Baseball and the BMI

Baseball has had all sort of body types take the field in its history.  There have been very tall players, rather short players,  hefty hefty hefty players and wimpy wimpy wimpy ones too.

Over at Beyond the Boxscore, Bill Petti does a very nice job, including a well-thought out bar chart, summarizing the “growth” of players both in terms of weight and height.  I’m presenting a slightly different take on the matter.

Here at VORG, we’re not going to rehash the stories of Randy Johnson and Eddie Gaedel.  That’s not how we roll.  We’re going to investigate the anomalous players, and the overall “growth of the game” in terms of players’ BMIs.

For the uninitiated (or those who haven’t visited a doctor in some time), while BMI is in fact the code for Bloomington-Normal airport in central Illinois, here we are speaking of the Body Mass Index.

  • The body mass index (BMI), or Quetelet index, is a heuristic proxy for human body fat based on an individual’s weight and height. BMI does not actually measure the percentage of body fat. . . .
  • BMI provided a simple numeric measure of a person’s “fatness” or “thinness”, allowing health professionals to discuss over- and under-weight problems more objectively with their patients. . . . it is meant to be used as a simple means of classifying sedentary (physically inactive) individuals with an average body composition.  For these individuals, the current value settings are as follows: a BMI of 20 to 25 may indicate optimal weight; a BMI lower than 20 suggests the person is underweight while a number above 25 may indicate the person is overweight; a person may have a BMI below 20 due to disease; a number above 30 suggests the person is obese (over 40, morbidly obese).

OK, so BMI is not really geared towards professional athletes (though I believe the playing style of any of the catching Molina brothers could be described as “sedentary”).  But its still good for a relative comparison of players past and present.

Let’s start off by comparing the average BMI across decades.  We’ll do this by stating that a player belongs to the particular decade in which he made his major league debut (ex. Mike Schmidt would be found in the 1970s, Alex Rodriguez in the 1990s).  We’ll lump 2010 debuts in with the 2000s for simplicity sake.  The heights and weights used for BMI calculations are from their established norms, not necessarily what they debuted at.

It is to be expected that players will increase in height and weight (along with the general population at-large) over the 130-year span.  Notice that for the first 110 years or so, the BMI remains relatively unchanged, meaning that the “body type” of players hasn’t changed that much from baseball’s inception . . . UNTIL the 1990s-2000s.

The first thing that may come to mind regarding those past two decades is PEDs usage beginning in the mid-to-late 90s and lasting through the first half of the 2000s.  Notice the significant year-to-year changes in those years.  Remember, these are the average height, weight and BMIs of players who made their debut in that year, but the heights and weights are from their established norms.

A bit of a BMI jump in 1996, a bigger jump in 1998,  another big jump in 2001, a dip in 2003 (when random “survey testing” took place for the first time), then big jumps in 2004 (when formal, CBA-approved testing started with minimal penalties) and 2005 (when the current stiffer penalties when into effect) before trending downward slightly.

Now that we’ve uncovered the ever-expanding elephant in the room, let’s return to the more light-hearted examination of the polar opposite players from each decade/era.  Please note that the measurements are not from Baseball Reference (which appear to have only the “debut” measurements), but from the Lahman Database:

1870-1899: Candy Cummings (5’9″, 120 pounds, 17.7 BMI) – Way before there were innings and pitch limits, Cummings debuted in 1872 by tossing 53 complete games in 55 starts for the New York Mutuals in the National Association.  Cummings pitched 497 innings that year, as a 23-year-old.  Pitchers threw underhanded or sidearm for most of the 1870s and 1880s, but still . . . ouch.  Dave Orr (5’11, 250, 34.9) – was a hard-hitting 1B primarily for the New York Metropolitans in the 1880s.  Home runs were a rarity back in those days, but Orr doubled and tripled his way to a career .502 slugging percentage.  The big man legged out 31 triples in 1886.

1900s: Johnny Evers (5’9″, 125, 18.5) – Evers was a pesky, good-fielding 2B for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Braves, winning the NL MVP in 1914 at age 32.  He logged over 1700 games at 2B, and even came back at age 40 and then again at age 47 for one game.  He was elected to the Hall in 1946.  Bill Byers (5’7″, 210, 32.9) – Byers’ career consisted of 19 games at catcher and first for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1904.  He compiled a paltry .217/.230/.217 line in 62 PAs.

1910s: Al Braithwood (6’1, 145, 19.1) – Braithwood’s career was even shorted than Byers was.  The beanpole pitched in two games for the  Federal League’s Pittsburgh Rebels in 1915.  Garland Buckeye (6’0″, 260, 35.3) – The wonderful monikered Buckeye pitched in one game for the 1918 Washington Senators, then didn’t reappear on the mound for another seven years.  But that was probably he became a football center and guard for the Chicago Cardinals from 1921-1924.  In 1926, he was a true two-sport star, pitching for the Cleveland Indians and playing football for the Chicago Bulls of the very short-lived American Football League.

1920s: Johnson Fry (6’1, 150, 19.8) – Fry’s time in the majors?  One game in 1923.  His line: 3.2 IP, 6 hits, 4 walks, 5 runs allowed as the final pitcher in a 20-8 loss to Washington.  Jumbo Brown (6’4, 295, 35.9) – What could Brown do for you?  Well, he could have the highest BMI for a player from his debut in 1925 until 2005.  Brown pitched mainly in relief for most of his 12 seasons, a relatively novel specialty at that time.

1930s: Howie Gorman (6’2″, 160, 20.5) – Gorman was a pinch-hitter/reserve outfielder for the 1937 and 1938 Philadelphia Phillies.  Ralph Birkofer (5’11, 213, 29.7) – After making the majors in ’33, Birkofer was a league-average pitcher for the 1934/35 Pirates, and finished his time in the majors in 1937.   Despite his heft, he didn’t overpower anyone (career 3.7K per 9).

1940s: Hank Gornicki (6’1″, 145, 19.1) – Gornicki didn’t make his minor league debut till he was 25, and didn’t hit the majors until he turned 30 (1941). He served in the Army in ’44 and ’45, before one last go-round with the Pirates in ’46.  Johnny Hutchings (6’2″, 250, 32.1) – Hutchings was a middling pitcher for the early 40s Cincinnati Red and Boston Braves.  His career rates of 3.4 walks and 4.1 strikeouts per 9 innings and 1.389 WHIP were indicative of his mediocrity.  His biggest claim to fame may be that he surrendered Mel Ott’s 500th homerun.

1950s: Raul Sanchez (6’0″, 150, 20.3) – The wiry Sanchez was a Cuban-born pitcher for the Senators and Reds.  According to Wikipedia, his nickname in Spanish was “Salivita”, which translates roughly as “a little saliva”, a reference to Sanchez’s reputation for throwing a spitball.  Ray Noble and Buzz Clarkson (both 5’11″, 210, 29.3) – Noble, a catcher born in Cuba, was 32 when he made it onto pennant-winning New York Giants squad.  Clarkson was a long-time veteran of the Negro Leagues when he finally got a chance at age 37 with the 1952 Boston Braves.

1960s: Tom Hall (6’0″, 150, 20.3) – This thin lefty had a live if slightly erratic arm, averaging 8.4 Ks, four walks (and only 6.9 hits) per 9 for his career.  He came up to the majors with the Twins at age 20, but was done by age 30.  He spent most of his years as a swingman for four different teams.  Gates Brown (5’11″, 220, 30.7) – Brown spent his entire 13-year career with one team (Detroit), but in only three of those seasons did he amass more than 250 plate appearances, and only in the first and last seasons did he have fewer than 100 plate appearances.  He spent his baseball life as a platoon left fielder and pinch-hitter.

1970s: Manny Trillo (6’1″, 150, 19.8) – Trillo was a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger-winning 2B, primarily for the Cubs and Phillies.  He was one of the linchpins in the Phillies Series-winning team of 1980, fielding .987 with above-average range, while hitting .292/.334/.412 and finishing 2nd behind Mike Schmidt in team Wins Above ReplacementPete Varney (6’3″, 235, 29.4) – Varney was a catching prospect who was drafted, and chose not to sign, six times between August 1966 and January 1971.  He finally signed after being selected by the Chicago White Sox first overall in the “secondary” draft in June 1971.   Two round later, the ChiSox selected a shortstop from the University of Mississippi, who ended up playing a little football instead, Archie Manning.

1980s: Tony Johnson (6’3″, 145, 18.1) – Prior to being called up to the majors, Johnson went 144 out of 183 on stolen base attempts (78.6%).  In his (it turned out) one year in the majors, he went 3 for 16 (18.8%).  Joey Meyer (6’3″, 260, 32.5) – Meyer bashed 120 homers over four seasons in the minors prior to his call-up.  But he slugged only .416 over his two seasons in the majors.

1990s: Rusty Meacham (6’3″, 155, 19.4) – Meacham was a finesse righty who bounced around to five different teams between 1991 and 2001.  His best year (1992) featured a 10-4 record with a 2.74 ERA, thanks in large part to a .261 BABIP.  He never again approached those numbers, finishing with career rates of 5.8 Ks, 3.9 walks and 10 hits per 9 innings.  Carlos Lee (6’2″, 265, 34.0) – “El Caballo” has been one of baseball’s most consistent power hitters.  2010 was his 11th straight season with at least 24 homers.  (Only three active players have longer streaks: Alex Rodriguez, Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero).  But his heft has always been an issue, and his current contract includes a “weight” clause.

2000-2010: Ezequiel Astacio (6’3″, 150, 18.7) – The only player in history with the first name “Ezequiel”, Astacio had a bit of a problem with the gopher ball.  In his 86.2 career innings, he yielded an astonishing 25 homers.  One out of every 16 batters faced took him deep, and in pitching for the Astros, he didn’t even have to deal with the DH.  Walter Young (6’5″, 320, 37.9) – The heaviest player in history, Young not surprisingly was a football star in his hometown of Purvis, Mississippi.  But he chose to sign with the Pirates rather than take a football scholarship from LSU.   He got a cup of coffee with the Orioles in 2005, and hit well, but the O’s had other plans in 2006, and Young drifted through the minors and semi-pro teams thereafter.

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