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The Height Report Major league scouts and general managers are panting over very tall pitchers, because they believe that, indeed, bigger is better

Aug. 13, 2001
Aug. 13, 2001

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Aug. 13, 2001

College Football Preview 2001

The Height Report Major league scouts and general managers are panting over very tall pitchers, because they believe that, indeed, bigger is better

A new breed of pitchers, long of shank and high of pocket, is
beginning to cast a far-reaching shadow over baseball's landscape
like stalks of genetically modified corn. We speak, of course, of
tall pitchers, those high-kicking, sun-blocking chuckers who may
ultimately redefine the most important position in the game.

This is an article from the Aug. 13, 2001 issue Original Layout

It wasn't too long ago that Jim Palmer, a willowy 6'3", was
considered tall for a pitcher. The average Hall of Fame pitcher
stands 6'1", the height of such legends as Walter Johnson, Grover
Cleveland Alexander, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver. Don Drysdale, who
has the distinction of being the tallest pitcher inducted, at
6'6", was so outsized that his nickname was Big D.

That was 40 years ago. If Drysdale were to enter the big leagues
today, he'd answer to Average D. A recent study by Stats Inc.
found that of the 1,532 pitchers who worked in the big leagues
from 1990 through 2000, 214 were 6'5" or taller, nearly twice the
number (108) of those who stood less than 6 feet. The trend is
accelerating. Among the top 18 picks in this year's draft, six
were pitchers who are 6'5" or taller. Last year two 6'7" pitchers
were drafted in the first round.

As of Sunday there were 45 pitchers 6'5" or bigger on major
league rosters, led by the Big Unit, 6'10" Randy Johnson of the
Arizona Diamondbacks (14-5, 2.45 ERA), who for now is the top of
the line. Two 6'6" pitchers, righthander Jason Johnson of the
Baltimore Orioles (9-6, 3.18) and lefthander Mark Mulder of the
Oakland A's (13-6, 3.30), were third and fifth respectively in
ERA in the American League. The day of the 7-foot pitcher isn't
far away. A 6'10" lefthander, 22-year-old Ryan Anderson, pitched
for the Seattle Mariners' Triple A affiliate in Tacoma last
season. Mariners, shmariners. They should change their name to
the Brobdingnagians. Seattle's staff, which used to include
Johnson, has two 6'4" pitchers, Freddy Garcia and Kazuhiro
Sasaki; two who are 6'5", John Halama and Aaron Sele; and 6'8"
Jeff Nelson. In their minor league system, Seattle also has 6'9"
Phil Cullen, who plays basketball at Utah, and a 6'7" Russian,
Oleg (the Big O) Korneev. "I thought I was big until I stood
beside Anderson last year," says 21-year-old C.C. Sabathia, a
6'7" lefthander who through Sunday was 10-4 as a starter for the
Cleveland Indians. "I think all scouts are looking for taller
guys."

Given a choice between a promising big pitcher and a promising
small pitcher, scouts will take the big man every time. "I know
of nine clubs who tell their scouts not to bother turning in
recommendations on righthanded pitchers who aren't at least
6'2"," says Tom House, a former major league pitcher and pitching
coach who is a consultant to several teams. "They see a big guy
and they see raw tools. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that
pitchers will keep getting bigger. Nobody ever got fired for
drafting a 6'5" pitcher who throws over 90 miles per hour."

So what if two of the most dominating pitchers in the game, 5'11"
Pedro Martinez and 6-foot Greg Maddux, are small (by comparison)
righthanders? Or that there's little statistical evidence to show
that tall pitchers are more effective than short ones? To the
contrary, Stats Inc. found that with the exception of 6'10"
pitchers--a category of two players, Johnson and Eric Hillman (New
York Mets, 1992-94) whose numbers are skewed by Johnson--the only
three heights with winning percentages were 5'11" (.528), 6-foot
(.518) and 6'1" (.506). The 30 pitchers who were 6'7" had a
dismal .475 percentage, the highest ERA (4.50) and the lowest
save percentage (.538), and were tied with pitchers who stood
6'5" for permitting opponents the highest batting average (.268),
if you discounted the only 5'8" pitcher, Dan Boone, who last
pitched for the Orioles in '93.

While baseball's infatuation with tall pitchers may sound like
malarkey, there's an explanation for the statistical superiority
of the little guys. "We don't give every player the same
opportunity to succeed," says 6'6" Jim Beattie, general manager
of the Montreal Expos and a former big league pitcher. "Smaller
pitchers have to be very successful at every level, or they'll
fail. Only the very best advance. With the bigger guys, we're
more patient. The thinking is, We can't teach velocity, but we
can teach the breaking ball."

Tall pitchers have science on their side. "In terms of the
fundamentals of physics, teams are not wrong in drafting taller
pitchers," says Paul Lagace, an MIT professor of Aeronautics,
Astronautics and Engineering Systems. "Think of it in terms of a
seesaw, which is a lever. If you're going to seesaw with your
child, you move toward the middle--the point of rotation. Your
child, who's farther out on the seesaw, will move at a faster
velocity than you. The force times the distance to the point of
rotation is what's important. In pitching, the point of rotation
is your shoulder. So if you have a longer arm moving at the same
rate of speed as a shorter arm, the ball at the point of release
of the longer arm is moving faster."

The human body, in fact, can be thought of as a series of levers.
Where the foot touches the rubber is, according to Lagace, one
point of rotation. The shoulder is another. The hips are a third.
Even the length of a pitcher's fingers can help generate greater
spin on the ball. "All else being equal, a tall pitcher can
produce more velocity," he says.

Of course, all else is never equal. Lagace, a Boston Red Sox fan,
concedes that the 5'11" Martinez is one of the best pitchers in
the game, which he explains by pointing out that Martinez's long,
flexible fingers enable him to impart tremendous spin on the
ball. Cleveland's Bartolo Colon, who's 6 feet, throws 100 mph.
The Houston Astros' Billy Wagner is 5'11" and throws 98.

"The small muscles in the shoulder are what generate speed," says
Beattie, who was one of the tallest pitchers of the 1980s but was
not one of the game's hardest throwers. "Flexibility is a big
component. I remember watching Ron Guidry, who was 5'11", 160
pounds and one of the hardest throwers in baseball, being
stretched by [the New York Yankees'] trainer. He could get his
arm and forearm into angles that I wouldn't have dreamed of."

"Size is a predictor of where we think a guy's going to go, not a
guarantee," says Mike Brown, the Indians' pitching coordinator.
"The minor leagues are filled with guys who are 6'5" but throw
only 88. Besides, velocity doesn't [necessarily] get major league
hitters out. Command and control and movement are all more
important than pure velocity. But if everyone had the same
natural ability, the taller guy would be harder to hit."

Why? Two reasons that are unrelated to pure speed. First, if his
mechanics are right, a tall pitcher's release point is perhaps a
foot or more closer to the plate than a short pitcher's, a
distinction that isn't picked up by the radar gun. "In the
batter's eyes the ball seems to be going faster," says House.
"It's on the hitter more quickly. The rule of thumb is that one
foot of distance equates to three miles per hour in the hitter's
eyes."

Second, the angle of the path of the ball is steeper when
delivered over the top by a tall pitcher. "Those downward angles
are really tough on a hitter," says Anaheim Angels hitting coach
Mickey Hatcher. "When I faced [former Astros righthander] J.R.
Richard, who was 6'8", his angles and release point made it seem
that he was right on top of me."

"Being higher on that mound is an advantage; no one can dispute
that," says 6'6" Ed Lynch, a former major league pitcher who's a
scout for the Chicago Cubs. "You're up on that hill, pitching on
a downward plane, and the steeper the angle of the ball crossing
the plate, the [tougher it is for the hitter to get a bead on
it]."

"To take it to an extreme," says Beattie, "it would be very, very
tough to hit a pitch dropped from the top of a building."

Conversely, a ball that comes in flat, like one thrown by a
pitching machine, is relatively easy for a major league hitter to
zero in on, no matter how fast it travels. "Eddie Mathews used to
say he could time a 747 jet going through the strike zone," says
Beattie. "By the time hitters get to the big leagues, they can
all hit straight gas."

Crooked gas is another matter. "All the angles change when you're
hitting against a tall pitcher," says Princeton baseball coach
Scott Bradley, who caught Johnson when they were both with the
Mariners. "Batters aren't used to seeing the ball released 7 1/2
feet off the ground. When I first caught Randy, I used to turn my
glove over on a low strike, thinking the ball was going to be in
the dirt, and get handcuffed when it came in at the knees.
Batters took that pitch all the time. The downward angle was so
steep it fooled their eyes."

Chris Young, a 6'10" righthander who played for Bradley at
Princeton the past two seasons and now pitches for the Hickory
(N.C.) Crawdads, a Pittsburgh Pirates Class A team, has noticed
that even umpires get fooled by the angles of his pitches. "My
breaking pitches start so high that sometimes an umpire gives up
on them too early," says Young, who through Sunday had only nine
walks in 41 2/3 innings while putting together a 3-2 record.
"They have to make adjustments too."

A former basketball star with the Tigers, Young is the prototype
of the pitcher of the future, combining extreme height with
athleticism. "Being 6'10" is such an advantage, I almost don't
know how to explain it," he says. "It's a little like being a
lefty, only more so. It's a completely different look. Against me
batters tend to take a lot of low strikes and chase a lot of high
fastballs. I've noticed that guys catching me in the bullpen for
the first time usually drop a few balls at the knees because they
think they're going in the dirt. I may have to work harder on my
mechanics than a smaller guy, on things like my balance and
timing and extending my release point, but I wouldn't trade my
height for anything. I know all that work will be worth it."

In April 2000 Bradley took Young and a few Princeton teammates to
Philadelphia when the Diamondbacks were playing the Phillies so
they could meet Johnson. "Randy knew Chris pitched, saw his size
and took him aside and talked to him about how important it was
to understand his mechanics," Bradley says. "When you're as tall
as they are, any tiny variation--in the angle of the arm, the
release point, the tempo--leads to a big variation 60 feet away.
Randy wasn't the pitcher he is today when he came to Seattle [in
1989]. It took him a long time to understand his delivery.
Everything he does now is more controlled and at a slower tempo."

After five years in the majors Johnson's record was 49-48,
largely because of seasons like the one he had in 1991, when he
walked 152 batters in 201 innings. "Once in a while, when he was
3 and 0 on a hitter, he'd let loose a 98 mile per hour fastball
[so wild] I couldn't catch it," says Bradley. "I'd go out and ask
if he did it on purpose, and he'd sort of smile and say it
slipped. But it was important for hitters to see that pitch every
so often. If you're a lefthanded batter facing Randy [whose
delivery is either three quarters or sidearm], it can't be a
comfortable feeling. The ball always starts behind you. There's a
lot of trust involved that he knows where it's going."

"Most taller pitchers were not successful at a young age," says
Toronto Blue Jays vice president Tim Wilken. "Johnson, Richard,
Nelson, Steve Carlton [6'3"]. They take longer learning to
control their delivery because they have more room for error."

"How many 6'7" professional golfers are there?" asks House. "The
taller you are, the harder it is to master the biomechanics of
pitching. A small person is more coordinated with his extremities
than a big guy."

So goes the thinking, though some of those theories may have to
be recast in light of the stunning success Sabathia has enjoyed
this season in Cleveland. Sabathia, a 260-pound former tight end
from Vallejo, Calif., who also played youth soccer, rejects the
suggestion that he's less coordinated than a smaller pitcher--in
his extremities or anywhere else. "He's learning at the major
league level," says Brown, the Indians' pitching coordinator,
"but he has the athleticism that allows him to make fundamental
adjustments."

After putting up mediocre numbers last year in the minors,
Sabathia changed his delivery during Cleveland's winter
development program, and he has been on a roll ever since. Dick
Pole, the Indians' pitching coach, suggested Sabathia abbreviate
his windup, so instead of lifting his hands over his head,
Sabathia leaves his hands at his chest and takes a little rocker
step to trigger his delivery, as Johnson does. "It's short and
compact and felt comfortable the first time I tried it," says
Sabathia, who believes one reason tall pitchers take longer to
develop is that they're so overpowering in their youth that they
don't have to master the nuances of the craft. "In high school I
threw 95 percent fastballs and was blowing guys away. I used to
wind up like Kevin Brown, twisting around so my back was to the
plate. I didn't know where the ball was going. Then last year,
when I pitched in A and AA, guys were sitting on my fastball. I
had to learn how to pitch."

Sabathia mixes a changeup and slurve with a fastball that reaches
97 mph to keep hitters off balance and has shown impressive
control for a young power pitcher by averaging only 2.86 walks
per start. "I have more control of my body since I don't have to
move around too much," he says. "The key is to stay tall during
the delivery. If I collapse the back leg and dip down, the ball
goes up, and that's when I get into trouble." He has also worked
hard at holding runners on, which is a challenge for outsized
pitchers. "There's no way a guy who's 6'7" is as quick to the
plate as a guy who's 5'11"," says Mike Brown, "and if he is, he's
giving up his best stuff."

"In high school I never developed a pickoff move because very few
runners got on," Sabathia says. "Teams are trying to run on me,
but they try to run on Johnson, too."

As in other areas, Sabathia has proved to be a quick study. He's
mastered the slide step from the stretch, and in the July 18 game
against the Chicago White Sox in which Sabathia got his ninth
win, both Chicago runners who tried to steal on him were thrown
out. "Every time C.C. goes out, he gets smoother," says Cleveland
manager Charlie Manuel. "He reminds me of Jim Kaat, a big guy
[6'4"] with a very compact delivery. He's got good balance and
rhythm. For someone who throws 97 miles per hour, he's not a
maximum effort guy."

That is the beauty of leverage: maximizing force while minimizing
strain and effort. Which is why many baseball people think that
tall pitchers will prove more durable over time than smaller
ones. Certainly the 37-year-old Johnson (a major-league-high 259
strikeouts) shows no signs of slowing down. "You're looking for
good, clean, efficient arm action," says Brown. "That's the
predictor of long-term durability."

"Most old baseball guys will tell you that the model for the
perfect pitcher is 6'2" to 6'4"," says Bradley, "but they used to
say the same thing about point guards in basketball. From a
coordination and agility standpoint, these big athletic kids have
been doing the same things the little guys have done their whole
lives, riding skateboards, playing soccer, playing golf,
whatever. The big guy in basketball is saying, 'Hey, I can
dribble. I can shoot the three-pointer.' The big guy in baseball
is saying, 'I can pitch.'"

B/W PHOTO: LEONARD MCCOMBE/TIMEPIX Tall pitchers aren't an entirely new phenomenon, as this 1954 photo of 6'8" Brave Gene Conley shows. [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG FOSTER The Mariners are head and shoulders above the rest of the majors, thanks in no small part to their roof-raising pitching staff. John Halama 6'5" Freddy Garcia 6'4" Jeff Nelson 6'8" Aaron Sele 6'5" Kazuhiro Sasaki 6'4"COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZAGARIS The XL Files Dominating pitchers such as the A's 6'6" Mulder and the Diamondbacks' 6'10" Johnson look down on hitters, in more ways than one.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Crawdaddy longlegs The 6'10" Young was Princeton's starting center in basketball but now pitches for the Pirates' Single A team.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Small caveat Even though he's only 5'11", Martinez's long fingers give him a little bit of a big guy's advantage on the hill.
"Nine clubs tell scouts not to bother with recommendations on
righthanded pitchers who aren't at least 6'2"," says House.
Young is the prototype of the pitcher of the future, combining
extreme height with athleticism.
"Smaller pitchers have to be successful at every level, or
they'll fail," says Beattie. "With bigger guys, we're patient."