Don’t Sell These Guys Short

Even after 18 major league seasons, more than 750 appearances and two All-Star Game berths, Tom Gordon can’t shake the slights he endured as a high school player in Florida. Enough scouts followed Gordon to the restrooms and concession stands to confirm that he had a future in professional ball. But Gordon also heard enough whispers and condescending remarks to understand the stigma he would have to overcome.

Chris Short, Aaron Small and former Twins reliever Jeff Little were undersized in name only. Gordon, at 5-foot-9, is the quintessential little man with a big arm. Where talent evaluators are concerned, that combination cries out for ambivalence.

“I heard it all the time–I’m too short,” Gordon says. “To this day, I still hear it. Major league baseball either needs to can the stereotype or get rid of some of these guys making the decisions. A lot of kids out there strive and push themselves to be just as good as the bigger athletes, but they’re not getting the breaks.”

If Gordon had a chance to peek at this year’s draft board, he would either conclude that baseball is becoming more tolerant or desperate for pitching. Four young righthanders with regular-guy dimensions are on the verge of enacting the Revenge of the Smurfs.

Collegians Tim Lincecum and Brad Lincoln and high schoolers Kyle Drabek and Jeremy Jeffress, all 6 feet tall or smaller, are about to do more than cash mega-bonuses and embark on the road to the majors. They’re resurrecting the old Archie Griffin adage: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather, the size of the fight in the dog.

“We’re already getting away from the idea that you can’t take high school guys and you can only take college guys,” Angels scouting director Eddie Bane says. “We’ve blown that out of the water pretty good. Now here’s another stereotype that looks like it’s going to get blown out of the water–the one about 6-foot and under righthanders.”

Big Enough To Win

In a sense, it’s already been obliterated at the highest level. Greg Maddux, 6-feet-0 and 170 pounds, will look plenty tall on the podium in Cooperstown. The same goes for Pedro Martinez, who’s had a nice run for a 5-foot-11 power pitcher who Tommy Lasorda thought was destined to spend a career working in one-inning increments.

Bartolo Colon, 5-foot-11 and 250 pounds, won 21 games and the American League Cy Young Award last season. Six-footer Roy Oswalt is coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons. Gordon remains a back-of-the-bullpen force at age 38, and Tim Hudson keeps rolling along in Atlanta.

Of course, it’s not hard to find talent evaluators who’ll cite the cautionary tales. While Oakland’s Rich Harden has been a trendy preseason Cy Young Award pick the last two years, he’s had difficulty staying healthy. The same applies to Milwaukee’s Ben Sheets, who like Harden is listed at 6-foot-1.

And the worst-case scenarios are enough to give scouting directors a case of the night sweats. They range from Kiki Jones, a washout as the Dodgers’ first-round pick in 1989, to former Mariners prospect Jeff Heaverlo.

Any discussion of pitchers and heights is bound to lead to debate over the chicken-or-egg scenario: Do teams have an inherent bias against drafting short righthanded pitchers, or is the dearth of righties a product of so few being available?

And while height is obviously great for screwing in light bulbs, stacking grocery shelves and grabbing rebounds in traffic, how big a factor is it in success on the mound?

More Work For The Same Velocity

As a rule, scouts have an easier time dreaming on tall pitchers who can peer down from on high and drop-and-drive their way to success. Think of Roger Clemens or Roy Halladay pounding the strike zone from above, and it’s a pretty imposing image.

Shorter pitchers, in contrast, have to work harder to generate the same torque and endure the wear and tear required to get the job done. The durability questions are ever-present.

Dodgers scouting director Logan White said size is only one item on a checklist that includes velocity, movement, plane to the plate, command, mastery of secondary pitches, makeup, poise and other factors. But for scouts with a long-term horizon, a few extra inches never hurt.

“Let’s say you have a Cadillac and a Volkswagen and you’re going to race them across the country at 90 mph,” White says. “Both can achieve this speed, but which would be the most comfortable ride and which one by and large would hold up the longest at that speed? I believe the Cadillac will cruise at that speed while maintaining a smoother ride. If you tested 1,000 of each you’d probably have a few Volkswagens beat the Cadillacs. But if I had to bet, the safe money would be with the Caddy.”

Organizations have grappled with the issue of height versus heart for decades. A definitive example came more than 50 years ago, when the Phillies passed on 5-foot-8, 155-pound Elroy Face because he didn’t fit the organizational preference for tall righthanded pitchers. The Phillies came to regret their decision when Face went on to save 193 games in a 16-year career spent largely with the Pirates.

Five decades later, the Phillies still prefer their righties on the rangy side. Mike Arbuckle, Philadelphia’s assistant general manager, believes that taller pitchers are better long-term health risks and typically have a higher upside than their shorter counterparts, who tend to mature more quickly. With the little guys, what you see is what you get.

“There are still potential issues with shorter righthanders,” Arbuckle says. “I think that over time their stuff tends to back up. It declines. You want pitchers to pitch on a downhill plane, and with shorter righthanders, the ball flattens out and stays on the same plane, and it makes it easier for hitters to handle.

“If they’re power guys, I think they also tend to break down at a greater rate. They don’t have that natural leverage, so they have to put more effort into their delivery to generate arm speed.”

The exceptional short righthanders often possess an extraordinary trait or physical characteristic that helps them compensate. Oswalt generates incredible leg drive, Gordon has long arms, and Martinez long fingers that allow him to execute certain grips like no one else. Maddux has won more than 300 career games through a combination of movement, location and consistent mechanics. And both he and Martinez are flat-out brilliant at playing chess with hitters.

Phillies catcher Sal Fasano, a veteran of six big league clubs, observes that shorter righties typically have different repertoires than the lanky types.

“Most times, guys that size can create a little better side-to-side movement,” Fasano says. “More sliders and fadeballs–not true sinkers like Kevin Brown or Jason Grimsley threw that went straight down.”

As to the obvious question–Why are lefties immune to the height debate?–it can be a chore to separate the scouting insights from the old wives’ tales. The consensus is that lefties, by virtue of their lefthandedness, can get by with finesse because they’re more deceptive and adept at concealing the ball from hitters. Lots of baseball people also swear that lefties have a natural sinking or tailing action that’s difficult to define. It simply exists.

“Lefties do have movement, and I can’t explain it,” Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild says. “The old joke is because they’re throwing against the rotation of the earth.”

Finally, the supply-and-demand element plays a role. Teams are so desperate for lefty arms, they tend to pay less attention to physical distinctions.

“The only rule I know of for lefties is that you have to be able to throw it 60 feet in the air,” says Bane, who is partial to the breed as a 5-foot-9 former Minnesota Twin. “We’re a fortunate group.”

Six-foot, Give Or Take Three Inches

More often than not, short righthanders fib about their heights the way society matrons lie about ages. Some are actually encouraged to do so. Bane recalls traveling to Brawley, Calif., one year to scout a young righthander named Rudy Seanez. The kid threw “bullets,” Bane says, but it was clear that his diminutive stature might be a detriment to his future. So Bane was kind enough to pass along a career-enhancement tip.

“Rudy is 5-9 if he’s an inch,” Bane says. “But after I saw him work out I told him, ‘From now on, when anybody asks you, you say you’re 6 foot.’ “

Hudson, selected by the Athletics out of Auburn in the sixth round of the 1997 draft, was a fine all-around athlete who undoubtedly would have gone higher if he stood 6-foot-3. Like Gordon, he’s convinced worthy prospects get overlooked because they don’t fit the classic profile.

“You could put a monkey out there and it could do what a lot of scouts do,” Hudson says. “Anybody can look at a radar gun and see a guy who’s 6-4, 220 and throwing 94 and say, ‘OK, this guy has a typical pitcher’s build.’ The good scouts are the ones who are able to find the diamonds in the rough–the guys who have a lot more heart than ability.

“It’s all about your stuff, the action on your ball and your mechanics. That all comes into play. If you’re a small guy and you have that working for you, there’s no reason you can’t be successful. I’d rather have a guy who’s 5-10 and 180 throwing 88-92 mph and getting guys out than a guy throwing 95 down the middle and backing up third.”

The four undersized pitchers in this year’s draft crop have more in common than a lack of height. They all throw fastballs in the 90s and are good all-around athletes. In the estimation of one scouting director, Jeffress has the smoothest delivery, Lincoln is the steadiest and Drabek might be the strongest physically, while Lincecum has the velocity, the breaking ball and the mound presence that can’t be measured by a growth chart.

Lincecum averaged more than 14 strikeouts per nine innings for the University of Washington this year in spite of a delivery that scouts classify as unorthodox. In an effort to get on top of the ball, he throws with an arched-back motion that one scout described as a sort of “Iron Mike” arm action.

Bane scouted Lincecum this spring and immediately drew a comparison with Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez. That’s why some organizations think Lincecum could eventually gravitate to the bullpen. It worked for Jeff Montgomery, Jeff Brantley and Danny Graves, all proud members of the 5-foot-11 fraternity.

The Phillies’ Arbuckle, as a rule, views shorter, “slight-bodied” righthanders as a bigger durability risk than the stockier, Jason Marquis types. But he concedes that the thinner talent pool of today has forced him to become less doctrinaire in his approach. While Arbuckle likes his early-round, big-money pitchers tall, he’s less particular as the draft progresses.

“To me the draft is like handicapping a horse race,” Arbuckle says. “If I draft high to the exception all the time, I’m going to lose a lot of money before I happen to hit on one. I need to put my money where the odds are in my favor. Then as you get deeper into the draft, where your options aren’t as good, you start bending.”

Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken takes the classic open-minded approach to judging pitchers’ futures. As Wilken points out, height hasn’t helped former Rice stars Jeff Niemann, Philip Humber and Wade Townsend–all 6-foot-4 or better–steer clear of physical problems.

“To me, the only key to scouting success is that you don’t limit yourself,” Wilken says. “You’re running away from the possibility of drafting frontline baseball players. Why would you want to do that?”

Realistically, shorter righthanded pitchers aren’t alone in dealing with the little man’s stigma. Think David Eckstein didn’t encounter resistance in his quest to be a big league shortstop? But the better players play, the taller they look. Greg Maddux discovered that as a hotshot high school prospect out of Las Vegas in the early 1980s.

“All the 6-4 and 6-5 guys would look at me and say, ‘Who’s that (expletive)?’ ” Maddux says. “Then when I threw, they all shut up.” 

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