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What’s in a Height, Anyway?

Posted By Bradley Woodrum On June 22, 2011 @ 4:00 pm In Nationals,Research,Yankees | 52 Comments

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.

Conclusions
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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