For much of Major League Baseball’s history, height has been seen as an advantage for a pitcher. The reasoning made sense- hurlers with larger frames are often able to produce high velocity with less effort, and their stuff has a natural downward plane, seen as advantageous to producing ground balls. But, as strategies as a whole have shifted in the game, we’ve seen some movement away from this paradigm.
It is generally rarer to find a shorter starting pitcher (for the purposes of this piece, we’ll define that as under 6’0”, which is a standard that should only be applied to pitchers and NBA point guards) who is able to generate consistent MLB velocity while employing a level of effort that can conceivably allow for good location, but the market hasn’t valued them as a scarce resource because most teams would still prefer a taller pitcher with the same stuff profile.
But should stature be stigmatized among hurlers? While there’s some truth to the notion that taller pitchers tend to generate more ground balls and shorter hurlers are less likely to hold up to full starters’ workloads, baseball is full of exceptions. 5’8” Marcus Stroman has made quite a name for himself as a groundball artist with heavy stuff across the board, and one of the last generation’s tallest pitchers, Chris Young, was actually an extreme flyball-oriented finesse artist who lived at the top of the zone with a high-80s fastball.
There are very few starting pitchers under 6-foot at the big league level right now, and they’ve been uncommon throughout the pro game’s history as well, but this may be just as attributable to typecasting as it is any real difference in effectiveness for shorter pitchers with big league arsenals. The Astros appear to have little reservation bringing in shorter pitchers and giving them every opportunity to start, at least at this point in time. At present, the club has four pitchers in their minor league system who stand 5’11” or shorter with real potential to start games at the next level, mostly in the lower minors.
The elder statesman of the group is Brandon Bailey, acquired in a winter swap for Ramon Laureano, who has climbed steadily up the Astros ladder since coming over in 2018 and looks to be in line for an assignment to Triple-A Round Rock in 2020. Despite having just average fastball velocity, Bailey has struck out hitters in bunches as a pro thanks to a combination of above-average to plus secondaries and big time fastball life. The combination of big movement and uncommon plane on the pitch have made it a nightmare for hitters, and he backs it up with a 12-6 curveball, slider and a plus changeup. Bailey has had some brief trips to the injury list and hasn’t gone as many innings per start as you’d like to see, but at every stop on the ladder he’s shown a strong combination of bat-missing and hit avoidance.
In the lower levels of the minors, the Astros have unleashed a trio of high-octane 5’11” arms who all show nascent starter skillsets. Of the three, Manny Ramirez has generated the most notoriety thus far. Though just 5’11” and 19 years old, Ramirez is thickly built at 170 lbs with a strong lower half and consistently generates fastball velocity in the 93-96 range. He backs that up with a plus curveball and developing changeup, the ingredients for a #3 or #4 starter profile down the line assuming average command. That hasn’t been present just yet, as Ramirez struggled with control in 2019, but should get an assignment to Quad Cities in 2020 after instructs, where he’ll have lots of helium potential.
Past Bailey and Ramirez, two of the Astros’ fastest-rising arms in the lower levels fall into the sub-6’0” bucket. Jairo Lopez, signed while the Astros’ international bonuses were capped at a maximum of $300k per player, received that maximum bonus and has hit the ground running in pro ball. AFter a 43.1 inning debut in 2018 during which he posted a 3.32 ERA, Lopez was dominant in two 2019 stops, compiling a season line of 51 IP, 25 H, 14 R (8 ER), 23 BB and 61 K, good for an ERA in the 1s. To this point, Lopez doesn’t show as much gas on his fastball as Ramirez, living 89-92, but is a bit more tuned and has a similar profile in terms of secondary offerings.
View this post on Instagram
A 2017 pitching prospect to watch: Jairo Lopez, 16-year-old RHP from Venezuela. Eligible to sign on July 2. #baseballamerica #baseball #mlb #milb #mlbprospect #pitcher #pitchers #pitching #pitchingcoach #beisbol #baseballswag #baseballseason #baseballislife #baseballlife #baseballplayer #baseballplayers #youthbaseball #highschoolbaseball #youthsports
The surprise of the bunch has been Mexican teenager Valente Bellozo, a 19 year old righty who checks in at 5’10”. A relative unknown entering the year, Bellozo exploded onto the scene in 2019, showing a diverse arsenal and command that translated to elite performance. Pitching for Tri-City for much of the year, Bellozo posted a 1.39 ERA against much older competition, earning himself a promotion to full-season ball in Quad Cities, where he continued to perform at a high level. Mature beyond his years on the mound, Bellozo employs a fairly high release point, and shows a real three-pitch mix at present with an occasional slider mixed in. Bellozo really commands the ball well, is a strong athlete and shows good tempo.
Perhaps the simultaneous presence of these hurlers in the system is nothing more than coincidence. Perhaps the Astros were getting creative in the international market while their spending was restricted and felt as though shorter pitchers represented strong value at lower bonus amounts. Perhaps short pitchers are a new short-term market inefficiency. It’s tough to know for sure, but whatever the explanation, the Astros could have their first sub-6’0” starting pitcher since Wandy Rodriguez if development stays on track for this group. All four could be placed on an organizational prospect ranking today, with plenty of upward mobility possible as they continue to gain seasoning.