up to the knee, during an era where pants typically went to the mid-calf or lower. Why? To help the umpire know precisely where the low end of the strike zone was located, to deter low balls from being called strikes.