Size matters, at least in baseball. According to Baseball-Reference, players under 5’8 have only recorded 34 seasons of at least 5.0 rWAR since 1961 (and none from pitchers). Meanwhile, players taller than 5’8 have recorded 1,969 seasons of at least 5.0 rWAR.
Also, Hack Wilson is the only player under 5’8 in baseball history to hit at least 40 home runs when he bashed 56 dingers in 1930. Old Hack, who weighed 190 pounds at 5’6 was built like a beer keg, and probably handled the contents of a keg or two in his day.
Sabermetric revolution be damned, his 191 RBI in 1930 still stands as the single-season record. Somehow he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979 despite a short career that totaled just 38.8 rWAR. Mike Trout should reach that total in the next two or three years.
I’ll depart from discussing Hack Wilson, who is one of the more oversized characters in the annals of baseball lore and divert my attention to some of the best Napoleons in baseball. Data goes back to 1961.
1. Joe Morgan. This one is obvious. The 5’7 Morgan has the five best undersized player seasons and 10 of the 34. From 1972-1976, the future first-ballot inductee totaled 47.7 rWAR, almost 15 more than the next closest player, teammate Johnny Bench. In that span Morgan produced a .303/.431/.499 line which resulted in a major league-leading 165 wRC+. He drew walks in 18.2 percent of plate appearances while striking out in just 8.2 percent. Also, he played excellent defense, and stole 310 bases. After retiring, Morgan moved to the broadcast booth where he was infamously inept at analyzing the game he dominated.
2. Tim Raines. By reason of BBWAA’s stupidity, Raines is not in the Hall of Fame despite totaling almost 25 more WAR than the next player on this list. The speed demon swiped 808 bags, while posting a career on-base percentage of .385 and a wRC+ of 125. He had a measure of power as well, and he popped 18 home runs for the Montreal Expos in 1987. Like Morgan, he had an excellent eye, and walked in 12.8 percent of his plate appearances while striking out in just 9.3 percent.
3. Kirby Puckett. Like Hack, Puckett only played 12 seasons. In Puckett’s case, scouts looked past his small stature, and he was selected third overall in the 1982 MLB Draft. By the way, the two players selected before Puckett, Kash Beauchamp and Troy Afenir had a grand total of 79 plate appearances, with Beauchamp never reaching the majors. In fact, Puckett was the only first rounder from the ’82 draft to produce positive rWAR. Before glaucoma ended his career, Puckett produced a .318/.360/.477 line. Puckett sprayed line drives to the tune of a .342 BABIP, one of the highest marks of all time.
4. Dustin Pedroia. Generously listed as 5’8, Pedroia became a regular in 2007. Since then, he’s seventh in the majors in fWAR. He was named AL MVP in 2008. He’s managed a career .302/.370/.454 line for a 119 wRC+, while drawing more walks (9.3 percent) than strikeouts (8.9 percent). The Green Monster has certainly helped Pedroia, but he has a 108 wRC+ on the road. Of the 64 players drafted ahead of him in 2004, only Justin Verlander has been more productive.
5. Jimmy Rollins. The speedy Rollins has nabbed at least 20 bases each year of his career, and his 82.7 percent success rate is 25th all-time. In 2007 Rollins was named NL MVP. He showed off his five-tool ability with a .296/.344/.531 line and 30 home runs. He’s advanced in age, but the 35 year-old had one of his best seasons just last year when he produced 4.8 fWAR. None of the players drafted ahead of him in 1996 has been more productive. The switch-hitter has struck out in just 11.7 percent of his plate appearances.
Honorable Mention: David Eckstein. The 5’6 Eckstein was selected in the 19th round of the 1997 Draft. Only two other players from that round reached The Show, and they played in a total of 35 games. 2002 was his best season, as the tiny shortstop that could produced a .293/.363/.388 line for a 105 wRC+ while playing excellent defense. Known for his scrappiness, Ecks led the majors in HBP each of his first two seasons. During the 2007 season, he struck out in just 4.5 percent of his plate appearances. Ecks also did this commercial, which is awesome.
A little guy having a great season is a rarity, and when it happens, plenty of fans will jump on the “grit” bandwagon. If you’re looking for the next gritty guy to root for before everyone else does, check out Marcus Stroman, who Batting Leadoff’s Mike Parnell scouted, or Mike O’Neill. You’ll be able to impress your baseball friends with your grit savvy.
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