In the first inning Tuesday, Francisco Lindor lofted a fly ball deep into the seats at Progressive Field, moving into a tie for the major league lead with his fourth homer. A few hours later, Yoenis Cespedes hit his second, third and fourth homers of the year. Oakland’s Khris Davis, who had entered the day with four, had the day off.
Lindor, Cespedes and Davis are very different players with different backgrounds and different styles but with one thing in common: None has to duck to get under the shower head. All are under 6 feet tall.
“Baseball is the only game left for people,” Bill Veeck once said. “To play basketball, you have to be 7 feet 6 inches. To play football, you have to be the same width.”
But height has always been an advantage in baseball, particularly when it comes to power hitting. The average American male is 5-10, but in the first year of this decade only one of the top 75 home run hitters in baseball was actually listed at that height or lower. (Six were under 6 feet, and 30 were 6-3 or taller.) The correlation between isolated power and height that year was .46.
If Veeck’s right that a shorter game is a more democratic one, baseball has been trending in the right direction: down. Last year saw the weakest correlation (.28) between power and height since at least 1988.
The Padres’ Ryan Schimpf led baseball in isolated power after making his debut in June. He’s 5-foot-9 and hit 20 homers. He was joined on the power leaderboards by Mookie Betts (5-9, 31), Rougned Odor (5-11, 33), Brian Dozier (5-11, 42) and Jose Altuve (5-6, 24), among others. There were more batters under 6 feet who hit at least 25 homers than there were batters taller than 6-3 who did.
One-year flukes happen. But 2015 and 2014 were, at .32, tied for the fourth-weakest correlation over the past 30 years.
This season is barely a week old, which means it’s far too soon to speculate, except wildly and irresponsibly, about what it will bring. But the correlation between height and power so far this year is .17. Now forget that number until we’ve got a couple of months of data to confirm it.
Hypotheses? We’ve got four untested:
1. Pitchers are throwing more inside pitches, and throwing harder, which benefits hitters with shorter arms and shorter swings. The first part is true — inner-half pitches have been ticking up over the past decade, from about 39 percent in 2009 to 42 percent this year. There’s a little truth to the second part: Hitters 6 feet and under add about 10 percent of isolated power on pitches on the inner third, whereas taller hitters don’t.
2. More players are being taught or are choosing to build their swing around power, regardless of body type. This hypothesis assumes tall players were already encouraged to try to hit home runs, to elevate the ball and trade strikeouts for homers. But now a broader pool of players (and their hitting instructors) are realizing the benefits of an uppercut, and rejecting the long-taught advice to hit down on the ball. Schimpf doesn’t hit home runs because he’s stronger than everybody else, but because he hits more flies than anybody else.
3. The changes in the called strike zone have benefited shorter players more than taller ones. As Jon Roegele has shown at the Hardball Times, the de facto strike zone has expanded downward in recent years. It’s possible the zone has grown more for tall players than short ones — there’s only so far an umpire can expand a short hitter’s zone before he’s ringing him up on dirty balls — but even if the zone has grown the same for all hitters, the effects might not be the same. As Ryan Parker, a hitting instructor who writes about swing mechanics, tells me, “Velo plus low strike zone makes it hard for bigger guys to actually time up those long levers to produce power.”
4. It’s just an interesting collection of players and performances. There have always been some shorter players who hit for power, from Mel Ott to Willie Mays to Miguel Tejada. We’ve got a cluster of them now, but sometimes a cluster is just a cluster. If Schimpf had stayed in Triple-A last year and Brian Dozier had broken his thumb sliding into second base last June, we probably aren’t having this conversation.
Lindor, Davis and Cespedes wouldn’t finish the day atop the homer leaderboard. George Springer hit his fifth after the East Coast was asleep. Springer is 6-3.
Succeeding in baseball is much less about being able to do a great thing once than to do a great thing, or at least a good thing, over and over. A hitter would rather lead the league in exit velocity over the course of a season than to hit the hardest single ball of the season.
But there’s analytic value to the latter, too. Dan Rosenheck, the editor of the Economist’s data team, once looked into super long home runs and found a predictive “signature significance” to them.
“Guys who are washed up just don’t hit 477-foot homers,” he wrote. “Not even once.”
Using Baseball Savant’s Statcast search tool, we found at least 35 players, excluding pitchers, who have already hit at least one ball harder this year than they hit at any point last year, with a minimum of 101 mph. In most cases, nothing stands out about these swings: Altuve upping his maximum exit velocity from 109.0 to 109.1 is not news. Nor is there much to say about Andrew Benintendi or A.J. Pollock topping their 2016 bests, considering how limited their 2016s in the majors were. But three names might leap out as interesting, if not necessarily significant:
Bryce Harper‘s 113.9 mph home run on Opening Day was harder off the bat than anything he hit in 2016. It still doesn’t match the 116 mph rocket he hit in 2015, but it’s an anecdote in the discussion of whether he’s more like the 2015 MVP version of himself or the 2016 version who was considered a disappointment.
Yasiel Puig hit a ball 116 mph, 1.4 mph harder than his hardest contact of 2016 and 3.4 mph than anything recorded in 2015.
And Eric Hosmer, in his walk year, has hit the hardest ball in the majors this year, at 118.1 mph. That’s more than 3 mph harder than anything he hit in 2015 or 2016. Only five players have hit a ball that was recorded harder in the past two-plus years. For a player who will try to market himself as a power-hitting first baseman, it might be his most compelling argument that he actually is a power-hitting first baseman. Alas, the argument has a counterargument: That recorded 118.1 mph came on a ground out. He has one extra-base hit this year.
The San Diego Padres are using their rebuild year to run an extraordinary reality show premise: What happens when three young players skip three or four minor league levels and spend a season in the majors?
Catcher Luis Torrens, infielder Allen Cordoba and right-handed pitcher Miguel Diaz were Rule 5 picks this winter, which means they must stay on the major league roster all year or be offered back to their original teams. Diaz and Torrens had never played higher than Single-A, and Cordoba’s highest level had been the short-season Appalachian League, where high school draft picks often make their debuts.
The assignments have the potential to produce long and sustained and very visible failure, but so far they’ve fit in well enough. Cordoba singled off Madison Bumgarner for his first major league hit and has struck out only once in six plate appearances. Torrens, hitless in five plate appearances so far, did draw a walk in his first major league start and didn’t allow a stolen base behind the plate.
Diaz, meanwhile, has already appeared in five games out of the Padres’ bullpen, allowing one run (on a Nolan Arenado solo homer in Coors Field) while sitting in the mid-90s. Batters are hitting .071 against him. Nobody’s embarrassed yet.