It’s Tough Being a (Very) Tall Pitcher

This year, we’ve seen the debut of two 24-year-old lefties who have taken their own paths to the big leagues. Jordan Montgomery in New York and Sean Newcomb in Atlanta both look like they’re dealing, but they’ve had to work to get here. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-5, respectively, it’s worth wondering if their height has slowed down the development of their command, if it’s taken them longer to get their impressive levers in the right places. There’s some evidence that might be the case. But these two pitchers remind us that there are very few absolutes when it comes to mechanics, and that even tall pitchers are as different from each other as they are from the general population.

Montgomery admitted that his height led to mechanical issues that he had to correct. “I was a really bad tilt guy in college, not using my legs and leaning too far,” he said. Having a good four-seamer with spin and ride meant he wanted to release far out in front, but long limbs also meant that he wouldn’t always release it in the same place, or he would tilt his spine to yank the arm through and get it to the release point. “I’m too far in front some days. The days I’m pulling out and tilting too much, trying to sink it too much, those days I have lower velocity,” he pointed out.

Eventually, he ironed it out. But between college and two full seasons in the minors, he debuted at 24. That’s actually almost precisely average for the entire population of pitchers. (The exact number is 24.4.) Montgomery looks a bit better than average, though. In that way, he’s a bit old, as good players tend to debut at a younger age.

At last year’s Arizona Fall League, our Eric Longenhagen was on a panel for the First Pitch event, and he was asked about Braves lefty Sean Newcomb. There was some equivocating on the panel, and then Eric was decisive: “I like Newcomb. Not only do I like his stuff, I tend to think that tall pitchers — particularly lefties — seem to take longer to figure out their mechanics.” Let’s say I was skeptical about a pitcher regularly running walk rates over one every two innings in the minor leagues.

Newcomb has since come up and done well early, and done well in a way that goes beyond results on balls in play. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out, his rolling called-strike rate has been improving for some time now, something that the pitcher himself noticed. “I’ve been doing better at Gwinnett this year, making better pitches,” he said the day after his great start against the Padres.

For Newcomb, though, the thing that clicked was mental. “It was more of an aggressiveness, effort type of thing,” he said. “I’d be thinking, this is another minor-league game, I would go out there and not be as aggressive as I should have been. Mentality.”

He didn’t think that there was a mechanical reason for his improvement so far. “My mechanics are pretty consistent. I haven’t done anything since I got drafted. Over time, it’s been working itself out, sort of.”

There has been some benefit from not throwing his third pitch some — “I definitely threw my change more in the minors, haven’t thrown ten total up here. It’s pretty solid, but it’ll run away from me sometimes,” he said — but that’s not the mechanical adjustment we were looking for. That came way earlier on. Being tall and repeating his mechanics “was definitely an adjustment early on, in college. [I] had to grow into my mechanics, and got consistent there.”

But now he’s here and right about on average time. And that makes sense. Take a look at the average debut age by pitcher height, and the average age a pitcher first got to two wins above replacement by height:

You’ll notice that most of the lines for debut are right around that 24.4 number cited above, and that it only really gets close to 25 when you get taller than six-foot-eight. The Randy Johnson Effect, if you will. There’s some evidence that the tallest of pitchers — six-foot-seven and up — also take a an extra year or two to first get to two wins.

But even just these two tall pitchers had different reasons for their development path. And, by the research… they aren’t even tall. Maybe there’s still a chance for seven-foot-one Loek van Mil to make his debut in the major leagues, despite being 32. He’d only be a few years behind the curve, and at least he’s so tall that he’s not on this graph.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

There are a variety factors at play in Newcombs sudden improvement in strike-throwing. Small sample size, varied approach, and let’s not forget the magic of Tyler Flowers, who has somehow morphed into one of the best strike-stealing catchers in the major leagues.