Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pocket Heroes

By The Common Man

If we've learned nothing else from Randy Newman, it's that short people got no reason to live. Except perhaps for the Kansas City Royals' new reliever, Tim Collins. Collins is generously listed as 5’7” tall, and is one of the shortest pitchers in baseball history (if his listing is accurate, which it isn’t, he would be tied for 22nd all time). The Common Man loves this, mostly because he loves players who are shorter than he is (roughly 5’7” as well; no matter what Bill tries to tell you all, TCM is 5’7”). And his debut has not disappointed. Collins has been terrific across two appearances, striking out six batters in four innings, getting a win in relief, and not allowing a runner past second base. According to Fangraphs, he's averaging around 92 MPH on his fastball, and his curveball has been sharp.  He’s just going to be a lot of fun to watch over the next few years.

So in honor of Collins, and The Common Man, and David Eckstein (who TCM wrote about yesterday), here are the all time 10 best ballplayers shorter than TCM since 1901:

You’ll notice a couple things about that list. First, that six of the ten started their careers before 1915 (and Joe Sewell started his in 1920). This is partly a demographic issue, as the American population has progressively getting taller over the last century and a half. Likewise, you’ll notice that six of the player are middle infielders, while only one is a pitcher. This may be some evidence of bias in positioning players, as few baseball executives trust short pitchers. Likewise, there seems to be some concern short players cannot handle the outfield, as Ricky Otero is the only outfielder under 5’8” who has made the Majors since Vic Davalillo got called up in 1963. This is probably because of the realities that short legs tend not run as fast, players can’t jump as high against the walls, and the corner outfield is more likely to be a place a spot to stash a slugger on the left end of the defensive spectrum. Also, none of the players above had any power except for Hack Wilson and Tommy Leach.

Leach has been largely forgotten by history but was a central part of the great Pirates teams of the 1900s. While not in the same class as Honus Wagner, Leach offered good gap power and led the NL in homers in 1902 with six, and had a career 109 OPS+. In 1909, he hit .360/.414/.520 with four doubles, eight runs, and two RBI to help lead the Pirates to their first World Series title. He played 3B until 1905, when he suffered two broken ribs in a collision with Jake Beckley, and began to have trouble making the throw. So he switched to CF. Claude Ritchey, another forgotten player, was his teammate for most of that decade. Ritchey was a decent offensive player and defender, who didn’t do anything particularly well, did just enough of everything. Based entirely on rate stats, he’s very similar looking to Eckstein, but from a much tougher offensive era.

Hall of Famer Joe Sewell is, of course, known for his incredible bat control, as he had a 7.39/1 career BB/K ratio, and struck out fewer than 10 times a year from 1925-1933, but also had absolutely no power to speak of. Rizzuto is probably the best player on this list, given that he missed three of his prime years to World War II. TCM ranked them as the 21st and 18th greatest shortstops in baseball history over the offseason. Donie Bush, who TCM ranked 38th, was an otherwise good defensive player who was terrible at turning the double play, but he averaged 96 walks a season.

Rabbit Maranville, another Hall of Famer, is in almost entirely because of his defensive reputation, but is one of the worst Hall of Fame choices of all time. And speaking of bad Hall of Fame choices, Hack Wilson is in because he got 191 RBI and hit 56 homers in 1930, and pretty much nothing else.

Topsy Hartsel got a late start to his career when he got caught up in some illegal roster moves during the chaos of the birth of the American League. He found a home in Philadelphia soon after where he became a dominant top of the lineup player in the mode of Wade Boggs for a few years. Miller Huggins was actually a very similar player, though he had less power and was a 2B. He’s better known, of course, for managing the Yankees in the 1920s.

Bobby Shantz is probably the second most famous person to come out of Pottstown, PA (though neither of them is as beloved as Yuengling). Shantz was tiny, listed at 139 lbs, and notvery durable, but posted an absolutely monster season in 1952 (24-7, 2.48, 279.2 innings) for which he won the AL MVP award. After giving up starting, he became one of the early relief aces, absolutely owning the end of games for the Yankees before bouncing around the league in the early 1960s. As a testament to the worthlessness of Gold Gloves (except in a strictly monetary sense), Shantz got eight of them, all of which save one came in seasons where he was primarily (and often exclusively) a reliever.

As a reliever, Collins has a lot of work to do to catch these guys.  And he's going to have to overcome a lot of institutional bias in order to do it.  We should all be rooting for him.


Anonymous said...

Not sure what Dustin Pedroia is listed at but that dude is short

The Common Man said...

Pedroia is listed at 5'9", which makes him overqualified by three inches for this list. Only players shorter than TCM (a 5'7" height that is contested by even those who love him) are eligible.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Super stuff. Love rooting for the short guys.

If Pedroia is 5'9", then Jonathan Broxton weighs 150.

Matthew said...

What about Yogi Berra? Or Phil Rizzuto?