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"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� 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? 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."