Rather than conduct a comprehensive study of the issue, I thought it might be fun to highlight some players who enjoyed considerable success despite being “vertically challenged.” Since I’m such a fan of creating fake teams, I decided to assemble a squad of short players who were also very good (or good players who were also very short, if you prefer).
To do this, I first had to establish some parameters. Easy enough; we’ll just ask a few questions:
- How short is short? I decided on 5’9″ for a couple of reasons. First, having the inches be in single digits makes it seem (at least to me) much smaller than double digits. Maybe it’s a psychological thing, I don’t know, but 5’9″ feels like a different animal than 5’10″. Second, even if my first reason is nonsense, I happen to be 5’9″ (also the average height for an adult male in the United States). I may not be able to imagine myself playing big-league baseball, let alone excelling at it, but at least I have a good sense of how tall that is.
- How good is good? In general, I searched for hitters with at least a 100 career OPS+ and a minimum of 3,000 plate appearances. For pitchers, I targeted guys who had an ERA+ of 100 or higher in at least 1,000 innings.
- How far back do we want to go? Men born in the 1920s and earlier tend to be shorter than those born later. Sure enough, if we include all players in the “Modern Era,” we end up with a lot of guys born at least 80 years ago, including many Hall of Famers: Mel Ott, Hack Wilson, Roy Campanella, Jack Chesbro, and the like. So we limit ourselves to players whose careers started in 1961 or later.
Now that we’ve laid out the ground rules, let’s introduce the team.
Career: 9,941 PA, .299/.336/.469, 108 OPS+
2000 Tex: 389 PA, .347/.375/.667, 155 OPS+
Rodriguez hasn’t been good for a long time. Since 2005, he’s hit just .279/.305/.416 (88 OPS+)—including an epic 2007 where he channeled his inner Miguel Olivo—so it’s easy to forget just how great he once was. His run from 1998 to 2004 (.322/.363/.538, 129 OPS+) was pretty special… maybe not quite Johnny Bench (who hit .266/.356/.489, 135 OPS+) during his best seven-year stretch (1972-1978), but not far from it.
The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Rodriguez as the No. 11 catcher in big-league history. That was through 2000, and James acknowledged that Rodriguez would “probably be top-10 by the time he is through.”
Career: 5,895 PA, .264/.357/.480, 118 OPS+
1998 Oak: 593 PA, .294/.370/.511, 131 OPS+
It’s not quite right to call Stairs a first baseman, but he has the best combination of experience and competence among the group of players I found, so we’ll go with him. Joe Harris and Ripper Collins have better qualifications, but neither has played a game in nearly 70 years.
Stairs is a classic “what-if” kind of guy. What if he had received more than 300 big-league plate appearances before age 29? What might he have done? John Vander Wal was like that. Sometimes all a player needs is a chance.
Stairs has 261 home runs to his credit. Of those, 223 have come since his 30th birthday. Granted, they played in different eras, but Stairs hit more home runs in his 30s than Carl Yastrzemski did, in far fewer plate appearances:
Player PA BA OBP SLG HR PA/HR Stairs 4,613 .264 .358 .482 203 22.72 Yaz 6,251 .283 .384 .452 202 30.95
Yaz did a lot of other things well, of course, and was a great all-around player. I don’t mean to suggest that Stairs was anywhere near the player that Yaz was, but aren’t their performances in that decade much closer than you might have expected? I sure was surprised.
Career: 11,329 PA, .271/.392/.427, 132 OPS+
1976 Cin: 599 PA, .320/.444/.576, 186 OPS+
Here’s our first Hall of Famer. Only seven inductees are shorter than Morgan, but the last of those, Phil Rizzuto, played his final game in 1956. According to TNBJHBA, Morgan is the best second baseman ever to have played the game.
Career: 9,110 PA, .266/.374/.389, 109 OPS+
1993 Det: 707 PA, .313/.443/.398, 130 OPS+
Like Stairs, Phillips more properly belongs elsewhere, having spent most of his career at second base or in left field. He logged more than 3,000 innings at third base, however, and it’s not like he ever called any one position home for long.
Phillips led the AL in walks in ’93 and ’96, and ranks 35th all-time in career bases on balls. He was one of those players who contributed a lot offensively without ever (well, except in ’93) hitting for a great batting average.
TNBJHBA puts Phillips at No. 66 … among right fielders? Phillips didn’t see much action in right field, but the man was a terrific player who deserves recognition. James stuck him in right field, we’re sticking him at third base. Knowing the type of player Phillips was, I doubt he’d have a problem with either, perhaps playing both in the same game even.
Career: 8,384 PA, .288/.340/.465, 110 OPS+
2004 Bal: 725 PA, .311/.360/.534, 131 OPS+
Tejada is the third and final active player on our squad. I was a little surprised to see so many current players here, although all are nearing the ends of their careers.
Once this group is gone, the best bets to join our team would be guys like Dustin Pedroia and Brian Roberts (too bad both find themselves stuck behind Morgan on the depth chart at second base, although Pedroia could slip into a utility role once he has the requisite plate appearances) on the infield, and maybe Shane Victorino in the outfield if he steps up his game in a big way over the next few years.
Returning focus to Tejada, he won the American League MVP in 2002. He’s a six-time All-Star, although his last great season came in 2006, when he hit .330/.379/.498 (126 OPS+) for the Baltimore Orioles. That’s when he used to be a shortstop who hit like a third baseman, rather than the reverse, which he is now.
Career: 10,359 PA, .294/.385/.425, 123 OPS+
1985 Mtl: 665 PA, .320/.405/.475, 151 OPS+
According to TNBJHBA, Raines is the No. 8 left fielder in big-league history. In his 1986 Baseball Abstract, James identifies Raines as “clearly the greatest lead-off man in National League history.” Short, but great.
Career: 7,831 PA, .318/.360/.477, 124 OPS+
1988 Min: 691 PA, .356/.375/.545, 152 OPS+
Puckett had a brief but stellar career. He routinely (four times, anyway) led the AL in hits. Of all the people who didn’t look like Hall of Famers at age 25, Puckett has to be up there. Over his first two seasons, he hit .292/.325/.363 (86 OPS+), with four HR in 1,327 PA. That’s of a poor-man’s Dave Cash or Steve Sax. It’s Jerry Hairston Jr. with a better batting average.
Then at age 26, Puckett inexplicably hit .328/.366/.537 (141 OPS+) with 31 HR. Did he improve his plate discipline? No; in fact, it got worse, but that didn’t matter. He just started hitting baseballs with authority and didn’t stop until glaucoma forced him from the game in 1995.
TNBJHBA rates Puckett the No. 8 center fielder of all time, ahead of 19th-century great Billy Hamilton and Jimmy Wynn, the latter of whom just missed our height cutoff (although I’ve heard it suggested that he might not be as tall as Baseball-Reference and other sources claim).
From The Scouting Report: 1990: “A strong argument can be built that Puckett is the game’s best overall player.” This came after the only season he won the AL batting title.
You may be thinking he won it also in ’88. Nope, he finished second to Wade Boggs, who hit .366. This isn’t relevant to anything, but damn.
Career: 5,347 PA, .264/.362/.379, 115 OPS+
1971 Bal: 549 PA, .290/.413/.477, 153 OPS+
Buford’s ascent to the big leagues recalls that of Newson. Both reached The Show at age 26. Buford’s career didn’t take off right away, but he enjoyed a good deal of success in his thirties. Of particular note is a four-year run from 1968 to 1971, when he hit .283/.397/434 (136 OPS+).
Buford made one All-Star team (in ’71). He was fast, but not a good base stealer, leading the AL in caught stealing three times. He never broke triple digits in runs scored, although he reached exactly 99 in three consecutive seasons.
Career: 7,340 PA, .263/.349/.388, 106 OPS+
1979 LA: 692 PA, .265/.372/.464, 128 OPS+
Lopes and Chuck Knoblauch are pretty darned close (separated, in fact, by a mere 45 PA). Here are their career lines per 162 games:
Player AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS+ Lopes 568 91 149 21 4 14 55 74 76 50 10 .263 .349 .388 106 Knoblauch 632 112 183 32 6 10 61 80 72 40 12 .289 .378 .406 106
I went with Lopes because he offers greater defensive utility. The fact that I have fond childhood memories of him probably didn’t hurt either.
Like Buford, he got a late start. Lopes was named to four National League All-Star teams and led the NL in stolen bases twice. He ranks 25th all time in steals, just behind Brett Butler and ahead of Cesar Cedeno.
According to TNBJHBA, Lopes is the 23rd best second baseman in MLB history. James comments that “from age 34 on, he had a better career than any other second baseman except Joe Morgan, Nap Lajoie, or Eddie Collins.”
Lopes also is the lone man since the beginning of the 20th century to steal 40 or more bases in a season at age 40 or older. Only one other guy stole as many as 30, although Rickey Henderson (who is listed at 5’10″ in case you were wondering) had many more opportunities and wasn’t nearly as successful:
Player Year Age PA SB CS Lopes 1985 40 325 47 4 Henderson 1999 40 526 37 14 Henderson 2000 41 519 36 11
For someone who didn’t get a shot until age 28, Lopes had a fine career.
Career: 5,952 PA, .288/.371/.420, 118 OPS+
1989 Atl: 577 PA, .315/.415/.533, 168 OPS+
Floyd Robinson deserves an honorable mention, but Smith had 2,200 more plate appearances and so gets the nod. TNBJHBA rates Smith No. 65 all time among left fielders. James notes that “he was a comical outfielder who fell down chasing balls probably once a game on average, or more, for which reason he was nicknamed ‘Skates’.”
Smith’s ’89 campaign is one of the great fluke seasons. He hit 21 homers that year; he combined to hit 17 in his next two best home run seasons.
This team has tremendous speed. With the exception of Stairs, all of these guys can run (even Rodriguez was fast for a catcher). I don’t know if that helped them overcome the prejudice against short players, but there it is.
Career: 2,108 IP, 138-126, 3.96 ERA, 113 ERA+
2004 NYA: 89.2 IP, 9-4, 2.21 ERA, 204 ERA+
Only two pitchers whose careers started in or after 1961 meet our criteria (5’9″ or shorter, 1,000 IP). Both are right handers, oddly enough; odder still, both are named Tom (Tom Phoebus being the other).
The Kansas City Royals selected Gordon with their sixth round pick in the 1986 draft. That wasn’t a particularly good draft for the Royals. Their first two picks never reached the big leagues, while their third (Harvey Pulliam) came up for a few cups of coffee. Gordon was by far the most successful of the lot, with only fourth-round pick Bo Jackson and 16th-round pick Greg Hibbard having significant careers (although Hibbard never pitched for Kansas City).
Gordon’s main problem is that nobody knew what to do with him. He won 17 games for the Royals as a rookie in 1989, pitching mostly in relief. He won 12 the next year while making 32 starts. In 1998, with the Boston Red Sox, he recorded an AL-best 46 saves.
Despite some arm issues around the turn of the millennium, Gordon proved to be surprisingly durable. He pitched in parts of 21 seasons and appeared in 890 games, which ranks 25th all time.
Career: 1,939.2 IP, 104-103, 3.64 ERA, 99 ERA+
1977 Cin: 221.1 IP, 14-13, 3.38 ERA, 117 ERA+
I had to fudge a bit to get a southpaw onto our roster. My three choices were Steve Frey (his 304 IP are the most by a short left hander whose career started in or after 1961 and who posted an ERA+ of 100 or better), Harvey Haddix (nearly 80 percent of his 2,235 IP came before ’61), and Norman (whose 99 ERA+ falls just below our threshold).
I’m not entirely comfortable with this selection, but it beats including Frey. Norman never made an All-Star team but once, bafflingly, received marginal support for the NL Cy Young Award. That was 1973, when he finished 13-13 with a 3.60 ERA (96 ERA+).
* * *
Well. If that isn’t reason enough to live, then I don’t know what is.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, 1986 Baseball Abstract, The Scouting Report: 1990