Bigger vs Smaller Pitchers

Is it true that bigger and taller pitchers are better than smaller pitchers? I guess it’s depends on your point of reference. Do major league pitchers tend to be taller. Yes. But that could be chalked up to scouting bias. The fact is bigger and taller pitchers look more impressive and tend to throw harder on average based on their longer limb lengths to create leverage. The argument goes like this: Bigger/taller pitchers throw harder allowing for a bigger margin of error on their pitches. They create more of a downward angle which has been widely accepted as being a positive attribute.

Every scout has to justify their recommendations for the draft and with the advent of the radar gun some 50 years ago, justifying their picks was a lot easier based on velocity. So if there is a bias toward taller pitchers who throw harder, it goes to reason that there will be fewer smaller pitchers in the big leagues. Thus, a smaller sample size to evaluate. Does that prove bigger pitchers are better? No, all that proves is that there are taller pitchers in the MLB based on the overall bias of organizations to draft taller pitchers.

Now let’s look at some other arguments. The current bias is that taller/bigger pitchers are more durable. Ironically, there is no evidence of this. Bigger/taller pitchers come with a special set of problems as their longer limbs create timing issues, movement difficulties, and problems repeating their motion. Smaller pitchers tend to be more athletic and their mechanics tend to be easier to repeat, thus not allowing for mechanical variations in deliveries. This is a major positive in injury prevention.

Do taller/bigger pitchers tend to produce more absolute force based on their longer limbs? Generally yes. They also look more impressive. When a big and tall pitcher lights up the radar gun, it’s only human nature to be a bit impressed. However, being bigger and stronger has its negatives.

Although most strength and conditioning guys are great, the work done in the weight room can produce tight inflexible muscles if not properly stretched and manipulated for high velocity movements. Pulled hamstrings, strained muscles and torn ligaments are a serious concern. This has to be accounted for in the whole equation. Not to mention the velocity dangers of longer limbs having the ability to create upper levels of force. There is an argument to be made that the human body cannot handle these new high stress levels. This can result in UCL tears, labrum tears, etc. So, a case can be made that bigger pitchers are not more durable but ironically more injury prone. By contrast, smaller pitchers tend to be more efficient in their actions, thus the potential for injury is reduced.   

From a performance point of view, again there is no evidence that taller pitchers have an advantage. For the longest time, pitching down in the zone was considered to be the goal. With the 70s/80s hitters employing “knob to ball” and “downward swings” to contact the result was often reduced contact areas to hit the ball. So having more of a downward angle on your pitches was advantageous.

Today, hitters have adjusted to flatten out their swings. They are now creating early momentum, adjustability, and better attack angles in their swings. In addition, MLB has brought back the higher strike zone allowing pitchers more latitude to pitch up in the zone. With the incredible uptick in velocity and the ability to throw explosive breaking pitches, the higher strike zone is a major factor in how a pitcher attacks hitters. The advantage of a steep downward angle to the plate is just not as effective in today’s game as hitters are better equipped to handle those pitches.

Now, high spin rate fastballs, up in the zone are the norm and these taller pitchers throwing “down” into a higher location are just not as effective. What is effective are lower slot pitchers pitching up in the zone! A pitcher with high spin rate, a low angle and pitching up in the zone for potential called strikes is a major weapon. Guys like Kimbrel, Stroman, Archer, Scherzer, Sale, Bauer all employ this strategy. Wow, What a minute! Did you say Chris Sale? He's is 6’-7”. Correct but look at his release point. Most of his pitches are thrown at a height lower than 5’ high! No wonder he gets so many swings and misses on fastballs up in the zone. From that arm slot, it looks like the ball is climbing. Randy Johnson was another tall lefty who used this lower arm slot to his advantage. Smaller pitchers like Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner could naturally pump the fastball up in the zone and create a totally different look for the hitter. His fastball seemed to explode upward and there is no telling how effective he could have been pitching in today’s higher strike zone where hitters have to account for potential called strikes up in the zone.

Another factor to consider is that since smaller pitchers tend to be more athletic, their ability to organize the bodies better lend themselves to having better control. The poster boy for this argument is Greg Maddox. His ability to work movement and pinpoint his pitches was extraordinary. However, he is not the only one. Guys like Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, Whitey Ford, Fernando Valenzuela, etc. have been widely known for their effectiveness in controlling the zone.

Another factor we must consider is the economic side of the equation. The economic value of smaller pitchers relative to taller ones is interesting. In a Fangraphs article written by Elliott Evans April 3, 2015 he states:

“We see that short and tall relievers are clustered between -1 and 1 WAR and $1 million and $5 million dollars. However, we see several taller relievers past the $7.5 million mark with unremarkable WARs, which we don’t see for shorter relievers. From this, we would suspect that taller relievers are being overvalued while shorter relievers are being undervalued.

This is, in fact, the case: short relief pitchers are producing 2.33 WAR for every $10 million they earn in free agency while taller relievers are producing 1.36 WAR for every $10 million they earn. In comparing these values with a one-sided t-test, we acquire a P-Value of 0.0018, meaning these are results we would acquire by chance only .18% (a significant value) of the time. And so it goes, relievers under 6 feet are actually about 1.7 times as valuable as their taller counterparts.

Is there something inherently different about shorter pitchers that makes them less capable of pitching successfully in the big leagues? The evidence says no. In fact, it might be more worthwhile for General Managers to draft pitchers under 6 feet tall and reap the rewards.”

In conclusion, the evidence that taller pitchers are more effective and durable is lacking. In fact, a strong case can be made to the exact opposite of the current bias. A coach would be smart to consider the advantages that smaller pitchers bring to the table with their ability to be more coordinated, athletic, durable and their ability to manipulate an upward angle to the hitter.