The Athletics, The Phillies, And Short Pitchers

If you watch the Athletics, you may have noticed something about their pitching staffs over the last few years. They’re… shorter than average. Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Jarrod Parker are all six foot one or shorter, and none of the A’s pitchers are taller than six foot six.

Look across the country at the Phillies, and the difference becomes more stark.

Turns out, these two staffs define the range between the tallest and shortest pitchers in the majors.

It’s not immediately as obvious if you go by average height. Here are the teams ranked by their average height in inches, over the last five years.

Team Height (inches)
Mariners 75.15
Yankees 74.98
Orioles 74.90
Pirates 74.86
Reds 74.82
Rangers 74.82
White Sox 74.80
Phillies 74.79
Tigers 74.76
Nationals 74.75
Cubs 74.74
Marlins 74.72
Indians 74.70
Padres 74.69
Red Sox 74.64
Cardinals 74.64
Twins 74.59
Rockies 74.57
Rays 74.56
League Average 74.55
Diamondbacks 74.50
Athletics 74.45
Dodgers 74.38
Mets 74.33
Angels 74.30
Blue Jays 74.19
Brewers 74.17
Braves 74.09
Giants 74.04
Astros 73.96
Royals 73.63

The Phillies are near the top and the Athletics are near the bottom, but there isn’t much spread here. An inch and a half separate the tallest from the shortest, and no staff is an inch shorter or taller than average.

But that list isn’t weighted. You could have a 6’7″ reliever hanging out on your 40-man roster, and he’d change the whole calculus. Let’s instead look at the sum of the pitches thrown by pitchers shorter than 73 inches tall, by team.

Team “Short” Pitches
Athletics 50490
Giants 50295
Astros 48831
Mets 44693
Royals 44200
Brewers 43361
Reds 43218
White Sox 42227
Diamondbacks 39367
Braves 39094
Blue Jays 38340
Orioles 38097
Angels 35552
Dodgers 34532
Padres 34514
Rockies 34253
Indians 32339
Marlins 30397
Twins 28977
Cubs 28091
Rangers 27144
Nationals 27002
Rays 26913
Mariners 26343
Tigers 25936
Red Sox 25236
Yankees 24774
Pirates 20154
Cardinals 19400
Phillies 15119

Well now. Over the last five years, the Athletics have had nearly 40,000 more pitches thrown by short pitchers than the Phillies. Think of Roy Halladay (6’6″) and Sonny Gray (5’11”) as emblems of their respective staffs.

Looking at pitches thrown by shorter pitchers gives us a larger spread between the teams, and it indicates that perhaps different organizations do have different philosophies about height. From Mr. Winkelman again:

It’s interesting to put this in those terms, considering that the Athletics’ pitchers are mostly developed by other teams and then acquired by the A’s. But that also suggests that short pitchers are undervalued by the market — the A’s were able to acquire these guys, maybe because short pitchers don’t sell jeans. And the Phillies have been drafting for height, at least on some level.

We’ve heard more substantive critiques of smaller pitchers. Scott Kazmir was actually at the center of this sort of argument earlier in his career — he wasn’t supposed to be able to retain his velocity and pitch deep into a career, given his height. His stature was mentioned in virtually every scouting report at the time.

But is height actually correlated to success in anyway? We’ll want to weight the correlation by number of pitches thrown to avoid the 6’7″ occasional reliever problem. But once you do, it looks like height isn’t very important.

Matt Dennewitz is six foot one and some pennies, the BeerGraphs co-founder, Saber Archive founder, and Pitchfork Music tech maven by day — but more importantly, he helped run these numbers, weighting the correlation between height and a few obvious variables by the number of pitches the pitcher threw. Here are the p values and r-squared numbers for those correlations, using all pitchers since 2007 that threw more than 100 pitches (to remove position players).

Dependent Variable p value r-squared
Career Innings Pitched 0.0006 0.01
Fastball Velocity 0.1 0.013
Strikeout Rate 0.9 0.0003

You usually want your p values smaller than .05, so, in tandem with the poor r-squared numbers, it doesn’t look like there is a relationship between height and fastball velocity and strikeout rate in the big leagues. There *might* be a relationship when it comes to longevity, but the size of the relationship is tiny. Height explains 1% in the variance in career innings pitched totals.

Baseball as a whole doesn’t seem to be selecting out the shorter pitchers completely, even if the entire population is skewed taller than the general population. The average baseball starting pitcher is six foot two, the average American is around four inches shorter. And yet the starting pitcher population looks normally distributed, just around that higher mean.

heighthistogram

If you think about things mechanically, it might make sense that pitchers with ‘longer levers’ might be able to create more of a downward plane, and therefore more fastball velocity. But the numbers don’t seem to bear that out, and being shorter has its own benefits, mechanically. Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball doesn’t discriminate or think there’s really a big difference with respect to height. But he did say that it does seem “way easier to teach shorter pitchers — shorter levers means less clumsiness usually.”

Imagine trying to corral long limbs. Imagine being Anthony Ranaudo. And imagine not taking Marcus Stroman because he was short. Boddy was succinct about that one: “Anyone who thought Marcus Stroman wasn’t at least the third best pitcher in his draft class is/was an idiot.”

The lack of a correlation between height and key pitching statistics mirrors a great longer piece on the subject by Jeff Zimmerman, but it is interesting to see the major league teams allotting pitches to short pitchers at largely different rates.

The data seems to suggest that you shouldn’t avoid giving shorter pitchers more of a role in your organization, if anything.





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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