WASHINGTON – In decades past they would have been given nicknames like “Pee Wee” and coached to shorten their swings, keep the ball close to the ground, find holes and use their speed to leg out base hits.
Now, “small ball” has a new meaning. This homer-happy era of baseball is proving that big sluggers can be found in in tiny packages.
Consider some of the guys in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game: Jose Ramirez, all 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds of him, whose 29 homers at the break are tied for the AL lead. Mookie Betts, also 5-foot-9, has 23 long balls and hit 31 last season. Ozzie Albies, who at age 21 could maybe hope for a late growth spurt, is 5-foot-8 and has 20 homers.
And of course there’s the best inch-for-inch hitter in baseball, 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve, the three-time batting champion who’s gone deep nine times this year but hit 24 homers in each of the past two seasons.
“You look around this room, it’s not just big guys. It’s guys of all sizes,” said first-time All-Star Alex Bregman, who’s listed at 6 feet, 180 pounds and has 20 homers. “What you see are ballplayers. You don’t have to be big to be a ballplayer. You have to have the skills.”
And their skills are holding up just fine against giants like Aaron Judge (6-foot-7, 282 pounds, 25 homers), J.D. Martinez (6-foot-3, 220 pounds, 29 homers), Jesus Aguilar (6-foot-3, 250 pounds, 24 homers) and the consensus best hitter in the game with the ideal body type to match, Mike Trout (6-foot-2, 235 pounds, 25 homers).
Altuve credits hitters who understand how to maximize their physical tools.
“In Mookie, I see quick hands and a really good lower body, hitting-wise, and I can see why he hits a lot of home runs,” Altuve said. “I would say it’s more technique than strength now for hitting homers.”
Justin Verlander knows he can’t relax when he’s on the mound against a player like Altuve, his Astros teammate. Size doesn’t matter. Bat speed does.
“I think it’s part of the change of the game. I’ve talked to Jose about it. He’s changed himself a few years back and started swinging more aggressively,” Verlander said. “You didn’t used to see guys like that that were small that ... had that kind of pop. Oppo (opposite field) pop. That’s the big thing that’s changed, homers to opposite field. That’s something I didn’t used to see much except with guys like Miguel Cabrera. Now you’re seeing it with almost everybody.”
Baseball appears to be headed for a reckoning with the ugly side of hitters’ power-first approach. Defensive shifts, obsession with launch angles and indifference to strikeouts are being blamed for everything from increasing the length of games to making the sport more dull and one-dimensional. There is talk of banning shifts or forcing relief pitchers to face more than one batter in order to generate more excitement and incentivize putting balls in play.
But there might be an upside to a more egalitarian sport in which players aren’t expected to change their approach for no reason other than their stature.
Betts knows that a decade or two ago, he might have been coached differently.
“Probably get it on the ground, use my speed. Times have changed,” Betts said. “We, as in small guys, may not be as big and strong, but we can pack the power. I think that’s just one of those things we have to go out and show.”
And there are competing theories about what’s allowed smaller guys to flex their compact muscles.
Verlander gave the one-word answer a pitcher might be expected to give: “Baseballs.”
Theories that the ball is juiced were given some statistical backing before the season when Major League Baseball released a study saying baseballs have been producing less drag, causing them to carry farther. But MLB said it didn’t understand why or how the change occurred.
Hitters, naturally, have a different explanation. They blame the pitchers.
“Honestly, I feel like everybody is throwing harder. You don’t have to hit the ball as hard anymore,” Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp said. “Honestly, all you have to do is square it up and the ball is going to fly if they mess up. These guys are throwing really hard. Strikeouts are up. Home runs are up. Everything is up. It’s just a game of who throws harder and who can square it up.”
Freelance writers Brian McNally and Ben Standig contributed to this report.