Getting Shorty

March 2, 2013

In 2010, a rapidly improving young Venezuelan second baseman in the Houston Astros organization named Jose Altuve posted an OPS above .800 in the South Atlantic League. As a reward, he was promoted to the highest level of A ball for the last 31 games of the season. He nearly hit .800 there in the Carolina League, at the relatively young age of 20. Hitting that well at that age while playing a premium position should have been enough to shoot Altuve up near the top of Houston’s prospects lists, but there seemed to be one major knock against him: he was only 5’ 5". Altuve did not make any of well-known Top 10 Prospect lists that I’ve seen.

 

Since World War II, there have only been two players as short as Altuve who had decent careers in the majors. One is the long-time Royals shortstop Freddie Patek. The other may not have had much of a career if it were not for major league’s first expansion: the Angels’ Albie Pearson.

 

Altuve returned to the Carolina League in 2011, but had already outgrown it. His OPS was over 1.000 and his batting average was over .400. Next stop was Corpus Christi of the AA Texas League where Altuve continued to amaze, posting an OPS of .958. To heck with this–on July 19th, the Astros traded away incumbent second-basemen Jeff Keppinger and promoted Altuve all the way to the starting major league job. The 21-year-old’s rookie season could be characterized as "holding his own". He certainly wasn’t the worst player on the team.

 

The next year/last year, Altuve was the overall most valuable hitter on the team. The story is more complicated than that, however. In April, Altuve was a .959 OPS stud. His stats carried him to the All-Star game, but for the remaining five months of the season, he was an ordinary second baseman, hitting .699 OPS with an abysmal fielding range.

 

I don’t know if Altuve’s failure to hit well over such a long stretch means he cannot adjust and is never going to hit as well again, but he is still just 22 years old. At that age, you have to figure he is bound to get better; perhaps much better.

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What’s more, there is no reason to think that his height will negatively impact his ability to develop.  Major league history is filled with similarly sized players who had terrific careers.

 

Freddie Patek was a middle infielder also listed as 5'5". His best year was at age 26, but he generally posted the same numbers from age 23 to 32. Patek was a better fielder—a decent shortstop—but not as good a hitter at the same age as Altuve.

 

Albie Pearson was a 5'5" outfielder. His best year came at age 28. His other good years came at 23, 26, 27, and 30. Pearson was unusual in that he almost never struck out­—even for his day 50 years ago when the American League strikeout rate was just 5.3 per nine innings.

 

Hall of Fame great Joe Morgan was only 5'7" and his peak years were from ages 28 to 32. Compared to Altuve, Morgan walked much more, broke out a year earlier, and was a better fielder. Do not accuse me of saying Jose Altuve might be the next Joe Morgan. My point is, short guys can improve just like everybody else.

 

Looking at these three and the rest of the players 5' 7" or shorter since integration who had, at least, one season of 100 games, you will see that 22 out of the 23 improved at some point beyond the age of 22. I’m not sure if that success rate is significantly good or bad. The point is that they had pretty normal career paths for any group of players with at least a 100-game season. We can safely say, in most cases, the 22-year-old very short major leaguer will improve to a significant degree.

 

Here are the rest of the diminutive diamond dandies:

 

Five-f​oot-seven Lee Handley’s last year in the majors was 1947. I’d skip him, except that, like Altuve, he probably wasn’t a good defensive second-baseman. He was gradually moved to third base by his third year. That was his best year at age 24, but he was still a decent player at 31. He rarely struck out and had no power.

 

Scooter Phil Rizzuto was only 5' 6". His rookie season was before Jackie’s. He was an outstanding rookie at 23, improved a little the next year, and then he took three years off to fight for our freedom. Upon returning, it took another year for him to get back to his previous level, but in 1950 at age 32, he had the best year of his career—winning the MVP award. Like Pearson and Handley, he didn't strike out much. Like Patek, he was a much better defender than Altuve. Rizzuto became a good percentage base stealer in his 30s.

 

F​ive-foot-seven shortstop Eddie Lake had a career year for the Boston Red Sox at age 29–at the end of the war years, 1945. The Tigers then bought high and sold low, acquiring the hot Lake for slugger Rudy York, who was coming off an off year. Lake had three more good years; York had three more not-quite good years. Lake tormented opposing pitchers with walks–almost twice as many walks as strikeouts.

 

Yogi Berra was only 5’ 7". Catchers are not typically compared to middle infielders, but they both can get banged up terribly. Just for the record, Yogi finished in the top four in MVP voting for seven years in a row–ages 25 to 31. He won the award three times. Like Lake, Berra generally took 100+ walks per year.

 

Sandy Amoros was a black Cuban 5’ 7" outfielder who appears to have platooned for the Dodgers in the mid 1950s. His best year was at age 26. His walks equaled his strikeouts–about 13% of his plate appearances each.

 

Ernie Oravetz played for the Washington Senators in the mid 1950s. He was only 5' 4"–shorter than Altuve—but the outfielder was never a league-average hitter. His peak was ages 23 to 28.

 

Vic Davalillo was a svelte 5’ 7" outfielder from Venezuela. He didn’t reach the majors until he was 26, then played in the majors until he was 43 (although, after age 35, the long-time centerfielder became almost exclusively a pinch hitter). His late arrival wasn’t because he was stuck in the minors or in Venezuela, he just didn’t blossom until he was 25. Vitico was a good base stealer in his pre-pinch-hitter days, but did not have a good walk rate.

 

Five-seven Don Buford came up as a third-baseman/outfielder who played mostly second base during his first five seasons ages 27-31. Why was he such an old rookie? Buford is a USC man, so his minor league career didn’t begin until he was 23. He played most of his first minor league season at the B level–in a league and level that has long since vanished. At age 24, he played for the A level South Atlantic League, but didn’t impress until he returned there at age 25. At age 26 he was promoted all the way to the AAA International League where he batted .336 (.858 OPS) earning a September call-up–and he stayed up.

 

Buford was a pretty good offensive infielder for the White Sox of the mid 1960s, but it was in his age 31 season, when he was traded to Baltimore, that he finally became a minor star. The next year Earl Weaver moved Buford to the outfield where he remained an important part of those great Orioles teams through the age of 34. Buford had more walks than strikeouts, reaching 109 passes in his top year.

 

Ron Brand was a weak-hitting catcher – until Altuve, the Astros’ shortest regular ever. Brand’s tenure goes back to the Colt 45s.  His best years were from ages 23 to 29, concluding with the Expos.

 

Houston did have a 5’ 7" utility infielder up at age 21 – when Houston was in its second pitiful year as an expansion team. Ernie Fazio batted .184 while producing a sad .554 OPS. He was an easy strikeout. I don’t think it is fair to say that this was his peak in ability. He hit better in the minors at ages 22 and 23 than he did at 20, but Fazio is the one player on the list who did not have a notably better season after the age of 22.

 

Walt "No Neck" Williams was a 5’ 6" tank. He played outfield, didn’t walk much, but didn’t strike out much either. He never became anything more than a reliably adequate fourth outfielder from the age 25 to 29 (1969-1973).

 

Let me add that Joe Morgan was an outstanding base-stealer from the age of 23 to 33, then continued as a fine percentage base-stealer for the rest of his 30s. Last year, as Jose Altuve turned 22, he stole 33 bases out of 44 attempts – a nice improvement over his 31 out of 48 attempts in 2011.  Patek didn’t develop into an outstanding base-stealer until he was 27, then pretty well maintained that level through his age-33 season.

 

Five-foot-six Puerto Rican utility infielder Onix Concepcion is not related to Dave Concepcion, who is Venezuelan, but Onix is a cousin of long-time second baseman Jose Lind. Onix couldn’t hit as well as either one of those infielders. His peak was at ages 25 and 26 while playing for the Royals.

 

Rafael Belliard had a 12-year run as a major league middle infielder from 1986 to 1997. He was only 5’ 6". He couldn’t hit any better than Ernie Fazio. Seriously. He spent parts of five other seasons in the majors producing a career .530 OPS or a 46 OPS+. He must have had one heck of a glove.

 

His peak, if you can find it, came from the age of 24 to the age 32 playing for the Pirates and Braves. He hit only two home runs in his entire career. I wonder if they were inside-the-park jobs. The year he had the most playing time and the highest OPS+ was at age 29 in his first year with the Braves in 1991 – the same year that team started their official 14-season division-winning streak. In those 353 at bats, he batted in only 27 runs.

 

Well-nicknamed Bip Roberts stood 5’ 7". For 10 years from ’89 to ’98, Roberts averaged 436 plate appearances per season playing third-base, shortstop, all three outfields, and more than anything else, second-base. He was frequently traded, getting a second stint with San Diego along with shorter stops in Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Cleveland before his final season in Detroit and Oakland. Roberts did not stick in the majors until he was 25, when he began his quasi-regular career as a play-where-needed man. He never improved during that decade. He went through a slow decline in his 30s.

 

Except for Roberts’ later start, his stats don’t look very different from what might unfold from Altuve, if he doesn’t improve. That is a big "except," however. As Bill James long ago demonstrated to us, there is a huge difference between a player breaking out as a solid major leaguer at 21 than at 25.

 

Cubs 5’ 7"centerfielder Doug Dascenzo had a typical peak from age 26 to 28. That was from 1990-1992. He didn’t strike out much for a .255 hitter, but as you can imagine from his .634 OPS during his peak (75 OPS+), he had no power.

 

The 5’ 7" Joey Cora was born in Puerto Rico but went to Vanderbilt University. Cora was another utility infielder who spent most of his major league career at second-base.  He reached the PCL at the same age to the month that Altuve was last year. There Cora’s OPS was stuck in the mid .700s for three years, then in his age 25 season, it exploded into the .900s.  And so, the Padres called up Cora where he hit around the .600 mark for the rest of that season and the next. The White Sox had him that second year. He improved to .691 as a 27-year-old and stayed at about 90 OPS+ for the next 7 years with Chicago and Seattle. His OPS peak was in 1997 at age 32, when he reached .800 and 110 OPS+, settling exclusively at second-base.

 

Quinton McCracken. Don’t you love that name? This 5’ 7" outfielder was yet another college man–McCracken studied at prestigious Duke University. He struggled for 11 seasons in the majors to establish himself as a regular. At 25, in Colorado’s fourth year of existence, the switch-hitting McCracken was given the larger share of a platoon, but couldn’t hit league average with that two full year opportunity (if you factor in the park effect).

 

So, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted him for their inaugural season of 1998 and gave the 27-year-old McCracken a full-time opportunity. He hit the same from his Tropicana Field home as he did from his Mile High home, so that was an improvement–and probably his last improvement. He lost his starting gig at age 28; was sent back to the minors at 29; recalled at 30; picked up by Tampa Bay’s sister expansion team Arizona at 31 and given 400 plate appearances with an OPS+ above 100.  That was this outfielder’s other decent year. As with Roberts, if you ignore their ages–and you shouldn’t—his stats might resemble Altuve’s.

 

Chad Fonville was a 5’6" utility player from North Carolina. At ages 24 and 25, he managed to play in 100 games with the ’95-’96 Dodgers. In both seasons his OPS+ was 75. That was his peak in the majors or minors.

 

Towards the end of May 1996, the Phillies called up a recently turned 24 year old 5’ 7" Puerto Rican named Rickey Otero and made him their starting center-fielder. He produced an 80 OPS+. He didn’t improve the next year and was returned to the minors. His International League OPS those two seasons was .851. That was his peak.

 

Now we come to 5’ 6" Floridian and World Series hero David Eckstein. He didn’t break through as the Angels’ shortstop until he was 26. Again, his late start can be partially blamed on his university (Florida) attendance. No peak years were wasted in the minors, however, as his rookie OPS was even better than it had been in the International League the previous season (2000). The Angels had snatched him off the waiver wire from the Red Sox. Eckstein finished fourth in Rookie of the Year honors.

 

The next year–his age 27 year–Eckstein did have his career highest OPS+ of 101. His next highest OPS+ of 99 came at age 30 after he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. The next year he finished first in World Series MVP voting. At age 33, Eckstein shifted to second-base and hung onto a starting job through the age of 35.

 

Like most of these short players, Eckstein took his share of walks, was hard to strike out, had good speed, very little power, and . . . was a great bunter. Eckstein, Cora, Buford, and Rizzuto each led their league in sacrifice hits–Rizzuto did it four years in a row. As a 41-year-old pinch hitter during the 1978 World Series, Vic Davalillo laid down the most perfect bunt I had ever seen. Joe Morgan and Yogi Berra certainly did have power, though, Lake, Buford and Amoros had some power, while Cora, Pearson, and McCracken had a little power. Altuve does have some power–not Berra or Morgan power, but certainly more power than Don Buford at the same age.

 

There is one more short guy to look at. The Padres have a 5’ 7" utility player who played in just over 100 games last year and is only one year older than Altuve. He is also from Venezuela: Alexi Amarista. All around, he is not the hitter Altuve is. They both strike out much more than they walk (as do most players). In fact, Altuve’s low walk rate was probably one reason he was not very well touted as a prospect. However, he made a huge improvement in that area last year.

 

Let’s look at Jose Altuve from another angle. All but one of the 23 very short players progressed to some degree past the age of 22, but none of them achieved the major league success that Altuve had last year by that age. Altuve’s OPS+ was 102 after 630 plate appearances. Here are the 32 post-integration players who have had a season with at least 502 plate appearances and an OPS+ in the 99-105 range by the age of 22 – regardless of height or fielding. Next to their name is their height and career WAR (Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement Level). I’ve flagged the middle infielders – a pretty darn strong bunch. The players are listed in order of their debuts. Active players get an asterisk.

 

Gus Bell          6’ 1"  12.2 (not including son or grandsons)

Harvey Kuenn      6’ 2"  22.8 ss-of

Hank Aaron        6’ 0" 137.3 (played 2b in the minors)

Dick McAuliffe    5’11"  34.3 ss-2b

Pete Rose         5’11"  76.7 2b-if-of

Tim McCarver      6’ 0"  26.2

Ed Kranepool      6’ 3"   2.2

Reggie Smith      6’ 0’  60.8

Aurelio Rodriguez 5’11"  11.7

Buddy Bell        6’ 1"  61.6 (not including father or sons)

Rick Manning      6’ 1"   9.5

Steve Kemp        6’ 0"  17.3

Claudell Washington 6’0" 16.3

Willie Randolf    5’11"  63.0 2b

Lou Whitaker      5’11"  71.4 2b

Terry Puhl        6’ 2"  26.2

Chili Davis       6’ 3"  34.2

Tim Raines        5’ 8"  66.2 (same h.s. as David Eckstein)

Tom Brunansky     6’ 4"  19.0

Ellis Burks       6’ 2"  46.3

Ruben Sierra      6’ 1"  13.0

Roberto Alomar    6’ 0"  62.9 2b

Derek Jeter       6’ 3"  69.3*ss

Carlos Beltran    6’ 1"  62.3*

Adrian Beltre     5’11"  61.1*

Sean Burroughs    6’ 1"   4.8

Rocco Baldelli    6’ 4"   9.1

Carl Crawford     6’ 2"  33.5*

Omar Infante      5’11"  13.5*2b

Delmon Young      6’ 3"   0.6*

Starlin Castro    6’ 0"   7.9*ss

Jose Altuve       5’ 5"   1.9*2b

 

Based on this list, the theory that shorter players do not develop as far as their peers is complete hootenanny. Again, I’m not claiming this is a rigorous test, but I find it interesting that, if anything, you might wonder if the opposite was true. The one short player here, 5’8" Tim Raines, had a career WAR of 66.2. Excluding the bottom five, the six 5’11" players on this list averaged 53.0 f-WAR; the six 6’0" guys averaged almost the same: 53.5; the six 6’1" fellows came in at a relatively disappointing 27.2 WAR;  the seven players who were 6’2"-6’4" finished their careers with an average 30.3 WAR.

 

Granted, this is a small sample and 5’11" is a heck of a lot taller than 5’5". Even 5’8" is significantly taller. Furthermore, the players do not match Altuve’s skill set, with two exceptions. Pete Rose and Lou Whitaker (both 5’11") made Altuve’s top 10 most similar players list according Baseball Reference’s similarity scores (as invented by Bill James). Similarity scores do not include height and they only include defense as far as what positions were played. A Hall of Fame second-baseman is Altuve’s top match: 6’0" Rod Carew, who at age 21 was the A.L. Rookie of the Year. His game took a step forward at age 23, and eventually flirted with hitting .400 (league leading 1.019 OPS and 178 OPS+) at age 31 in 1977. Steve Sax (5’11") is third on the list and had a fine career with his best seasons from 26 to 29.

 

Pertinent to this essay, the other six players did not improve after their age-22 seasons, although Dots Miller (5’11") kept up his quality of play through the age of 30 before joining the Marines during The Great War.  6’0" Ron Hunt, the runner-up to Rose as the 1963 N.L. Rookie of the Year and the Mets’ first starting All-Star, more or less played up to the quality of his rookie season from age 22 to age 32. He must have loved pain as he led the N.L. in Hit By Pitches seven years in a row–including the record 50 in 1971.

 

The other four top comparables did not progress and began to regress - struggling to stick in the majors by their mid 20s. Three played in the 19th century: 5’ 10" Erve Beck, 5’9" Jack Farrell, and 5’9" catcher Jackie Hayes. The other played in the 21st century: 5’10" Luis Rivas. When I think of players who were starting position players in the major leagues at a very early age, but never developed, the one player who comes to mind is the Twins’ Luis Rivas.

 

It is an interesting that all these players are slightly on the short side by today’s standards. Only Dots Miller was the median height for baseball batters of his day. There are no players as short as Jose Altuve who have achieved what he has in the major leagues by such an early age.

 

However, we have looked at the modern major league players who were as short or nearly as short as Altuve; we have looked at players whose offensive output was about Altuve’s equal at such an early age; and we have looked at the players with the most similar hitting and position playing stats as Altuve by his age.  Only the last group causes concern as six out of ten of them did not improve. Several players from each of these groups, however, had great careers. It is probably not height that directly bears on a player’s success past age 22, but a specific set of skills—and no doubt other things that we do not know how to measure.

 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

astros34
Howdy from 2017! Altuve now has 29.6 bWAR and an MVP. Look out, Little Joe!
6:51 PM Dec 12th
 
hotstatrat
That warms my heart, llozada. Thanks for sharing.
4:15 PM Mar 13th
 
llozada
I loved the reference of Vitico Davalillo (you have to be a huge ball fan to know he was known as Vitico). I saw him play in the Venezuelan winter league on his last two seasons, and way over 40 yo.

Vitico was my dad's hero and he's told me SEVERAL times how he "saved" the '78 WS for the Dodgers with the perfect bunt that you mentioned. This bunt was not luck and he actually was a specialist at doing so, and would do it countless times for his Leones del Caracas as a way to get on base, he was a pretty fast runner.

The name for this bunt just out of the reach of the first baseman and the pitcher, and finally helplessly picked up by the second baseman, is called in the Caribbean ball as "dragar" which kind of means pulling. Vitico (a left handed hitting machine) would start running and seemed to bring the ball in the bat with him for a few steps, hence the term pulling. Towards the end of his career in Venezuela he was frequently approached by opposing players for bunting tips.

My dad is actually visiting me right now and I'll mention this posting, which will undoubtedly be the trigger the '78 bunt story, again...
4:04 PM Mar 11th
 
hotstatrat
Sorry, for not responding sooner - on vacation.

Yeah, after age 25 Berra averaged about 60 walks per full season - not a lot - but I wouldn't say a little either.

I kept this examination to post integration players, because the average size of players has been getting taller and taller. Hence, a 5'4" - 5'6" player would be less and less of an anomaly the further back you go. 1947 is as good a place to stop as any.
11:22 AM Mar 4th
 
CWright
While Patek is frequently listed in sources today as 5-5, he was widely considered to be 5-4 during his career and was listed at that height in the TSN Baseball Register his whole career. The Yankees of the 40s and 50s liked to emphasize the small height of their stars Rizzuto and Berra. Phil Rizzuto played like he was 5-6, but a lot of comparitive photos suggest he was slightly taller than that, probably 5-7 and in the early TSN Registers he was listed as 5-8 and only later was shortened to 5-6. If you could get Yogi Berra to stand erect without slouching his shoulders, he was definitely taller than 5-7 during his career. I have five different pictures of Yogi standing next to Roy Campanella. In four of them Yogi appears as tall -- and in one case -- even taller than Campy, who is consistently listed as 5-9 and 5-9 1/2 in in every source. In the one photo that Yogi appears shorter than Campy, Yogi's shoulders are particularly hunched forward. Yogi incidentally was consistently listed as 5-7 1/2 throughout his career.
8:40 AM Mar 3rd
 
77royals
Why just the post-integration players? There had to be quite a few players who fit the criteria before hand.
7:37 PM Mar 2nd
 
Marinerfan1986
Berra did not take a lot of walks. His best year was 66 in 1952. When he played he had the reputation of having a strike zone of from nose to toes. He was just one H***l of a hiter.
5:52 PM Mar 2nd
 
taosjohn
Rafael Belliard [i]was[i] a fine glove, nicknamed Pacman.

I saw his second home run, and it did in fact leave the playing surface, producing an astonished silence throughout the ballpark. Belliard was a good baserunner and a fine bunter, making it fairly easy to use him as a defensive replacement.

John Cangelosi was listed as 5-8, but I wonder if anyone ever measured-- he looked three or four inches shorter than that.
5:49 PM Mar 2nd
 
 
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