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The Next Market Inefficiencies: Little People in Baseball

The following is the first and behemoth installment of a three-part (or more) series concerning baseball’s next great market inefficiencies.

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

Official MLB Rulebook, Page 22

On Tuesday, in the sixth round of the MLB Draft, the San Diego Padres selected outfielder Kyle Gaedele (who the Tampa Bay Rays had previously drafted in the 32nd round of the 2008 draft). Gaedele plays center field and shows good signs of hitting for power, but what most writers, sports fans, and guys named Bradley talk about is Gaedele’s great uncle.

Casual fans probably do not know about Kyle’s great uncle, Eddie Gaedel (who removed the e off his last name for show-business purposes). We nerds can forgive the casual fan for forgetting a player who outdid, in his career, only the great Otto Neu. Gaedel took a single at-bat, walked to first, and then left for a pinch runner.

What makes Eddie Gaedel a unique and important part of baseball history, however, is not his statistics, per se, but his stature. Gaedel stood 3’7″ tall, almost half the height of his great nephew. Gaedel was the first and last little person to play in Major League Baseball, and the time has come for that to change.

The tragedy of the Eddie Gaedel event was that it left more of an obstacle than a foot in the door for little athletes. The St. Louis Browns’ owner Bill Veeck hired Gaedel for purely promotional purposes. Gaedel, himself an entertainer, wore elf-like shoes, curling at the tips, and came bursting from a cake, seriously, before his first at bat. Wearing the number 1/8, Gaedel took his walk straight into the Hall of Fame (well, his jersey is there at least).

The net result of the Gaedel experiment has been two-fold:

1) Any further attempts at getting dwarfs, midgets, or more generally (and politely, as I understand) termed little people into baseball has been viewed summarily as a publicity stunt.

2) We stat-heads cannot help but fathom the endless possibilities of the sacred 1.000 OBP hitter — the hitter you could never strike out.

However, there is more than one example of a little person in professional baseball, particularly the case of Dave Flood. Mr. Flood, a radio personality for 93.3 FLZ FM of Florida, stands at 3’2″ and, in 2009, joined the York Revolution, an independent league team. However, Flood did not make it out of Spring Training, going 0 for 3 with a walk.

This makes it seem much less likely MLB pitchers would have fits with hitting a smaller strike zone.

Of course, there is also the case of Mr. Todd Gallagher, author of Andy Roddick Beat Me with a Frying Pan, who sent a lineup of little people against Dana Kiecker. Here, the results seemed more promising for small hitters, though one cannot imagine the results were terribly informative: Kiecker, though he had a nice season in 1990, lasted less than 200 innings in the majors and would have been in his 40s at the time of the experiment. Suffice it to say, his strike zone struggles did not start with this experiment.

So in other words, experiments and actual data prove incredibly insufficient. What we have left is thought experiments.

(I have heard it said that Nate Silver once wrote an article suggesting it takes a player to walk once per game to best Albert Pujols. Anyone know if this article really exists?)

The venerable Tom Tango offered his thoughts during the Dave Flood episode:

How good would a player who would only get walks have to be? A walk is worth about +.030 wins and an out is -.027 wins. If you can get a .475 OBP, you’d be a league-average hitter, which, for a guy who can’t field (presumably) would be the replacment-level. If we’re looking for a 1 WAR per 162G (700PA) player as our threshhold, our guy needs to have a .500 OBP. He would be an average player if he could get a .530 OBP.

Seeing that MLB pitchers throw ball 4 on 3-0 counts 35% of the time, I can certainly believe that MLB pitchers may have a tough time with the pin-point control they need.

Rob Neyer also tackled the issue in 2009:

A couple of practical questions:

1. Could a club justify devoting a roster spot to someone who can do nothing except walk and strike out?

and

2. Would the pitchers really have a tough time throwing strikes?

I think the answer to Question 1 is probably not … until September, when every club has gobs of roster space that doesn’t even get used…

I think the answer to Question 2 is also probably not… [T]here’s at least some small fear on 3-0 that might prevent the pitcher from just throwing a BP fastball down the middle, and sometimes they’re actually not trying to throw a strike…

Let’s take a visual glance at the matter: A 3’6″ batter would be exactly 60% as tall as a 6’0″ batter. The following GIF attempts to materialize that distinction using an image delightfully stolen from the MLB rule book:

The zone, as you — dear contacts-wearing reader — can tell, is much smaller and quite flat. It loses 60% 40% of its height, but maintains its width, while creeping a good 50% closer to the plate. (Note: The image had been reduced by nearly exactly 60% to preserve scale as much as possible.)

Of this strike zone, several MLB pitchers said they wanted no part:

Twins All-Star closer Joe Nathan and single season save leader Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez believe [little people in baseball] has real potential. Said Rodriguez: “First of all, I’m not going to be able to throw strikes. No way. My target for the hitter is very different so my approach would be completely messed up. He’s going to get a walk immediately. I’d rather face Barry Bonds in the bottom of the ninth.”

Which brings us to the final two issues:

A) What value could small batters bring to an MLB team? I think it is safe to assume few teams have the roster flexibility for a one-plate-appearance guy for the whole season. Like Neyer notes, expanded September rosters would more than provide the opportunity for a little person to have a powerful and meaningful impact on games — especially if said athlete could sport a .500+ OBP, which, given plenty of training opportunities in the minors (specifically honing the ability to foul off 2-strike pitches) seems quite possible.

The very same element that makes a little person a viable hitter is the same that nullifies their potency as a fielder and runner: their height. Short legs means short strides, and therefore less speed and less range. Effective fielding and base running would be a near-impossibility for a little athlete.

B) Would the MLB allow it? After the Eddie Gaedel incident, the MLB changed their rules so that teams needed their contracts approved by, not just submitted to, the commissioner’s office. In the modern era, however, the MLB would probably need a series of bulldozers to clear the commish’s parking lot after the feces-related weather event resulting if Bud Selig turned down a player because of a genetic disease.

Conclusion
Here is my take, and why I feel one of the MLB’s next untapped inefficiencies will involve little athletes:

The problem as it stands is the lack of a vetting system for little athletes. Presently, to my knowledge, very few — if any — high school or college teams have little people on their rosters. This means if a little person wants to play baseball, he must go directly to the independent leagues or the minor leagues to hone their baseball skills — which is a very tough place to start.

So consider this a call to action: If you are a little person reading this, know that you are a member of the next generation of the MLB. If you or your son or daughter have athletic talents, do not feign away from high school baseball tryouts or joining a local baseball league.

If you are a high school or college coach and know an interested little person, take that chance now, dare to step into the void and stand in the company of the great Branch Rickey. Dare to put little people in baseball.