Ranking the 10 Greatest Undersized MLB Players in Recent History

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 28, 2020

Ranking the 10 Greatest Undersized MLB Players in Recent History

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    Jose Altuve is a pint-sized player with MVP-sized talent.
    Jose Altuve is a pint-sized player with MVP-sized talent.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    If you're going to pursue a career in Major League Baseball, it helps to be exceptionally big and strong. 

    But even in recent history, plenty of players have proved that such qualities aren't a prerequisite for achieving stardom in the majors.

    In honor of these guys, we've ranked the 10 best undersized players to play in the majors since 2000. Exactly what should qualify a baseball player as "undersized" is debatable, yet we drew the line at 5'9". According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that's the average height for American males.

    Any player whose official height falls under that mark was eligible for this list. From there, we ranked them according to their peak ability and longevity.

    First, we'll begin with some honorable mentions who are officially listed at 5'9".

Honorable (Not THAT Undersized) Mentions

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    Dustin Pedroia
    Dustin PedroiaAssociated Press

    The Best 5'9" Hitters

    These are all the 5'9" hitters who've had at least one season of 5 WAR—which is more or less the baseline for a star-caliber season—in the 21st century:

    • Mookie Betts: 10.6
    • Dustin Pedroia: 8.0
    • Jose Ramirez: 7.6
    • Miguel Tejada: 7.4
    • Brian Roberts: 7.3
    • Adam Eaton: 6.6
    • Placido Polanco: 6.1
    • Shane Victorino: 6.0
    • Kolten Wong: 5.2
    • Ivan Rodriguez: 5.0     

    If there's a player who probably doesn't belong on this list, it's Dustin Pedroia. Though the Boston Red Sox's longtime second baseman is listed at 5'9", he's indicated that he's actually 5'8". To the naked eye, even that seems generous.

    In any case, Pedroia, Mookie Betts, Miguel Tejada and Ivan Rodriguez (albeit in 1999) have all been MVPs. The only player who hasn't been either an All-Star or a Gold Glover is Adam Eaton, and he's a solid all-around outfielder who won his first World Series ring in 2019.

            

    The Best 5'9" Pitchers

    While undersized hitters aren't that hard to find, the same isn't true of pitchers. These are the only ones who've had even a 1-WAR season since 2000: 

    • Tom Gordon: 4.0
    • Ryan Dull: 2.3
    • Matt Bush: 2.1
    • Jason Frasor: 1.7
    • Danny Farquhar: 1.1

    Though the 2000s accounted for the tail end of Tom Gordon's career, he was an All-Star reliever for the New York Yankees in 2004 and the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006. None of the other four has risen to that level, but each has had his moments in relief.

10. Josh Harrison

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Height: 5'8"

    Peak WAR: 5.6

    Josh Harrison is 32 years old now, and his last two seasons have yielded minus-0.4 WAR. If he can't recover with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2020, his major league career might be over.

    For a time, though, he was one of the best utility players in baseball.

    After a modest beginning with the Pittsburgh Pirates between 2011 and 2013, Harrison played his way onto the National League All-Star team in a 2014 season that ended with him hitting .315 with an .837 OPS, all while playing third base, second base, shortstop, left field and right field.

    Though he tumbled back to earth in 2015 and 2016, Harrison at least kept his batting average north of .280. He then followed with another All-Star campaign in 2017 that was marked by a .771 OPS and a career-high 16 home runs.

    All told, Harrison was worth more WAR between 2014 and 2017 than standouts like Brandon Belt, Daniel Murphy and DJ LeMahieu.

9. Marcus Giles

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Height: 5'8"

    Peak WAR: 7.9

    Brian Giles was already an established star by the time his younger brother, Marcus, debuted with the Atlanta Braves in 2001. But it wouldn't be long before Marcus caught up.

    He broke out as an All-Star in 2003 with the help of a .316/.390/.526 slash line and 72 extra-base hits. On account of his 19 defensive runs saved at second base, he also should have won a Gold Glove.

    Despite breaking his collarbone in a nasty collision with Andruw Jones in 2004, Giles continued producing both that year and in 2005. In 254 total games, he posted an .824 OPS and 96 extra-base hits.

    After that, Giles' productivity rapidly diminished in 2006 and 2007. He was only 29 years old in the latter season, yet it ended up being his last in the majors.

    Even still, the strength of his prime shouldn't be underestimated. Between 2003 and 2005, Giles was one of only seven National League hitters to produce as much as 15 WAR.

8. David Eckstein

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    CHRIS CARLSON/Associated Press

    Height: 5'6"

    Peak WAR: 5.2

    Upon joining the Anaheim Angels in 2001, David Eckstein quickly established a reputation as the ultimate "Take One for the Team" player by way of his frequent sacrifice bunts and hit-by-pitches.

    What tended to be overlooked, however, was that Eckstein was actually pretty good on his own accord.

    He was a two-time All-Star between 2001 and 2007, not to mention a World Series champion with the Angels in 2002 and the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. He was the MVP of the latter, in which he hit .364.

    After 2007, Eckstein played for two different teams in 2008 and didn't do much to justify his status as an everyday player for the San Diego Padres in 2009 and 2010. After not playing at all in 2011, he called it a career in 2012.

    In the years since his retirement, Eckstein has become something of a pop culture icon. He was referenced in Parks and Recreation in 2013, and he even has a connection to the Star Wars universe via his wife, Ashley.

7. Ozzie Albies

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Height: 5'8"

    Peak WAR: 5.2

    Because he's only 23 years old and a veteran of just three major league seasons, we don't have a complete picture of what Ozzie Albies is just yet. That makes him hard to place in a list like this.

    So far, though, he's a star who's quickly trending toward superstardom.

    Albies made an immediate impression with his hitting acumen, speed and power when he debuted for the Braves in 2017. He proceeded to sharpen these tools in 2018 and 2019, the latter of which resulted in a .295/.352/.500 batting line with 24 home runs and 15 stolen bases.

    It's not as easy to pin down the quality of Albies' defense, which rates as subpar for outs above average and good but not great for ultimate zone rating. Per defensive runs saved, however, he ranks second to Kolten Wong among second basemen over the last two years with 27.

    So barring any devastating injuries or slumps, Albies should have a long and fruitful career ahead of him.

6. Marcus Stroman

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Height: 5'7"

    Peak WAR: 5.2

    There used to be plenty of pitchers who were Marcus Stroman's height. But that was a long time ago. As in, 19th century long time ago.

    It's therefore understandable that expectations for Stroman only went so high as he was heading into the 2012 draft. For instance, MLB.com ranked him as the draft's No. 10 prospect but remarked that he was probably destined to become a relief pitcher.

    Eight years later, all but six of Stroman's 146 appearances for the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets have been as a starter. And he's generally made the most of them with a 3.76 ERA over 849.1 career innings, peaking as a Cy Young Award contender in 2017 and an All-Star in 2019. 

    That Stroman can be so good despite being a below-average strikeout artist speaks to his talent for keeping the ball on the ground. Since 2014, only Dallas Keuchel has a higher ground-ball rate.

    All of this surely underscores Stroman's personal motto/brand: Height Doesn't Measure Heart.

5. Chone Figgins

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Height: 5'8"

    Peak WAR: 7.7

    As Eckstein was helping the Angels win the World Series in 2002, Chone Figgins had a smaller role as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.

    Starting in 2003, he began to tip-toe into the limelight.

    Figgins hit .296 in limited action that year and then had a five-year stretch between 2004 and 2008 in which he hit .290 with 223 stolen bases. All the while, he played every defensive position except pitcher, catcher and first base.

    All this led to Figgins' lone All-Star season in 2009. He hit .298 and, with the help of an AL-high 101 walks, also posted a .395 on-base percentage. When combined with the value he generated on the bases and in the field, he ultimately ranked third in the American League in WAR.

    Figgins' next step was to sign a four-year contract with the Seattle Mariners that didn't pan out, and he was done as a major leaguer by 2014. But given how good he was in his prime, he deserves to be remembered fondly.

4. Ray Durham

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Height: 5'8"

    Peak WAR: 4.6

    In fairness, Ray Durham debuted in 1995 and was already an All-Star by the time the 21st century arrived.

    To his credit, however, the beginning of the 2000s didn't coincide with the start of his decline.

    Durham enjoyed an All-Star campaign with the Chicago White Sox in 2000 and ultimately racked up a .278/.357/.456 slash line with 52 home runs and 74 stolen bases between then and 2002. The latter two figures made him one of only nine players to notch at least 50 homers and 50 steals in those three seasons.

    Though Durham's base-stealing prowess subsequently began to diminish, his hitting ability did not. Despite some trouble with injuries, he mustered an .836 OPS in four seasons with the San Francisco Giants between 2003 and 2006. The last of those also saw him hit a career-high 26 home runs.

    Durham finally flamed out in 2008, yet it's fair to say he made more of an impact during his 14-year career than he gets credit for.

3. Rafael Furcal

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    BRETT COOMER/Associated Press

    Height: 5'8"

    Peak WAR: 6.5

    Rafael Furcal wasted no time becoming a star with the Braves in 2000, as his .295 average and 40 stolen bases helped him win the National League Rookie of the Year.

    From there, he only got better.

    Speed was certainly Furcal's primary moneymaker early in his career. Between 2000 and 2007, he was second in stolen bases among National League hitters with 251, trailing only Juan Pierre. 

    Yet Furcal was also generally good for an average close to .300 in those years, and he even sprouted some power when he clubbed 56 homers between 2003 and 2005. His defense at shortstop was at worst passable and at best elite, as when he tallied 24 defensive runs saved in 2005.

    Even after his power, speed and durability abandoned him starting in 2008, Furcal did enough to stick in the majors until 2014. Along the way, he earned All-Star nods in 2010 and 2012 and picked up a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2011.

2. Jimmy Rollins

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Height: 5'7"

    Peak WAR: 6.1

    In a 17-year career that began in 2000 and ended in 2016, Jimmy Rollins was an MVP, an All-Star, a Gold Glover, a Silver Slugger and a World Series champion.

    We probably don't need to say any more than that, but we will anyway.

    If there's a knock against Rollins, it's that he was a below-average hitter not only for his whole career (95 OPS+), but also during his prime years for the Phillies between 2001 and 2008 (99 OPS+). It didn't help that he preferred swinging his bat to working pitchers, as he walked in only 7.9 percent of his plate appearances.

    When Rollins did get on base, however, he made it count. Notably, he had seven seasons of at least 50 extra-base hits and 30 stolen bases between '01 and '08. No other player had more than five in that span.

    Throw in how Rollins ranked third in defensive runs saved among shortstops between 2003 and 2008, and you get a clear portrait of a guy who was one of the best all-around players of his era.

1. Jose Altuve

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Height: 5'6"

    Peak WAR: 7.9

    Perhaps the best way to sum up Jose Altuve's greatness is to note that when he won the American League MVP in 2017, the runner-up was more than a foot taller and roughly 100 pounds heavier.

    Granted, Altuve hasn't always been great. He was merely good in his first three seasons with the Houston Astros, in which he didn't offer much beyond his ability to hit for average and steal bases.

    Since 2014, however, Altuve's 33.5 WAR ranks fourth in the majors. He's won three batting titles and compiled an overall average of .327 in this span, plus an .877 OPS, 114 home runs and 179 stolen bases.

    Though there's obviously a catch regarding the 2017 playoffs, Altuve has also been clutch in the postseason. His last three Octobers have seen him post a .947 OPS and 13 homers, one of which was a pennant-clincher.

    All of this would make for a pretty good career in the big leagues. But since he only just turned 30 in May, Altuve still has many years to go before he reaches the end of his own.

                  

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.