Does CC Sabathia have his height or his arm to thank for his until-recently above-average fastball velocity?
Simple logic says that taller pitchers should be able to throw a baseball faster than the average pitcher. They have longer limbs and more body mass, and should thus be able to put more "oomph" behind the ball.
Not necessarily, no.
The simple logic makes enough sense, but better velocity isn't a birthright for tall pitchers. Especially not in today's MLB, where the word "average" doesn't mean what it used to when it comes to velocity.
Baseball Info Solutions velocity data dates back to 2002 and can be found on FanGraphs. A look at the league's velocity readings shows that the average fastball velocity was in the 91-MPH range each year from 2009 to 2012. Between 2002 and 2008, it was more in the 90-MPH range.
The numbers are a bit different for starters and for relievers, but the trend is still there. Whereas it used to be about 90 miles per hour, the average fastball velocity for starters has gotten to be more like 91 miles per hour. For relievers, it's gone from roughly 91 miles per hour to more like 92 miles per hour.
It was with this in mind that I went hunting for tall, hard-throwing pitchers. And in the end, I didn't find as many as I anticipated.
Phase One involved rounding up the notable tall pitchers who pitched in the league between 2009 and 2012. That meant guys at least 6'4" in height who found their way into at least 50 games, so as to make sure I ultimately went looking for velocity data made up of enough pitches.
Baseball-Reference.com returned 182 matches, with Jon Rauch being the tallest at 6'11" and the majority of the others falling in the 6'4" to 6'5" range.
Phase Two involved rounding up the average velocity for each pitcher between 2009 and 2012 and producing an average for the four seasons. There are different types of fastballs, but Baseball Info Solutions puts four-seamers and two-seamers under one umbrella to make things easier for curious geeks like myself.
For the 182 pitchers I looked at, the average fastball velocity came out to 91.8 miles per hour. The precise average for fastball velocity over the last four full seasons is 91.4 miles per hour, so, on a surface level, taller pitchers do throw harder than your average hurler.
But it's not that clear-cut. The breakdown in terms of specific height looks like this:
|Height||Pitchers||Average Velo||Pitchers w/ Above-Average Velo|
For the record, I did distinguish between starters and relievers when I went hunting for pitchers with "above-average" velocity. For the sake of avoiding having to split hairs, that involved looking for primary starters with fastball velocities of at least 92 miles per hour and primary relievers with fastball velocities of at least 93 miles per hour.
It turned out the only bracket in which hard-throwers made up the majority was the 6'6" bracket, which features guys like Andrew Cashner, Tom Wilhelmsen, Matt Thornton, David Price, Jim Johnson and Mat Latos. There were only 11 pitchers in that bracket whose heaters averaged less than 92 miles per hour, which helps explain the 92.4-MPH average.
Overall, however, only 77 of the 182 pitchers I rounded up qualified as clearly above-average fastball merchants. That's not a majority, but I recognized that the group included a few special cases. Some guys certainly used to throw harder before they were undone by old age, injuries or both.
Tommy Hanson, listed at 6'6", threw in the 92-MPH range in 2009 and 2010 before he started to break down. Brad Lidge, listed at 6'5", threw in the mid-to-high 90s before he got old. Carlos Zambrano, listed at 6'4", sat in the 92-MPH range earlier in his career.
They're three of seven guys I pinpointed who deserved to be considered special exceptions. But even if they're added to the mix, we're still only at 84 of 182 pitchers.
Add the 6'4" Stephen Strasburg, who didn't make the cut because he appeared in only 45 games between 2010 and 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, to the mix, and it becomes 85 of 183. A nice representation, but not a majority.
An uncannily similar trend came to light when I looked at the 30 hardest throwers from between 2009 and 2012. Five of the six guys at the top of the chart are listed at 6'4" or above, but only 14 of the top 30 overall fit that bill. A nice representation, once again, but not a majority.
All of this is enough to make one skeptical of the notion that taller pitchers as a whole throw harder. While we might tend to think of hard-throwers like CC Sabathia, Josh Johnson, David Price and Justin Verlander when we think of tall pitchers, the reality is that there's not so much a pattern as there is an absence of a pattern. There are plenty of shorter pitchers who throw hard and plenty of taller pitchers who don't throw hard.
Based on the data we've looked at, there's also the reality that velocity doesn't clearly go up as height goes up.
It's telling that Mr. Rauch, the tallest pitcher in baseball in recent years, averaged just 90.6 miles per hour with his hard stuff between 2009 and 2012. He owns a career average of 90.7 miles per hour (see FanGraphs).
Rauch's considerable height has not helped him throw harder than the average pitcher. Ditto Jeff Niemann and Mark Hendrickson, both listed at 6'9", and Chris Volstad, Kameron Loe and Doug Fister, each listed at 6'8".
So in retrospect, Randy Johnson was hardly any sort of harbinger. He was the tallest pitcher baseball had ever seen when he arrived in 1988, and he proceeded to make it easy to entertain notions of a future wave of hard-throwing giants.
Now it's fair to wonder if the Big Unit threw so hard not because he was blessed with great size, but because he was simply blessed with a tremendous arm. Same goes for all tall pitchers who happen to have big fastballs.
And if it's a great arm that makes great velocity, then tall pitchers are no different from short pitchers. When it comes to height and future pitchers, the baseball gods don't appear to play favorites.
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