I recently saw the cover of a USA Today Sports Weekly highlighting the accomplishments of Major League Baseball (MLB) players under 6 feet tall making headlines in the playoffs, including the Red Sox Mookie Betts (5’9″), the Houston Astros José Altuve (5’6″), and the Indians Francisco Lindor (5’11”).
The fact that Betts and Altuve are competing at the levels they are is impressive if you consider the following:
- Per U.S. Census Data, the average height of adult males in the United States approximately 5’10”
- The average height of MLB players is 6’1″
- Only 2% of MLB players are below 5’10” (I calcalate the number and percentage of athletes in major North American sports leagues who are below 5’10” in my book)
Given these “undersized” superstars are rising through the ranks, one may ask: why aren’t there more players below average height in MLB?
The laws of physics (e.g. levers, mass, torque) suggest that height has an impact on throwing and hitting, giving an advantage to taller players when it comes to performance and durability.
However, there is data which suggests otherwise- debunking durability in particular:
- From a pitching standpoint: check out in-depth analysis from former pitcher Glenn Greenberg
- Thesis work from Joshua Yeager examines height, weight and durabililityof MLB players
So, if studies indicate that bigger isn’t necessarily better, why are only 2% of MLB players under 5’10’’? I believe it boils down to height bias or heightism.
In a nutshell, the brain is hard-wired to interpret height as a proxy for health and power. This is why society tends to favor taller people. Known as hueristics in psychology, the brain is preprogrammed with software to make quick decisions, such as fight or flight. Valuable if you’re being chased by a predator but could be suspect as it extends to other decision-making (i.e. sports, leadership, dating).
If you want to see height bias in action, check out the picture of the Yankees Aaron Judge (6’7″, 280 lbs) standing next to Altuve (5’6, 165 lbs). The 2017 American League MVP was Altuve — over a foot shorter and over 100 pounds lighter than runner-up, Judge. Seems impossible, right? Altuve won 27 of 30 first place votes.
Fortunately, humans are able to reason and reprogram our brains (some more than others), allowing us to mitigate the affect height bias has in our daily lives.
As we see guys like Betts and Altuve continue to play at the highest levels (wishing you a speedy recover, José), hopefully coaches, scouts and parents keep an open mind on what it takes to be a ball player. And perhaps most importantly — undersized players understand that through talent and strong work ethics, they too can make it to the big leagues.
With sights set on the 2018 World Series, Betts is considered the favorite for the 2018 regular season AL MVP- showing us yet again that head-to-toe measurment doesn’t dictate playing ability…nor how much Damage one can do.