David vs. Goliath Gets an Update: It’s Now Altuve vs. Judge

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It is unusual, then, when teams’ key batters, like Altuve and Judge, are at such height extremes. A height of 5-6 is small for any major league player, of any era. Second baseman Ronald Torreyes, the Yankees’ player of smallest stature, towers over Altuve at a listed 5-8.

“I think most of the people like the kind of player like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez,” Altuve, a second baseman, said in 2014. “They’re pretty tall and they can do everything. But as a scout, you have to give credit to a little guy, too. See what they have. Who knows? See what they can bring to the table.”

As for the tall guys, Judge, at 6-7, is towering. In the N.L.C.S., the two tallest position players will be two Cubs — third baseman Kris Bryant and outfielder Jason Heyward, each of them 6-5. Other major league teams are similar, with 6-6 Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins coming close to Judge in height, but not surpassing him.

Photo

Judge slid into second as Altuve waited for the throw in a game between the Yankees and the Astros in May. Now the two players are going at it in the American League Championship Series.

Credit
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Pitchers, meanwhile, tend to be taller. Judge isn’t even the tallest Yankee, with reliever Dellin Betances measuring 6-8.

When Judge is not in a Yankees uniform he looks more like a football player. His 275-pound frame contributes to that, and indeed he was a high school wide receiver. Unsurprisingly, he hits the ball exceptionally hard. He led the American League in homers with 52, many of them sailing eye-popping distances.

But while they are very different players, physically and otherwise, Altuve and Judge’s total offensive production this season ended up being fairly similar: They ranked second and third in the American League in OPS, behind the nonpareil Mike Trout, who is 6-2.

The height discrepancy between the two stars has not gone unnoticed, and photographs of the two side by side have elicited a lot of amusement on social media this season. Altuve’s stature has also led to the creation of a mock unit of measurement, the Altuve. A football field is 55.4 Altuves long, for example. Judge is 1.22 Altuves.

Is there a drawback to being a big man in baseball? A 2006 study on Fangraphs showed that taller players strike out more. One reason is that they tend to be power hitters and swing for the fences more. But another is that their lankiness gives them a bigger strike zone.

Judge certainly lived up to that notion, whiffing 208 times, the sixth highest single-season total ever. And No. 2 on that list is 6-6 Adam Dunn, who last played in the major leagues in 2014.

While Judge fanned on 31 percent of his trips to the plate this season, Altuve, presenting a lot smaller target, struck out on just 13 percent.

On the other hand, despite his strike zone, Judge also led the league in walks, perhaps because of pitchers throwing gingerly to avoid his massive blasts. Altuve is not a big walker, despite his height. “It’s obvious that I like to swing the bat,” he once said.

The greatest walk rate in history — an astonishing 100 percent — belongs to the shortest player in history, Eddie Gaedel (3-7, or two-thirds of an Altuve). His stunt appearance for the St. Louis Browns in 1951 resulted in a four-pitch walk and a quick retirement from the sport.

Historically, the height range gets a little bigger. The first short Hall of Famer many fans think of is Phil Rizzuto, the Yankees shortstop of the 1940s and 1950s. He was 5-6, but he looks down on Willie Keeler, whose long career at the turn of the century is remembered for a 44-game hitting streak, for the expression “hit them where they ain’t,” and for his 5-4 height, which earned him the nickname Wee.

Many tall stars of the past topped out at 6-6, an inch shorter than Judge, including Darryl Strawberry and Dave Winfield. Towering an inch above them is 6-7 Frank Howard, the 1960s slugger, and by all accounts, a gentle giant. (Then again, Hack Wilson of the Cubs stood 5-6 and was a legendary slugger, too. He holds the record for most runs batted in in a season, with 191.)

Looking for a taller position player than Judge, we can turn to Nate Freiman, a 6-8 first baseman who played with the Oakland A’s in 2013 and 2014. He was still swinging the bat with Israel in the recent World Baseball Classic and also played for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League this past season.

As the Yankees and the Astros tangle for a World Series berth, few will be surprised to see their long and short stars end up as the difference-makers. And if Judge hits a double, and stands by Altuve, get ready for another photo op.



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