Body Types by Lineup Position – Visualized

On April 2nd, 2014, just one day removed from April Fools’ Day, the Houston Astros turned in the lineup for their game against the New York Yankees. Dexter Fowler would bat leadoff, Matt Dominguez would hit second and Robbie Grossman would bat in the three hole. The cleanup spot would be filled by Jose Altuve. Altuve is listed at five feet, five inches tall. Since that fateful day on April 2ns, he is now tied with Freddie Patek as the shortest player to bat cleanup since 1974.

Here comes the caveat that the Astros are doing their own thing at the moment and what they do should not be seen as some sort of new-age thinking in regards to winning baseball games. Short dudes in the four hole are not the new market inefficiency. Altuve’s odd lineup placement is just a phase. Like that one weird cousin of yours, Houston is taking some time to figure some stuff out right now.

Nevertheless, the Altuve bit isn’t without some sort of interest. Baseball — and most sports, really, tend to fall into tropes regarding certain types of players and what they should look like. Russell Wilson was thought to be too short to be an NFL quarterback. Kevin Durant is so long and lanky that he doesn’t look like he’d be such an fluid attacker of the basket. And Jose Altuve certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a power-stroking big-bopping cleanup hitter.

This all got me to wondering — baseball is, at its core, a skill game. Size and strength can certainly help, but it’s not a game that is dominated by the big and brawny. If that were the case, Altuve’s teammate Chris Carter would lead the league in everything. But that’s the nature of most other sports. Basketball players are getting bigger. Football players are certainly getting bigger. So what about baseball players? Are they falling in line as well?

I looked at the height of every batter who ever had a plate appearance since 1974 and averaged the heights out by year– well, I made a computer do that because I’m not a crazy person. I chose 1974 because that’s the earliest we here at FanGraphs have reliable player info for this type of thing. All of this info is weighted, so the Altuves of the world wouldn’t skew the numbers. Let’s zoom out first, and look at how player heights have evolved over the years.

I should probably throw in a disclaimer first. Yes, these numbers aren’t wholly accurate. I don’t know if it’s the players or the teams, but many guys are listed taller than they actually are. For the sake of argument, I’m assuming that most tend to lie at about the same rate, so while the actual numbers might be a little skewed, the changes between the two should stay consistent.

Average Height Chart

There was certainly some evolution early on (or perhaps less grandiose fibbing in the early days), but player heights have kind of leveled out since the early 1990s. There is a little vacillation there, but it happens within the realm of a half of an inch. All in all, at least as far as hitters go, the guys getting the most at bats have stayed about the same size for the past 25 years or so. But while they may not be getting much taller, position players are getting … wider.

Average BMI Chart

Body mass index — or BMI — is a fairly rudimentary method to “weigh” a persons weight based on their height. It’s basically one’s mass divided by the square of one’s height. This chart is fairly self-explanatory. Baseball players used to be skinnier, then they got surprisingly bigger in the mid-2000s (sarcasm!), then they slimmed down a bit. They are still much bigger than they were 40 years ago, but it has seemed to die down from the muscle-bound craziness of a few years ago. Joking aside, this makes quite a bit of sense. As physical fitness training and technology get better, it seems logical that athletes would start packing on more muscle. It could be that players are just getting fatter, but I find that hard to believe. Until MLB starts taking body fat measurements along with height and weight we’ll never no know. But it seems fairly safe to assume we’re talking more about muscle that flab.

If we zoom in to a batting-order level, we can see how both of these measures hash out on a more granular scale.

Historically, the guys batting cleanup have been the biggest. It’s harder to tell if large hitters are better at batting cleanup or if they were just perceived that way and given more PAs in that spot. That might deserve some more research. The graphs are filterable, so you can click around and play with the data a bit. It’s interesting to see how some lineup positions level off fairly quickly while others like the 3rd spot suffered a bit of volatility over the years. Again, we’re dealing with inches and halves of inches, but it’s still of consequence considering the sheer amount of plate appearances involved.

George Springer is now in the big leagues, and soon Jon Singleton will be too. The days of the diminutive Altuve batting cleanup for the Astros are probably over. But his participation in the big-man position can help us understand just how flat player heights have been throughout the years. While pure physical dominance might help one reach the quarterback quicker grab a few extra rebounds, a simple size advantage doesn’t necessarily make a baseball player better. There’s still that whole tricky thing revolving around hand-eye coordination, it seems. Perhaps being 6’6″ makes one a better linebacker than someone who is 6’2″. But if being huge doesn’t help a player recognize breaking pitches or go the other way to beat the shift, then perhaps size doesn’t matter. The numbers certainly suggest that.

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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

35 Responses to “Body Types by Lineup Position – Visualized”

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  1. Grammar Police says:

    “…we’ll never no.”

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  2. Helladecimal says:

    Interesting that BMI was lower in 80s than the 70s. If you wanted to do contextual/historical work, you could check out the evolution of training/nutrition regimes in each discrete era.

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    • JimNYC says:

      Or you could just meet some regular cocaine users and then you’d know why this was the case.

      +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • jfree says:

      My guess is that in the very early years of the DH, the AL slotted their existing older (ie heavier) players into that batting slot. That gave those players an extra couple years on their career. As those guys retired, they were replaced by either younger bat-only players or rotated to give semi-rest days to regular position players. So that what appears to be a ‘decline’ in overall BMI is just a change in sample.

      Just for one year-to-year comparison, in 1973 the average age for the DH was 31.3; in 1974 it was 30.5

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    • joser says:

      Just think about how much starker that would be if not for the contribution of Fernando Valenzuela.

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    • Billy says:

      Also of note is the explosion in stolen bases during the 80′s no? It would seem that there is perhaps some relationship between those two.

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  3. Zen Madman says:

    I was hoping for something like a monkey evolving into a caveman or a lineup like in the Usual Suspects poster, but this was nice, too.

    +17 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Hurtlockertwo says:

    I find it interesting that the nicknames of early 1900′s players often had players that were 6’0″ to 6’2″, listed as “Big” Jim, Bob, Mike etc. These days those players would likely be short for the average major leaguer.

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  5. Johnston says:

    “perhaps size doesn’t matter”

    Nay nay.

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  6. here goes nothing says:

    Can you overlay the BMI data against historical HR and SB stuff? We know HRs were at their height right around when it looks like BMI peaks…and SBs were all the rage in the early 80s (cocaine too, but yeah).

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  7. Nick C says:

    American League / National League split? I’d be curious to see what the 9 hole looks like with and without pitchers.

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    • TheGrandslamwich says:

      Bartolo Colon, or as I like to call him “The Manatee,” would single handedly obscure the 2014 figures.

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    • Bip says:

      So for basically the last 20+ years, the leadoff hitter has been the undisputed smallest player in the lineup, while the #2 hitter has been the undisputed second smallest. It’s crazy how closely managers try to conform to these lineup roles, some of which make no sense.

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      • Bip says:

        Oops, meant to post this as a separate comment. Well, let’s tie it into your comment. If the trend I describe holds even in the AL with a DH, where a team can store quick guys who can’t hit in the 9 spot, I’d be very curious to see if this trend still holds.

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  8. Matty Brown says:

    fun graph to play with at work!

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  9. Prince Fielder says:

    Cleaning up the post-game spread = cleanup spot in the lineup. The weigh it should be.

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  10. ghostface says:

    70s and 80s… I’m thinking not only heavy cocaine use but also “greenies”/”bennies”/amphetamines?

    And of course steroids would generally have the opposite effect (i.e. weight/fluid retention)

    h/t JimNYC and here goes nothing

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  11. DNA+ says:

    Surely Dustin Pedroia has batted cleanup a time or two? He must be MUCH shorter than 5’5″.

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    • OhBeepy says:

      Pedroia, judging by the eye test, appears to be roughly exactly my height when viewed from good close seats.

      I’d be inclined to believe the 5’8″ figure that is commonly cited.

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      • Jason B says:

        “appears to be roughly exactly my height when viewed from good close seats.”

        The science is settled!

        I kid, I kid. But yes, I’m sure he seems even smaller by comparison when standing next to some of his current and former hulking teammates.

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      • DNA+ says:

        I bet he can’t even jump and get the top of his head to 5’8″. That’s a vanity number for sure. He’s at least a foot shorter than even the umpires.

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        • Robot Nucleic Acid+ says:

          I bet you can’t even jump and get the top of your head to an arbitrary line I drew that shows where if you can reach it, you are not an idiot and if you cannot reach, likr you, then you are not not an idiot.

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      • Billy says:

        I’m inclined to believe he’s about the listed 5’8″, maybe 5’7″ judging from my own eyeballs. People always talk about him like he’s Eddie Gaedel. I understand that by pro athlete standards, under 6′ is short, and hence significantly under 6′ is very short. But they talk about him like he’s unbelievably short, not just a tick below average for a normal man.

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  12. DNA+ says:

    I like how the 9th place hitters are much taller than the 7th and 8th place hitters, because pitchers are giants. Probably if you separated AL and NL data for 9th place hitters there would be a big difference.

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  13. Andy says:

    Great article. It also makes me want to see how size and something like wRC+ are correlated.

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  14. Warning Track Power says:

    Maybe I missed it in the article but in contrasting how much more obvious the need for height and weight is in the contact sports as opposed to the ‘skill’ sport, you fail to mention that cleanup guys are expected to have pop and all things being equal, pop seems to correlate well with being a somewhat large dude.

    Pedroia is probably 5’6 1/2″ or thereabout, not 5’8″.

    Leadoff hitters are shorter than the bottom third of the lineup because speedy guys who are big tend to have power and eventually move down in the lineup after they hone their power some at the MLB level. Also, the bottom third favors players without pop whom are not considered suited to bat leadoff–not just because of their lack of hitting ability (a typical reason for batting in the bottom third) but also because of their lack of speed. Lastly, some teams have a second lineup regular that is a “leadoff” type and he often ends up batting 9th or 8th.

    I was surprised for about .1 seconds when I saw that the 9th spot went back up so much relative to the rest of the bottom and then I remembered it includes NL pitchers.

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    • Warning Track Power says:

      “Also, the bottom third favors players without pop whom are not considered suited to bat leadoff–not just because of their lack of hitting ability (a typical reason for batting in the bottom third) but also because of their lack of speed.”

      I meant to say that the bottom third’s bias *for* slow players is probably also a slight bias for height, at least compared to the leadoff spot.

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    • Billy says:

      How does height correlate to speed? We tend to assume that smaller people are faster but is that true? Once again only citing casual life experience, it seems that the fastest guys tend to be around average to above average (let’s say in the 5’9″ to 6’2″ range). After that it seems that the increased height seems to work against guys, though Usain Bolt is 6’5″ and they say that elite sprinters do seem to be getting taller, so perhaps my perceptions are becoming inaccurate.

      Maybe it’s because in pro sports, if you’re not big enough to have elite strength, you need some other skill to make you good, and therefore many of the “smaller” guys tend to be fast.

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