Giant stacks of money will soon be placed in front of a quartet of short starting pitchers.
NPB stars Yoshinobu Yamamoto (5 feet 10 inches) and Shota Imanaga (5-10), AL Cy Young runner-up Sonny Gray (5-10), and two-time All-Star Marcus Stroman (5-7) are positioned to cash in on the open market. All come as reminders that starting pitching excellence can come in a variety of shapes and forms — a lesson Red Sox fans absorbed watching a 5-11 magician from 1998-2004.
“Don’t tell me about height and about size!” Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez said recently. “Bring me as many pitchers as you can and as much health as you can and I’ll be totally happy with that. No matter how tall you are, I don’t care — I would love to see them here. Get me as many as you can.”
Given the free agent interest in those four arms, the industry seems to share that assessment, an evident marker of change. Size and height bias used to be prevalent when it came to evaluating and projecting starting pitchers.
“I think one of the reasons the Dodgers originally traded Pedro was they weren’t convinced that he was going to be able to handle the rotation, piling the innings on,” said Dan Duquette, who acquired Martinez from the Dodgers as Expos general manager in 1993, then traded for him again as Red Sox GM in 1997. “Players come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. You can’t have a bias so much in one area that you miss the player’s capability.”
For the most part, the industry doesn’t intrinsically value height or look at short pitchers and doubt their suitability for roles. Pitchers are judged based on the shape and quality of their pitches, as well as the biomechanics of their deliveries.
“There’s no discriminating against shorter pitchers,” Red Sox director of amateur scouting Devin Pearson said.
“I look past the size and more at what a guy is producing on the mound,” former Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush said. “What can he do? Of the things that he does on the mound, can they be put together in a way that’s going to make him successful regardless of how tall he is?”
Despite the prevalence of that perspective — and despite the bidding frenzy that Yamamoto and his peers can expect — an unexpected and striking trend is occurring in Major League Baseball. Shorter pitchers have seen their innings dramatically shrink in recent years.
Ten years ago, pitchers listed as sub-6-footers made 288 starts and logged 3,288 innings. This past season, pitchers of such stature combined for 161 starts (not including openers) — a 44 percent drop — and 2,084 innings, a 37 percent decrease.
“That’s surprising,” Bush said of a continuation of a pattern that began in 2015. “I would have assumed [the innings load] had stayed the same or maybe even grown a little bit for shorter pitchers. I wouldn’t have expected it to be that much of a dropoff.”
Several evaluators shared Bush’s surprise. So, particularly given that the average height of big league pitchers has remained remarkably stable this century — ranging between 6-2 and 6-3 — what gives?
There are different factors, but as with everything else related to modern pitching, the answer probably starts with velocity.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery found a correlation between adolescent pitcher height and velocity. Each inch of height was associated with an increase in velocity of 1.2 miles per hour.
With velocity more of a driver than ever, players are drafted and signed both on how hard they throw and how hard they’re projected to throw. Many teams have become more committed to valuing present and projected stuff over command, which in turn leads them to larger pitchers.
“We definitely have looked at height, strength, body mass index, all that stuff playing a part in [projected velocity],” said Pearson. “If you were just comparing skinny and short [pitchers] to skinny and tall, you probably can more confidently project that the skinny tall player is going to add more strength and size than the skinny short pitcher. But there’s so many factors, like how quick their arm is.”
There are special cases of short pitchers who throw obscenely hard. Martinez and Bartolo Colón (5-11) unleashed comets. Braves ace Spencer Strider, with a listed height of 6 feet, is one of baseball’s hardest-throwing starters.
But of the 64 pitchers who touched 100 m.p.h. at least once in the big leagues in 2023, just one — Daniel Palencia of the Cubs — had a listed height under 6 feet. Of the 100 pitchers with the highest average fastball velocity this past season, three — Palencia (25th), Jonathan Loáisiga of the Yankees (41st), and Prelander Berroa of the Mariners (87th) — were shorter than 6 feet.
Height also creates other advantages, particularly related to extension — a trait the industry seeks. In 2023, pitchers released the ball with an average of 6½ feet of extension toward home plate, 5 inches more than in 2015. Most who get farthest down the mound with extension are among the tallest in the game.
How, then, to explain this year’s class of exceptional, undersized pitchers?
All are seen as great athletes with repeatable deliveries that aid command of arsenals that are distinguished for their diversity or pitch shapes.
Yamamoto’s fastball averaged 94-95 m.p.h. — slightly above the 93.9-m.p.h. average of big league starters in 2023 — and anchored a mix of three elite offerings (fastball, splitter, curveball) as well as a slider and cutter to create all kinds of angles for attacking hitters.
Gray and Stroman feature slightly below-average velocity, but both have six-pitch mixes and command to keep opponents guessing. Their movement profiles allowed both to post spectacular ground-ball rates and limit damage.
Imanaga, the only lefthander in the group, generates incredible spin on his fastball (which sits around 92 m.p.h. as a starter, but touched 94-95 in the World Baseball Classic), creating ride at the top of the zone. That pitch is the anchor of a four-pitch mix.
Those four pitchers have exceptional traits that have served as the basis for incredible success. Still, their traits serve as a reminder that big league pitchers are outliers, big league starting pitchers are outliers among outliers, and short big league pitchers are outliers among outliers among outliers. This year’s free agent class represents a remarkable confluence, but given recent trends and the obsession with velocity, likely not a harbinger.
All the same, in a landscape desperate for starters, this year’s quartet of diminutive starters should see no shortage of interest.
“Effective major league players come in a number of sizes,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Craig Breslow, who presumably was standing on tiptoes when measured at 6-1, his listed height during a 13-year major league career. “I think it would be kind of silly to preclude someone simply because of a particular measurement.”
could be active
While the free agent market is loaded with high-end starting pitching, the demand may outstrip supply, creating very expensive bidding wars. Moreover, aside from Shohei Ohtani and Cody Bellinger, it’s one of the worst free agent classes of position players in years.
With that in mind, the trade market could prove active — and the Brewers have a chance to shape the landscape. Milwaukee won the NL Central with a 92-70 record, has reached the playoffs in five of the last six years, and owns a .559 winning percentage since 2018 that ranks sixth in baseball. Though starter Brandon Woodruff underwent shoulder surgery, the vast majority of the 2023 team could be back.
But 2021 Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes (10-8, 3.39 ERA, 26 percent strikeout rate in 2023) and shortstop Willy Adames (.217/.310/.407 with 24 homers and elite defense) are one year from free agency, and closer Devin Williams (38 percent strikeout rate) has two years before he can test the market.
Burnes could be appealing to smaller-payroll teams (Baltimore? Arizona?) in need of top-end starters. Adames would be head and shoulders above a limited field of free agent middle infielders.
As a smaller-market team, the Brewers are certain to be open-minded to moving those cornerstones before losing them as free agents, given that they likely can’t replace such players via free agency. Moreover, given that the Cubs and Cardinals seem determined to make expensive pushes to upend the Central, the Brewers may be open to subtracting from their big league roster while reloading for 2025.
Now that the Brewers have hired a manager — promoting bench coach Pat Murphy (the former Arizona State coach with an endless array of Dustin Pedroia stories) to replace Craig Counsell — they can turn to roster building. Teams are lined up to see which, if any, players Milwaukee will move.
The Brewers could use one of their players to retool with an eye on present and future — perhaps acquiring a major league-ready contributor as well as one or more prospects. (If the Brewers talked with the Red Sox, a package built around Tanner Houck, Garrett Whitlock, or Kutter Crawford, along with prospects, would make sense.) Such an approach might allow Milwaukee to limit its activity to trading just one of those key contributors.
It’s also possible the Brewers will receive a top-tier lower minors prospect for one of those players — and if the team makes one move purely for the long term, it would be more likely to look beyond 2024, meaning other trades of veterans could follow.
Then again, the Brewers might elect to keep their group together, the outcome for which Adames is hoping.
“I don’t know [what the Brewers are going to do] right now. It’s still early in the offseason,” Adames said at the Pedro Martinez Foundation’s gala in Boston this month. “If [a selloff] happens, it’s part of the business. [But] we’ve been to the postseason a lot. I’m hoping they don’t trade me. I’m hoping we can finish the job and win a World Series.”
That said, Adames — whose saved 12 defensive runs above average, as calculated by Statcast, ranked fourth among shortstops — also understands that he might be on borrowed time in Milwaukee, familiar territory for a player who’s been dealt twice in his young career. If he’s dealt again, it’s intriguing to wonder if the Red Sox could make a push to acquire him as a partner for Trevor Story, a combination that would transform their brutal middle infield defense.
Would Adames be comfortable moving to second base?
“I haven’t thought about that yet,” he said. “But if that time comes, I’m going to make the best decision for the team. I’m always open to everything.”
Reds second baseman Jonathan India, the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year, is also drawing considerable trade interest and represents a potential fit for the Red Sox, though with poor defensive grades. The Reds are open-minded as to whether they’ll seek big league-ready contributors or prospects for India or any of their other infielders.
For years, the Red Sox have been open to trading Alex Verdugo, including to AL East rivals. But they have also shown no interest in a giveaway, a stance that seemingly remains. Major league sources confirmed a report from Rob Bradford of Audacy that the Sox and Yankees discussed the possibility of a Verdugo deal. However, New York does not appear to be interested in a one-for-one involving Verdugo and Gleyber Torres, the righthanded, power-hitting second baseman who, like Verdugo, is one year from free agency . . . Miguel Bleis, a shoot-the-moon, 19-year-old talent who underwent season-ending left shoulder surgery in June, has resumed baseball activities at the Red Sox’ Dominican Academy, including swinging. “He looks great, has added some good weight, looks good physically, and mentally is in a good spot,” said farm director Brian Abraham. “He should be ready for a normal spring training.” . . . Top Red Sox prospect Marcelo Mayer, who resumed swinging this fall in Fort Myers while rehabbing from a left shoulder impingement, is now home in California on a strength program and will be reevaluated after Thanksgiving. The Sox still expect Mayer’s injury won’t require surgery, and that he’ll be a full-go for spring training . . . Newly introduced Mets manager Carlos Mendoza, who spent the last four years as the Yankees’ bench coach, has been in the managerial interview circuit since the 2020-21 offseason, when he interviewed with the Tigers (who hired A.J. Hinch) and Red Sox (with whom Mendoza was one of five second-round candidates before the eventual re-hiring of Alex Cora) . . . DeMarlo Hale — a manager in the Red Sox system in the 1990s, then part of Terry Francona’s big league staff in Boston (2006-11) and Cleveland (2020-23) sandwiched around stops in Baltimore, Toronto, and Atlanta — was named Blue Jays associate manager. Hale remains one of the most respected coaches in baseball . . . The Red Sox will once again hold their Winter Weekend in Springfield, Jan. 19-20. Tickets are available at redsox.com/winterweekend . . . The second “WooSox Foundation Honors” gala will take place at Polar Park on Dec. 2. Tickets are available at woosoxfoundation.org/honors . . . Finally, happy 56th birthday, Tom “Flash” Gordon. Gordon’s mid-career, four-year stretch with the Red Sox from 1996-99 included one of the great all-time runs by a closer. The 5-9 righthander — armed with a devastating fastball/curveball combination — set a team record with 46 saves in 1998, and converted 54 straight save opportunities in 1998-99, then a major league record. Eric Gagne may have broken the record by converting 84 straight save opportunities from 2002-04, but only Gordon was immortalized in the title of a Stephen King novel.