Do Tall Pitchers Take Longer to Develop?

In a recent North County Times article about new rotation member Chris Young, Padres skipper Bruce Bochy is quoted as saying, “History has shown that the taller pitchers take longer to develop.” Intuitively this makes sense. You’re dealing with more moving parts and a higher center of gravity. From a mechanical standpoint, a lot can go wrong.

But is it true? Do tall pitchers take longer to develop? Or, since this sets up a comparison I don’t have time to examine, do tall pitchers take a long time to develop?

Since 1986, 21 pitchers who stand 6’6″ or taller have registered their first 100+ IP season and have gone on to post at least three such seasons in the big leagues (I realize this is somewhat self-selecting, as it weeds out the guys who didn’t have any kind of staying power, but do you really want to read about the likes of Dave Otto, Jim Pittsley, and Tim Pugh?). Of those 21, all but three (Jeff D’Amico, Roy Halladay, Blake Stein) followed that first 100+ IP season with another. Here are the ERA+ of those 18 in Year 1 and Year 2:

Pitcher Height ERA+, Year 1 ERA+, Year 2 Diff (Year 2 – Year 1)
Andy Benes 6’6″ 106 125 +19
Chris Carpenter 6’6″ 106 112 +6
Steve Cooke 6’6″ 104 86 -18
Scott Elarton 6’7″ 125 102 -23
Chuck Finley 6’6″ 93 148 +55
Jon Garland 6’6″ 125 100 -25
Erik Hanson 6’6″ 127 122 -5
Mark Hendrickson 6’9″ 85 93 +8
Jason Johnson 6’6″ 88 67 -21
Randy Johnson 6’10″ 82 108 +26
John Lackey 6’6″ 119 92 -27
Derek Lowe 6’6″ 115 192 +77
Joe Magrane 6’6″ 118 160 +42
Ben McDonald 6’7″ 157 82 -75
Mark Mulder 6’6″ 87 126 +39
Jeff Robinson 6’6″ 79 128 +49
C.C. Sabathia 6’7″ 103 103 0
Jamey Wright 6’6″ 83 90 +7
Stats courtesy Lahman database,

Among the 18 pitchers listed here, 11 had an ERA better than league average in their first season working 100 or more innings. Ten of these guys did better in their second full season than their first, with seven regressing and one (Sabathia) serving up a repeat performance.

I don’t know that I’d want to draw any solid conclusions from this, but it’s interesting that so many of the tall pitchers we’ve looked at actually came out of the gate pretty strong. Not what I would have expected to find.

Perhaps more disconcerting is that over a quarter of these guys (Carpenter, Cooke, Elarton, Magrane, and McDonald) suffered devastating injuries in their mid- to late-20s. I have no idea how this stacks up against the general pitching population or whether there is any correlation between height and propensity for injury, but it’s at least worth noting.

Looking again at the pitchers above, the obvious comparison is between Young and Randy Johnson because both are so tall. However, Johnson didn’t have anywhere near the kind of command at the same age as Young has now and, as the article notes, their pitching styles are very different. From a statistical standpoint, the better comps are Benes and Carpenter:

Pitcher Age IP ERA+ H/9 BB/9 SO/9 HR/9
Benes 22 191.1 106 8.28 3.23 6.55 0.84
Carpenter 23 175.0 106 9.10 3.14 6.99 0.93
Young 26 164.2 105 8.85 2.46 7.49 1.04
Stats courtesy Lahman database,

Even these aren’t perfect. Young’s command is much better than either of the other two. This isn’t surprising since he is older and should be more polished than they were at the same stage. He also probably won’t have their upside.

Returning to our original question, there isn’t real solid evidence that taller pitchers take a long time to develop. It may well be that this once was true, but over the past 20 years the numbers don’t support the theory. Of the 18 pitchers we examined, 61% had an ERA better than league average in their first season working 100+ innings. And 56% of these pitchers improved in their second season. How these numbers stack up against shorter pitchers during the same period remains an open question.

7 Responses »

  1. You took a very different tact on this question than I expected … to me “take longer to develop” means “pitcher becomes *good* at an older age” … which presumes they all start their development at the same time (ex. little league) … and so, for example, non-tall pitchers might “develop” (ie. become good) at ages 25-27 whereas tall pitchers might develop at ages 27-29 … so, a “study” to check for this would be to define “good” (either in absolute or relative terms) and then plot the age that happens vs height and see if there’s any correlation … an exercise left to the reader :-)

    My money is that this study reaches the same conclusion as Geoff’s … Bochy & “intuition” are off the mark.

  2. Did anyone say tall pitchers take longer to develop before Randy Johnson came along? He’s the most extreme example in terms of height and development. I can maybe see the logic if a pitcher is so extremely tall but for a guy who’s 6’5″ or 6’6″ it doesn’t really make sense to me.

  3. LM: Your approach probably is better. It’s also a lot harder. As you say, an exercise left to the reader. :-)

    Anthony: That is another good question. I should explain that I arbitrarily chose 6’6″ as the cutoff because there are so few data points when you go much beyond that. In the entire Lahman database there are only 10 pitchers 6’8″ or taller who have pitched 100 or more innings in a season:

    Gene Conley
    Lee Guetterman
    Mark Hendrickson
    Eric Hillman
    Randy Johnson
    Jeff Juden
    J.R. Richard
    Bob Scanlan
    Mike Smithson
    Chris Young

    So, I guess first you have to answer the question, “How tall is tall enough to have one’s development time impacted?” Once you have the answer, and assuming there are enough data points to work with, then you start whacking at it via the method LM suggests.

    The more I look at this, the more it becomes evident that the statement that “taller pitchers take longer to develop” cannot easily be proved or disproved. That’s good enough for our purposes.

  4. Interesting article, Geoff.
    However, like you mentioned, there aren’t enough of those tall pitchers to do an in depth study.

    Maybe, this calls for the raising of the mound back to 1968 height. Of course, this would mean that some pitchers are going to have to adjust to the higher release point which may simulate the advantages/disadvantages in development of “taller” pitchers.

    On the irreverent side, what if the taller pitchers have shorter arms? Or shorter pitchers with longer arms? Does that make a difference?

  5. Didi – I like the irreverence … seems very fitting for Bochy’s statement. Along those lines, I’ll ding GY a bit … what does “You’re dealing with more moving parts” mean??? How does being tall give you more “moving parts”??? :-)

  6. LM, you’re killing me! More moving parts? Yeah, I guess maybe I’ve been listening to a little too much “conventional wisdom” myself. ;-)

  7. Very interesting article Geoff. As you said, there is nothing conclusive here but this is an interesting study that could go in a lot of different directions.