The little guys are taking over baseball
Revolution started with Pedroia, continues with Altuve, others
Not so long ago, I would know the names and up-to-the-minute stats of every little guy in baseball.
Well, check that. It was a long time ago, when I was the shortest kid in class, when the other kids were constantly coming up with new short jokes to try out on me, when they would start singing Randy Newman's lyric "Short people got no reason to live."
In those days, the main little guys in baseball were Cincinnati's Joe Morgan and Kansas City's Freddie Patek. Morgan was a 5-foot-7 whirlwind. There wasn't anybody in baseball like him. There had really never been anyone quite like him. No little guy had ever blended such power with speed, defensive excellence and extraordinary plate discipline -- you could argue that his 1975 season was the best for any non-Barry Bonds season in the expansion era.
But Patek was even more my guy, in part because he was even smaller -- Patek was listed at 5-foot-5, 148 pounds -- but even more because he was what I imagined a little guy in baseball to be. Morgan was a freak, a once-in-a-100-years kind of player. But Patek did what little guys could do. He played fantastic defense. He stole bases. He didn't hit home runs -- though, bizarrely, he once had a three-homer game at Fenway Park -- but he played his heart out. Patek was all heart.
Patek and Morgan -- along with other good players like Al Bumbry, Davey Lopes and, a little later, Hall of Famers Tim Raines and Kirby Puckett -- provided that wonderful reminder that you don't have to be big to be a successful baseball player. Baseball is not like football or basketball. You could find a way to play, even to excel, no matter your size. That was such an inspirational thought for all the shortest kids in class everywhere.
And then, this happened: Some of those inspired kids grew up.
And now, baseball belongs to the little guys.
Sure, there are the giants like Aaron Judge and the Greek Gods like Giancarlo Stanton and perfect baseball players like Michael Trout, but look around. In a time when everyone across the sports landscape is getting bigger, when baseball itself has become about blazing fastballs and long home runs, some of the most dynamic and thrilling players in the game are 5-foot-9 or less.
Let me make the case that this current little-guy revolution began with Dustin Pedroia. He's listed at 5-foot-9, though that seems more like an inside joke than anything else. A few years ago, a baseball insider insisted that Pedroia is actually the shortest baseball player of the expansion era.
Pedroia's size scared scouts. He was a huge star in college at Arizona State -- so good that Ian Kinsler had to transfer out -- but he was not taken until the second round of the 2004 Draft. One scout said that he begged his team to take Pedroia in the first round, but simply couldn't get them to see beyond his height.
That's how it used to go with scouting. Little guys were viewed as limited. But we know what happened with Pedroia: He was unlimited. He went to the Red Sox, won the American League Rookie of the Year Award, then followed that up by winning the AL Most Valuable Player Award. He is a .300 hitter, he has led the league in doubles, he's been a good baserunner and a Gold Glove fielder. If he can have a few more healthy seasons -- he's 33 and just now coming off the disabled list -- he will have a viable Hall of Fame case.
Then came Jose Altuve. He is listed at 5-foot-6, though that too is probably exaggerated. Few believed in him when he was in the Minors, even after he started crushing the ball. Scouts were worried about that size. Altuve says that one of the turning points for him happened when he heard about the all-around brilliance of Morgan.
"It gave me hope," Altuve said. "I thought, 'If I can get a chance, I can show them that I can play.'"
Everything comes around.
When Altuve got the chance, he did a pretty good impression of Morgan. Well, he does it differently from Morgan, but the overall effect is the same. Altuve has led the AL in hits each of the last four seasons (and he is again this year). He has added power to his game -- 24 homers each of the last two years -- and when combined with his speed and defense and everything else, well, it led to him winning the AL MVP last year.
This year's AL MVP could very well be Boston's 5-foot-9 outfielder, Mookie Betts, who at the moment leads the Majors in runs, hits, doubles, homers, batting average and slugging percentage. Betts might be the guy to finally challenge Trout's supremacy. He was somewhat overlooked when the Red Sox took him in the fifth round of the 2011 Draft.
It's actually a bit baffling how these little guys are becoming such forces around MLB. As a 20-year-old in Double-A, Cleveland's Jose Ramirez slugged .349 in 2013. He was getting the bat knocked out of his hands. That, combined with his slight 5-foot-9 frame, scared off everybody. Just three years later, as a 23-year-old in Cleveland, he was an MVP candidate. Last year, he led the Majors with 56 doubles, and he added 29 homers. This year, his 14 homers is among the leaders.
Atlanta's Ozzie Albies is 5-foot-8 and also has 14 homers. At 21, he is the youngest of the group and, unlike the rest, he was a huge prospect, which might show that scouts are not seeing player height as a liability the way they might have before. Still, few saw this kind of stunning power coming this fast, and that, along with Albies' speed and energy, has Braves fans dreaming big.
The thing that strikes you about Betts, Ramirez, Altuve and Albies is how many things they do well. They are more Joe Morgan than Freddie Patek.
And now, the little-guy revolution even moves to the upcoming Draft, where Oregon State's 5-foot-7 second baseman Nick Madrigal might be a top-5 pick. As MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince wrote, no player 5-foot-8 or shorter has been taken in the top 20 in the Draft. We might be getting to the point where scouts will start preferring the little guys.
Baseball is becoming what I always dreamed it would be.