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.
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 As (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.