March 10, 2004

Joe on Joe

One of my favorite baseball writers, Joe Sheehan, wrote a column yesterday about one of my favorite baseball players, Joe Mauer.

Sheehan showed that only 28 catchers in baseball history who were 6'4" or taller totaled 200 or more plate appearances in the major leagues. Of those 28, there isn't a single guy you would call "great."

This is an issue because Joe Mauer is a catcher and he is 6'4".

Sheehan writes:

I just don't agree that Mauer is a future star behind the plate, and it has everything to do with his height. Mauer is listed at 6'4", and people that height or taller just don't have long, successful careers at the catching position.

It's an interesting point that Sheehan makes and certainly Mauer's height is worth looking at, but I just don't think it's all that significant. If we drop the magic cutoff number one inch - from 6'4" to 6'3" - we suddenly get a much bigger and better list of players.

Here are some notable 6'3" or taller catchers, along with how many times they made an All-Star team:


Carlton Fisk 11
Bill Freehan 11
Mike Piazza 10
Ernie Lombardi 8
Walker Cooper 8
Lance Parrish 8
Sandy Alomar Jr. 6
Terry Kennedy 4
Tom Haller 3

Heck, the catcher Mauer is replacing in Minnesota is A.J. Pierzynski, who is 6'3" (and has one All-Star appearance).

Is the difference between 6'3" and 6'4" all that meaningful? Because he's an inch taller than them, does that make it much more unlikely for Mauer to do what all-time greats like Carlton Fisk, Bill Freehan, Mike Piazza and Ernie Lombardi did?

As Brian Gunn over at Redbird Nation points out:

The simple fact is that not many players are 6'4" at any position. Do you know how many second baseman were 6'4" and had over 200 plate appearances in the majors? Three -- Andy Fox, George Kelly, and 2B/guard/GM Danny Ainge. How about shortstops? Just two. One was Cal Ripken, but still, that's a pretty small class. How about third basemen? Only 17.

In fact, there have been just 159 non-pitchers who were 6'4" or taller and had 200 PA's in the bigs. The fact that only 28 were catchers just isn't that telling. (In fact, that's more catchers than you'd expect given the total pool of tall players.)

The limited number of tall position-players in baseball history is interesting to me. I suppose the amount of men in the world 6'4" or taller is relatively small, compared to the pool of men under 6'4". That in itself certainly goes a long way towards explaining the lack of tall hitters in major league history.

Beyond that, if you're 6'4" and above, I would think it's likely you would play another sport, specifically basketball, instead of baseball. That further limits the amount of tall hitters.

Brian mentioned Cal Ripken Jr., who was 6'4" and one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history. Prior to Ripken debuting in 1981, guess how many shortstops in baseball history with 200+ plate appearances were 6'4" or taller? Zero.

Breaking down the 6'4" or taller players with 200+ plate appearances by position:

Catcher             28

First Base/DH 62
Second Base 2
Shortstop 2
Third Base 9
Left Field 22
Center Field 8
Right Field 29

Judging from those numbers, the odds are probably against anyone 6'4" or over, at any position, having a successful major league career. And, like Brian said, tall catchers are more prevalent than you would expect, given the overall numbers.

Dropping the height cutoff from 6'4" to 6'3", here is what we get:

Catcher             78

First Base/DH 132
Second Base 5
Shortstop 14
Third Base 36
Left Field 54
Center Field 32
Right Field 63

Catchers move up even further on the list, trailing only first basemen/designated hitters in players at least 6'3".

I suppose it all comes down to how important you think an inch is (please, no sexual jokes, this is a serious subject!). Perhaps this is just the Twins fan in me talking, but when you say that Joe Mauer being 6'4" makes it unlikely he'll have a great career as a catcher and I look one inch down and see Hall of Fame catchers at 6'3", I have a hard time buying it.

That's no knock against Joe Sheehan, of course. His point is still valid and he is certainly entitled to his opinion on Mauer (and his opinion is definitely one to pay attention to).

Cal Ripken Jr. was a Hall of Famer at a position no one his height had ever played before. Joe Mauer is attempting to be a 6'4" Hall of Fame catcher, but at least he's got 28 (albeit not-so-great) tall guys who braved the waters before him.

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