What’s in a Height, Anyway?

NOTE: This data may not include every player, only those with recorded heights.

In my two recent articles, concerning little people in baseball and east Asians in baseball, many commentors got hung up on the height issues.

“What about just short people?” said some. “Maybe they are a present inefficiency? Why do you keep ignoring short people!?”

Others asked: “How do you expect China to produce legitimate talent? I watch Southpark. I know that Chinese people are too short for baseball.”

Well, okay, let’s explore these issues.

Chinese People Are Too Short to Play Baseball
This is wrong. And not just racistly, but legitimately too.

Yes, the average height in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a good 2.5 inches lower than the average American’s height, but this ignores half of the inputs: Both heredity (genetics) and environmental factors (such as diet and a mother’s health during pregnancy) determine a person’s height.

If genetics alone explained height, then why are the rural Chinese an inch and a half shorter than their urban counterparts? Why are Mexican-Americans three inches taller than the average Mexican national? Why are Americans taller now than they were 100 years ago?

Genetics can explain parts of these difference, but it fails to explain everything. This means an athlete, allowed to enter a training program at a young age, can and will grow differently than his or her peers. A training facility in China, one that educates, trains, and feeds it pupils, will no doubt yield a crop of baseballers taller and leaner than the average citizen. This could be true even in America.

But, ultimately, it does not even matter! The MLB does and has never looked for average people. The standard MLB height since 1980 has been 6′ 0.5″ — in other words, taller than average. China — and frankly every nation — possesses especially tall individuals. Consider Chien-Ming Wang (6’3″) or Yao Ming (7’9″ 7’5″), two players of above-average and extraordinary height from Taiwan and the PRC.

Let us look at the MLB since 1980*. If we constrain the data to any player with 1000 PAs since 1980, we see the distinct difference between average Americans and average MLBers.

*I chose to limit the data to the more modern era in an effort to increase the external validity. Through different baseball eras, the average US height changes, and so does the average MLB environment. For instance, in the Deadball Era, shorter, faster guys would be more valuable than taller, slower sluggers who had little chance of hitting a homer in the Polo Grounds.

NOTE: The histogram specifics are at the bottom of the page.

So quit freaking out about the average heights of a population! The MLB has never been shackled with average heights issues!

Shorter People Have a Smaller Strike Zone and Therefore Better OBP
When I proposed breaking the height barrier, a number of commentors observed there may be a present inefficiency in height. Though my Next Market Inefficiencies series is focused on inefficiencies that do not yet exist, I felt like this was a worthy investigation. What about the small guys who get overlooked by scouts because they do not sell the blue jeans?

Well, it turns out height does not tell you much. Using that same dataset of 100 PAs, post-1979 players, we see a wide smattering of talent:

Note the R-squared, which suggests height predicts only 1% of the variation found in OBP. Honestly (and I have not yet researched this), it seems more likely that height predicts position more than OBPiness.

Okay, let’s throw out that dataset and look at this from a new angle. Lets’ look at the shortest players and the tallest players since 1901. If there is truly a difference in OBPiness, it would show up there:

It doesn’t.

The difference between these two groups, a grand one point of OBP, really becomes nullified when you consider that Gaylord Perry and Fergie Jenkins and a few other pitchers slipped into the tallies group. If we slice those bigguns out of the sample, we get a .345 OBP, which is a few notches better than the short group.

With a population consisting of — literally — 19.3% of the world, China probably has more than a fair share of extra-tall athletes. Moreover, as the nation grows economically and moves away from agriculture-dependency, its national diet continues to change, resulting in both good and bad health effects.

So, China’s population has — undoubtedly — some talent worth finding, and as the nation becomes taller, the benefits of Chinese academies only increase. MLB teams need to get into the PRC while it is still inexpensive, or else they may miss that first great PRC star — and the first big PRC media contract.

Even if China can offer only shorter players who cannot crush the ball, the MLB still has a home for them. Consider the 1980-2011 dataset, wherein we see the expectations for shorter baseball players do not typically rely on offense:

No modern player under 6’0″ has hit a .400 wOBA (using modern linear weights). That’s not say they have been useless or bad, merely that their skill set did not include ball destroying.

Can China, with its vast population, offer just a few 2-3 WAR shortstops? Indubitably.

Are shorter athletes better at getting on base and getting overlooked by scouts? Probably not. If you crush the ball in high school, a college will want you. If you crush it in college, you will make it to the minors. If the minors cannot pitch to you, then you make it to the majors.

Little people (read: not short people) do not have a means to enter this stream, and so present the possibility of being overlooked entirely. Short athletes are still getting their shot.


MLB Heights (in Inches) From 1980 to Present Day

Height Frequency
66 3
67 6
68 17
69 67
70 110
71 178
72 260
73 216
74 211
75 142
76 62
77 26
78 6
79 0
80 1

For all things height, check out Wikipedia’s suspiciously good article on the matter.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

52 Responses to “What’s in a Height, Anyway?”

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  1. whardt says:

    Yao is 7′ 5″, definitely not 7′ 9″

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  2. brett says:

    “No modern player under 6’0? has hit a .400 wOBA (using modern linear weights).”

    Prince Fielder in 2009 had a wOBA well above .400.

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  3. Andrew says:

    Thanks for taking some time to address the questions raised by your last article, Bradley.

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  4. Shawn says:

    How does [redacted] size factor in?

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  5. PatsNats28 says:

    Well written article, but I don’t really think it was necessary… I didn’t get all the way through the comments of those threads, but I think it’s pretty obvious that you don’t need to be 6’3″ to play in the majors.

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  6. scout1222 says:

    Just from reading the title, I suspected I’d see a David Eckstein reference. I am not disappointed.

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  7. corey says:

    I like this post, and honestly I think the perception that height makes a big difference is very common in the baseball world in spite of no obvious conceptual reason it should matter (other than in the opposite direction that short people are a little harder to pitch to due to strike zones). What I wonder here is whether or not you get an effect of on base percentage if you control for batting average. I’m not sure statistically this would work because it might cause co-linearity, but I’m curious whether or not height matters for on base percentage if we somehow control for how well a batter hits. In other words, if a short player is an equal raw hitter to a tall player, does height make any marginal difference in on base percentage?

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    • Hmm, maybe looking at BB% can add some light in this regard. Good thoughts!

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    • Mike Fast says:

      I found that batter height had very little effect on the size of the strike zone. It affected how far the strike zone was above the ground, but not its size (or only to a very small extent).

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      • kick me in the GO NATS says:

        if true it is not fair. Either big players are getting smaller strike zones than they deserve or smallish guys are getting more than they deserve.

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      • Dave S says:

        @ GO NATS

        Why is that unfair? I propose it’s unfair that the rules force taller players to cover a larger strike zone.

        The strike zone should be an area fixed in space, above home plate, and exactly THE SAME for all players.

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  8. Telo says:

    “So, China’s population has — undoubtedly — some talent worth finding, and as the nation becomes taller, the benefits of Chinese academies only increase. MLB teams need to get into the PRC while it is still inexpensive, or else they may miss that first great PRC star — and the first big PRC media contract.”

    I think you still don’t grasp the concept many posters tried to bring up in your original piece. Here’s another go at it.

    In terms of pure genetics, there are some small biases and benefits to being one race over another (speaking in terms of the general population of a given race). You can see this in the ratio of Samoans in Football, or African Americans in basketball. It’s just physiology. Forget all of that for a second, and let’s assume that the Chinese people have a totally fair shot, genetically speaking, at having the god given ability to play baseball.

    While the science is imperfect, one thing we know is that children learn well, and the earlier skills are developed, the more ingrained they become. In the Dominican Republic children play baseball all day. All of them, all the time, day and night. (This is only a slight exaggeration.) For every child (anywhere) who plays baseball for 5 hours a day every day of his life since he could pick up a glove is worth 100, maybe 1000 children who play the game only at recess once or twice week, then goes out to join his middle school team.

    The point is, it isn’t magic and it isn’t genetics that produces so many DR ball players, it’s the insane (and awesome) baseball culture the leads to millions of kid/baseball hours every year. This is exactly what China does NOT have. The massive urban population doesn’t have access to fields, and the poor rural farming community is too sparse and impoverished to care about baseball. (Yes, the DR is poor, but they hold baseball higher than anything.)

    Are there Carl Crawfords, humans who are simply blessed with every possible natural athletic gift, in China waiting to be found? Of course there are. Forget the fact most of them would likely be snatched up by another sport that would give them more personal glory among their people, or a sport they simply enjoy more – there are certainly a few diamonds in the rough. But the number is far, far less than you would make it seem from your recent articles.

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    • I believe I understand these criticisms. To the physiology argument: Tosh. There are indeed physiological differences between Chinese athletes and America, Latin American, and Japanese athletes, but not sufficiently enough to render the entire country incapable of playing professional baseball.

      Moreover, as I attempted to make clear in this present article, the MLB only wants/needs exceptional individuals. Most of the athletes from America have exceptional physiques, the same would be true for any Chinese athletes.

      To the second point: Yes, there is no baseball culture in China. That is why America does not passively receive airplane-fuls of Chinese talent; it IS why building an academy would pay dividends.

      The idea of building an academy is that the team offers free education in exchange for training potential baseball stars. It’s not a public institution, it’s private. The students won’t have to share a baseball field with the community, it would be private. The lack of urban parks wouldn’t be a problem because the team would purchase property and build their own stadium. The students won’t haphazardly play ball, they study it.

      Yes, the DR produces a lot of talent and is steeped in baseball culture. This, however, does not preclude China from producing baseball talent, or baseball from becoming a national frenzy in China. In truth, baseball does not need to become a national frenzy, just a local frenzy. If the MLB can get just two or three cities excited about baseball, teaching baseball in school, and showing it on TV, then China goes from an inefficiency to a hotbed of talent overnight.

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      • Telo says:

        I made a point to acknowledge the physiology argument, but purposely did NOT actually claim that there is disadvantage, as I have no proof or reason to strongly believe it. However, you’d be foolish to dismiss it out of hand as you do, since you have less proof to do so than I do. (by virtue of the fact there are zero Chinese, and very few Asians in baseball.) But let’s ignore that entire aspect, as I tried to do from the onset.

        You still aren’t grasping the concept: How many young Chinese boys wake up wanting to spend their entire day at the baseball academy? How many run to the baseball academy after dinner to play for 3 more hours before the sun goes down. Every day. How many Chinese boys look around and see every single one of their peers with the same goal of one day playing in pro ball. Do you realize how powerful that is? How much drive and determination play a factor into the equation of becoming a professional athlete?

        The DR is living breathing proof of the power of culture in athlete development. China is the antithesis of the DR (with respect to baseball). There is almost no avenue to and even less drive for young Chinese children to develop baseball skills at a young age. Whatever you think you can accomplish with a baseball academy is nothing compared to an empty field, a stick, and a tattered ball in the DR. The difference? Time and drive. You can’t speed train someone to learn baseball. The rules, the strategy, sure. But not how to throw or pitch and certainly not how to hit. This is a learned, practiced skill. And the younger and more often the practice the better.

        This is not a numbers game. The Chinese are not an untapped well. Unless something actually changes within the country and the culture, we will continue to see little to no representation. You need to check your bias and actually evaluate the situation. There is no culture. And culture is everything. This is not finding math geniuses. That you set up checkpoints for and just filter the exceptionally gifted kids. This is living and breathing a sport every second of your life since you could walk, and having everyone and everything around you telling you that’s the right thing to do. Imagine the opposite of that. That’s China.

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      • Liem says:

        How many young Chinese girls 30 years ago thought they were going to be Olympic swimmers? Despite having a population that has shorter arms, narrower shoulders, and narrower chests, the PRC was able to manufacture an international powerhouse in only a decade. With 1.6 billion people, mainland China has plenty of “exceptions” that, when combined with a communist sports ministry, can be compelled to developed into world-class athletes.

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      • Bill says:

        How many all time great baseball players played and excelled in other sports at a high level? The fact of the matter is that skills required in baseball our not unique to that sport. A truly gifted athlete can be taught to play baseball. He does not need to be steeped in it his entire life. I believe China has a strong badminton tradition (well, they always win in the Olympics). I could see skills used here translating well into baseball skills. I think the biggest problem would be in convincing the best athletes to take up baseballl. In the DR it’s baseball or dirt farming. China’s a much wealthier nation. Their athletes could make plenty of money succeeding in their own sports.

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      • Telo says:

        Holy shit, Liem… you are an idiot. Did you even read the words I wrote?



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      • Telo says:

        “I… purposely did NOT actually claim that there is disadvantage” – Telo
        “I… purposely did NOT actually claim that there is disadvantage” – Telo
        “I… purposely did NOT actually claim that there is disadvantage” – Telo
        “I… purposely did NOT actually claim that there is disadvantage” – Telo
        “I… purposely did NOT actually claim that there is disadvantage” – Telo
        “I… purposely did NOT actually claim that there is disadvantage” – Telo

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  9. CJ says:

    “No modern player under 6’0? has hit a .400 wOBA (using modern linear weights). ”

    Joe Morgan was 5-7 and he had multiple seasons with wOBA’s above .400. Craig Biggio’s height is below 6-0, and he had several seasons with wOBA’s above .400. Do you mean a career wOBA?

    Also, as an added note, the Astros have a AA second baseman, Jose Altuve, who may make it to the majors by next season. Altuve started the season with a reported height of 5-5. The Astros recently revised his reported height to 5-7. I don’t know if he had a legitimate growth spurt or if the Astros wanted to put a better light on his height.

    In any event, Altuve’s offense has been phenomonal. Altuve’s slash line in A+ to start the year: .399, .437, .592, 1.029 with 18 stolen bases. He was promoted to AA Texas League about a month ago. His slash line in AA so far: .366, .379, .634, 1.013.

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  10. Dave in GB says:

    Brian Roberts, Tim Raines, Dustin Pedroia, Rafael Furcal, Kirby Puckett, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Danny Herrera, Ivan Rodriguez, Brett Gardener ect.

    ^^^ All 5’9″ or shorter and has had or had either a HOF career, a very good career, or a good career so far.

    Wait until MLB starts scouting India or the Middle East.

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  11. BK says:

    Can we graph of height vs. grittiness? The R squared on that has to be pretty high.

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  12. Andrew says:

    I’d like to see a study on height with pitchers. I think it is a much larger misconception that taller pitchers are a) more effective and b) less likely to break down

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    • Mcneildon says:

      I suspect that about pitcher height as well. I don’t know if there is any research on it. If anybody knows of research that supports or refutes the notion that taller pitchers are more effective and/or less susceptible to injury, a link to it would be awfully swell. Or, research that shows the opposite for shorter pitchers.

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  13. Jonathan says:

    Excellent article. There are so many misconceptions regarding biology and race/ethnicity. Racism in sport squeaks by because people believe that there are “natural,” or biological, causes for what are in fact social phenomena.

    Incidentally, this article forms a good foundation for why prohibiting and/or discouraging women from playing the same professional sports that men do and the pervasive coercive gender segregation we observe in the world of sport are total nonsense. Average physical differences, if they in fact exist, between groups of people (e.g., women and men) do not mean that individuals from a “disadvantaged” group of people cannot compete. Just because women are on average shorter than men does not mean that the entire population of women should be disallowed from competing, since there will always be people who exceed the average.

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  14. Jerome S. says:

    If what Buck and McCarver have told me about Dustin Pedroia is correct, Heart and Grit>>>>>>>>>>>>Height

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      There are studies that show most people percieve white players as more gritty and technical. Black players as more athletic and showy. I’d like to see height too. Pedroia has a lot of “grittiness going for him”. White, middle infielder, short, plays with a lot of other white players.

      Come to think of it, I can’t think of a single black player in any sport who’s ever been consistently considered gritty.

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  15. CircleChange11 says:

    The height issue is one that has been explored quite a bit.

    Bill James has written some ideas about it as well using Hack Wilson, Yogi Berra, Kirby Puckett, etc as examples of how, in general shorter athletes need to be better than taller players to get a real shot. That does not encompass everything as Eckstein and Aaron Miles illustrate.

    From my experience, scouts put a lot of weight in height, and in the amatuer levels heights are often exaggerated to compensate for this.

    I may not be recalling this correctly but I thought that there is no pitcher under 6’0 in the HoF. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have been good pitchers, but more likely that strong armed short guys were moved to SS. There was also a time when the perception was that tall guys couldn’t play SS. Ripken paved the way for guys like ARod, Tulo, and Hanley.

    Certaily there are positions where height could be a negative if it results in less range, agility, etc.

    My primary curiosity was what niche the Chinese player would fill to warrant the investment into creating a baseball culture in China. Baseball does have a tendency to follow stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies. Tall lefties pitch, there was a time when Latin and shortstops were synonyms, etc. We see (or saw) similar things in the NFL.

    I don’t think people we’re operating on the belief that men’s stores in China only sell “adult medium” clothing, but rather there were enough men playing baseball that “fit the profile” in order for the top 1-3% have major league in their future.

    I don’t doubt that if China decided to make baseball a priority that they could turn out major league players. But that’s a big if, and it’s going to take a lot of work and investments.

    The NBA didn’t exactly find a ton of 7’0 Africans to play professionally, even though that looked to be an untapped market for awhile.

    I would say that, in general, scouts are the ones that are most hung up on height, not fans, coaches, etc.

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    • Dave S says:

      Whitey Ford, right off the top of my head.

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    • Dave S says:

      But in general, you are correct. The majority of HOF pitchers are 6’+. Nearly all of them since the deadball era.

      So, knowing the great majority of recent HOF pichers (and players too) are 6’+… why would it surprise anyone that scouts focus on tall players? It makes absolute sense to weed out the shorter players.

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  16. nate says:

    forget un-tall people… i want to know how weight corresponds to crushing a baseball (after all: who doesn’t enjoy watching wily mo pena run the bases… or sumo wrestle rich garces)?!

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  17. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    I think MLB should have a draft for countries in which teams can develop talent and academies. Each country would have at least one academy if they have a population of over 10 million. China and India could have maybe 10-12 academies each. The league decides how many academies for each country, then you have a draft. Teams would then be able to sign without drafting any players from countries in which they own an academy. That way the incentive to grow and develop the academies are there.

    This system allows for a fairer distribution of foreign talent provided the teams develop their markets.

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  18. Antonio Bananas says:

    What MLB may want to do is create like a Dominican Summer League only in China. Get all the best players, put them on like 8 teams. Each team also has little camps in their city. That way you can better gauge this sort of thing. Over time maybe it’ll develop into something.

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  19. adam smith says:

    6 foot or under 500 hr club hitters, off the top of my head: Aaron, Mantle, Mays, Killebrew, Sosa, Man Ram, Foxx, Ott, Jackson, Sheffield, Palmeiro

    want to go to 601 (listed–which usually means an added inch or two–or measured in spikes,) and you can add Robinson, Matthews, Banks,

    Over half the club.

    Don’t have time to do the 50 HR year guys, but I suspect that there will be quite a few on the shorter end.

    Recent HOF hitters, and 3000 hit club, and you get more short players (yount, molitor, gwynn, biggio, soon to be ichiro, etc.)

    Interesting that the best cricket batsmen are short. Many of them are very short.

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  20. Chris says:

    This kind of article is exactly why FanGraphs is my first read every morning. Awesome stuff Bradley.

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  21. flyingelbowsmash says:

    Most professional athletes’ listed heights are exaggerated a bit, so there are probably some HOF pitchers that were really under six foot. Are they measured with their shoes (cleats) on?
    Go on IMBD and you can automatically subtract at least two inches off the listed heights for the actors. . .

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  22. Bob says:

    Yeah, I saw Brian Dennehy in a grocery store once (I think he was in Chicago for Belly Of An Architect), and he must’ve been about 5′ 6″—bit of a letdown somehow.

    Good article, and real good comments, too. Go Altuve!

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