The Bigger They Come

I recently fired up the career mode of a certain baseball video game and created Jon Hale, the 6-foot-10, 265-pound slugging left-handed shortstop. Unfortunately, besides all the other things wrong with that concept, I found it completely impossible to hit, as Hale’s strike zone was almost the height of my television. And that got me to thinking about how baseball is one of the few sports where there is a potential disadvantage to being huge. In the real world, is it a drawback to be a taller hitter with a larger zone, or can the bigger players compensate for their larger zones with longer arms and bigger, stronger, bodies that get to the ball wherever it is pitched?

Pitch f/x tracks the top and bottom of each player’s strike zone, and while there is a fair amount of variance (and some plain garbage) in the measurements from one day to the next, we also have over two full seasons of data by this point that we can average out. So here are the top five active players who stand the tallest in the batters box:

Tallest Batting Stances
Name
Top of Strike Zone (ft)
Height of Player
Jayson Werth
3.90
6’ 5’’
Troy Glaus
3.86
6’ 5’’
Jerry Owens
3.82
6’ 3’’
Pat Burrell
3.76
6’ 4’’
Ken Griffey Jr.
3.75
6’ 3’’

Currently sitting on the sidelines are two monsters who would have made the top five, Richie Sexson (3.90 feet) and Frank Thomas (3.84 feet). Despite small sample sizes, it is Interesting that most of the tallest players are pitchers (e.g. Randy Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Barry Zito). I am willing to bet that not only are they on average taller, but pitchers stand straight as a board.

Now for the guys who hit from the lowest positions:

Shortest Batting Stances
Name
Pitch f/x height
Height
Erick Aybar
3.08
5’ 10’’
Placido Polanco
3.08
5’ 10’’
Vernon Wells
3.09
6’ 1’’
Augie Ojeda
3.11
5’9’’
Alexi Casilla
3.11
5’9

Vernon Wells stands out in that list—but if you’ve watched him hit, he stands in a deep crouch that could easily shave three inches off his height.
In general, the size of a player’s strike zone corresponds to his overall height. Jayson Werth has the biggest strike zone in the majors, a whopping 2.14 feet high, from 1.70 feet high at the knees to 3.90 at the letters (The league average is 1.58 feet high at the bottom of the strike zone and 3.44 at the top.)

However, the smallest strike zone in the majors is Jose Reyes. Despite a listed height of 6’ 1’’, and the bottom of his strike zone being just under average at 1.52 feet above the ground, he bends down until the top of his zone (at 3.15 feet) is just half an inch above the shortest strike zones in the league.

Effects of Height on Hitting

To take a look at broad look at how where a hitter hits from affects his results, I divided the league up into the top, middle and third tier of height. Obviously the very largest players in the league are also going to be the most powerful, but interestingly there is almost no difference in the home run rate of average players and the shortest third of players:

Results by Height
Height
HR%
Short
3.30
Medium
3.29
Tall
4.00

As you would expect, taller players get slightly more called strikes and fewer balls (despite likely being pitched around as power hitters). They also foul off fewer pitches, and therefore make less contact overall, meaning their potential added reach is outweighed by the greater area they have to cover.

Strike Zone Control by Height
Height
Called Strike
Ball
Foul
Short
16.8
39.0
17.0
Medium
17.5
38.3
16.7
Tall
17.1
37.1
16.3

Balls in Play

In addition to more home runs, being tall also translates into slightly more fly balls instead of line drives. But once again, it is interesting that there is very little difference except for the top third. Shorter players hit more ground balls but hit for the same average and slugging as the average player (possibly due to greater speed). But the tallest third are clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the league in terms of their slugging ability:

Balls in Play Results by Height
Stat
GB/LO/FB
BABIP
SLG
Short
51.8/9.7/38.6
.318
.496
Medium
51.2/9.8/38.9
.320
.497
Tall
51.3/9.5/39.1
.324
.521

Larger players do have a tougher job of controlling the strike zone and end up taking more strikes, having fewer balls thrown to them, and making less contact on their swings. However, they also hit for a higher average, with more fly balls, home runs, and therefore much more power than the rest of the league. It’s a tradeoff, but at the end of the day, big hitters more than make up for the extra strikes that find their big zones with harder hits when they do make contact.

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