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Why Aren't There More Fat Baseball Players?

We spoke with scouts about why heavy players, tall catchers, and short pitchers have a hard time catching on in the big leagues.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

You have almost assuredly heard the phrase "never judge a book by its cover." You have also almost assuredly ignored that phrase at some point in your life. We all make assumptions based on appearances. The same goes in sports, where people are often evaluated based specifically on how they look—for better or worse.

Baseball is often thought of as the most forgiving sport in terms of a player's physical gifts (or lack thereof). The other major American sports have more common expectations as far as a player's build. In basketball, you have to be tall and fast. In football, you have to strong and fast. In hockey, you have to be some combination of all three. There are always exceptions to these rules, but there's a reason why you don't see five Isaiah Thomases running up and down the court for the Celtics.


Read More: Know Thyself: How Assessment By MLB Teams Fires the Hot Stove

Baseball is different. Baseball players come in all shapes and sizes. John Kruk, who had his own unique shape and size, was famous for saying, "I'm not a professional athlete, I'm a baseball player." For every 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson, there's a 5-foot-8 Billy Wagner. For every mountain-like Richie Sexson, there's a diminutive Jose Altuve. Players of all shapes and sizes—from David Eckstein to Bartolo Colon—can carve out long, successful careers.

At least it seems that way. In reality, baseball isn't as inclusive as it appears. That's why Pablo Sandoval's weight continues to be such a source of fascination (he's skinny this year). There are stigmas that scouts struggle to see past at every level. Just as, at every level, there are players who have a chance to break through those stereotypes because of their appearance. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis wrote about how as a player, Billy Beane—now the President of Baseball Operations for Oakland—was deemed to have something called "the good face."

I spoke with scouts from around the majors about some of the stigmas that cloud player development decisions.

When you are comfortable with your body image. Photo: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Big-bodied position players

Pardon the political correctness of this term, but it'd be unfair to call some of the players who have had their bodies called into question "fat." Then again, it's all relative. Not every baseball player is statuesque; one need only to take a look at the careers of guys like Kruk and Cecil Fielder to know it's possible, but scouts are always wary of the large human—especially position players.

"It's always concerning," an NL Central scout said. "The fact of the matter is, baseball is an everyday game. If you wanna say it's not exactly a cardiovascular workout, that's fine, but it's still a grind. You have to have a certain level of conditioning to play this game at your best for 162 games, close to a thousand innings a year for most of these guys. It's tough to do that when you're in tip-top shape. When you're fat? There's almost no chance."


The history of the overweight position player isn't exactly illustrious, and it hasn't gotten much better over time, either. Yes, there was that Babe Ruth fellow, but in the modern era, the odds of long-term success get…slim. The list of players who were among the league leaders in offensive categories are littered with players who have a physique that even the harshest critic wouldn't critique. A list of the recent heaviest sluggers includes Prince Fielder and…Giancarlo Stanton.

Prince Fielder is an unfortunate example of another trend: larger players have a harder time sustaining long careers. Players like Fielder, Bob Hamelin, and Mo Vaughn got off to fantastic starts, only to flame out (Hamelin), decline substantially (Vaughn) or deteriorate suddenly (Fielder).

One of the reasons you don't see as many portly players is that they aren't typically drafted early—or sometimes at all. Fielder was an obvious exception, but he had the advantage of being the son of one of the best power hitters of the 1980s—the aforementioned Cecil Fielder. In the last three years, the only player considered fat by body type that was drafted in the first-round was Josh Naylor last year, and he's already been dealt by the Marlins to San Diego.

The sun rises for Dan Vogelbach, who will be Seattle's first baseman this year. Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.

Chance for change: Dan Vogelbach, 1B, Seattle Mariners

Vogelbach is listed at 6-foot, 250 pounds, but it's tough to believe that's accurate. A second-round pick by the Cubs in 2011 who came over to Seattle in a trade for Mike Montgomery, Vogelbach has hit at every level. He's a career .286/.391/.471 hitter, and right now, he's penciled in to be the Mariners opening day first baseman.


"I'm more skeptical about the glove than the bat," an NL West scout said. "He can hit, both the hit and power tool have a chance to be plus [.275 to .285 hitter, 23-28 homers], and he's patient. The problem is that he's a 20 [bottom of the scale] runner, and he isn't going to get any faster. It's really hard for me to believe he's going to be able to stay in the field. He might be a pretty good designated hitter, though."

The short pitcher

The reason for the stigma against short pitchers is partially obvious, and (maybe) not so obvious. The obvious reason is similar to that of the fat position player: while the rigors a starting pitcher faces are less strenuous than they were in the past, teams are still expecting starters to give them 150-plus innings a year. The less obvious reason is that a pitcher's height can make a dramatic impact in something scouts love to see: plane.

"It's sort of the same as the fat hitter, but there's an added element to it," the NL Central scout said. "One of the things we're looking for from pitchers is downhill plane. We want to see that pitcher with long limbs come downhill, because it gives the hitter so much less time to adjust. When we're talking about short pitchers, it's very difficult for them to give hitters those kind of looks, and when they pick up the baseball, it doesn't really matter how good the stuff is, they're going to hit it hard."

Marcus Stroman sells HDMH merchandise—standing for "Height Doesn't Measure Heart." Photo: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports.

While there aren't many examples of fat position players, the amount of pitchers who are shorter than six feet tall is growing. Pitchers like Johnny Cueto, Sonny Gray and Marcus Stroman have all had success as big-league starters. We've also seen some shorter pitchers selected early in the draft in the past couple of years, including Grant Holmes, who was a first-round pick by the Dodgers in 2014. But even with the recent success of some of these shorter hurlers, scouts and front-offices still can be hesitant to pull the trigger.


"It's really difficult at times to get these [short pitchers] signed off on, the NL Central scout said."You push for these guys because you think they're gonna have the stuff, but if there's a guy with comparable stuff or projection who stands 6-foot-6 and the other guy is 5-foot-11, the tall guy is going to win, every time. We claim to be a forward-thinking group, but when things get close, we tend to side with our old-school approaches."

Chance for change: Anderson Espinoza, RHP, San Diego Padres

If you haven't heard of Espinoza yet, you will. Espinoza was given the largest bonus of any pitcher to come out of Venezuela by the Red Sox, and after showing world-class stuff in his time with Boston, he was dealt to San Diego in the Drew Pomeranz deal. Although listed at 6-feet, most believe Espinoza stands right around 5-foot-11, perhaps a half inch shorter than that.

"I'm sure one of the reasons that Boston was willing to trade him was his size," an AL East scout said. "Not only is he short, but he's pretty skinny, so durability could be an issue. I'd still say he's one of the most talented pitching prospects in baseball. Every pitch can be a strikeout pitch, and his feel for pitching at that age [18] is insane. He could be an ace, but again, I get why you would be concerned about his size."

The tall shortstop, the taller catcher and the very tall outfielder

It's not unheard of for a player to be considered too tall to do something. This guy made a living off of it. Baseball generally welcomes height, with the exception of three positions, catcher, shortstop and—somewhat surprisingly—outfielder.

The Yankees are hoping Aaron Judge can be the next Frank Howard. Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports


"It has everything to do with range and projection," the NL West scout said. "Our job is to project who will and won't be able to stay at valuable positions. Catcher, shortstop and center field are valuable positions. Taller kids are much more likely to put on weight, both good and bad. So when you see someone who is 6-foot-5, it's tough to imagine they are going to stick at that position. They can still be very good players, but the value drops when they move to third or first or wherever.

"It's changing a little bit with shortstops, because these kids are so fast and have such good arms that you take the risk. In the outfield and behind the plate, however, we still like to see that 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 build."

Chance for change: Aaron Judge, OF, New York Yankees

The list of hitters who have been 6-foot-7 and taller and succeeded is short. The list of outfielders who have done it is much shorter. In fact, it's one. Frank Howard. Judge was a first-round pick out of Fresno State who made a name for himself after hitting two homers off of Mark Appel, and despite Judge's struggles with the Yankees this summer, he has a chance to make history.

"There's a lot of power here," the NL Central scout said. "He can take the ball out to all fields and with ease. He's going to strikeout a ton because of how long his limbs are, but he just might hit enough to be a regular in the outfield. He can run pretty well for his size, too."

It may be frustrating to see baseball teams cherry-pick players based on superficial factors, but there's some concrete evidence that shows that some of the methodology comes with reason. What makes baseball—and sports, in general—so fun is that there are exceptions to these rules. As baseball evolves, and player acquisition and scouting become more scientific, it will be fascinating to see whether players like Dan Vogelbach, Anderson Espinoza, and Aaron Judge can lead to a new wave of unexpected stars.

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