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June 21, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

The Little Big Man Awards

by Ken Funck

Geoff Young recently used a BP Unfiltered post to come clean about his unrequited man crush on David Eckstein, setting off a wonderful comment thread in which readers described the players that they consider "guilty pleasures" - those that may not be stars, but are fun to watch nonetheless. Reading through the comments, I was struck by the many different types of players that can catch a fan's fancy, but one variety seemed to be particularly popular: The Little Guy. Maybe it's the David vs. Goliath matchup of the smaller batter versus the hulking pitcher that appeals to us; maybe we just identify with a more normal-seeming scale of player; in any case, shorter players seem to have some level of curb appeal that can't be explained by their stats.

For me, there's an even more specific type that draws my eye. It's the Little Guy that tries to play like a Big Guy - maybe successfully, maybe to the detriment of his team - that captures my heart. Not a slap-happy speed merchant, not Jay Jaffe's Lil' Bastard, but a Little Big Man (or LBM), a player with a Chihuahua's bark and a Newfoundland's bite, a guy who likes to swing the bat - with authority. Right now my guy is Dustin Pedroia, generously listed at 5'9", who swings from the heels at any offering that looks good to him and more often than not makes loud contact.

Which got me to wondering which historical players might best fit this mold: short of stature, with that grip-it-and-rip-it mentality that's less reliant on walks with a double shot of power. If I were to travel back in time to, say, the 1940s, which players would catch my eye as Little Big Men?

To determine this, I first needed to define two things: (1) what is "short" for a batter; and (2) what sort of statistical profile might denote an LBM?

To define "short" I looked at the average heights and weights of batters and pitchers since the dawn of the live-ball era. I chose the 1920s as a starting point because the dead-ball style of play seemed unlikely to produce players of the LBM profile even if I didn't consider a player's height. The results:


        Avg Male  Avg Batter  Avg Batter  Avg Pitcher  Avg Pitcher  
Decade   Height*    Height**    Weight      Height***    Weight
1920s     68.1"      70.4"       171         72.1"        179
1930s     69.2"      71.2"       176         72.5"        184
1940s     69.6"      71.6"       181         72.9"        187
1950s     69.8"      72.1"       185         73.0"        189
1960s     70.0"      72.3"       187         73.5"        193
1970s     69.8"      72.4"       188         73.9"        195
1980s     69.1"      72.6"       190         74.3"        198
1990s     69.2"      72.7"       193         74.4"        200

  *Cobbled together from various CDC and academic sources
 **Calculated using player-seasons with at least 300 ABs
***Calculated using player-seasons with at least 30 IP

Over time, baseball players have tended to be taller than the average U.S. adult male, and pitchers have tended to be an inch or two taller and 4-8 pounds heavier than batters. Also note that by the 1990s both batters and pitchers were 2.3" taller than they had been in the 1920s. Interestingly, baseball player height has continued to rise each decade while average height has essentially leveled off. Given these numbers, even in the 1920s a player of Dustin Pedroia's purported height (69") would be 1.4" shorter than his peer batters, and 3.1" shorter than the average pitcher he was facing. That seems like enough difference for Pedroia to look like a Little Guy even in the 1920s. Thus to honor the player I call Petey Plane, and for simplicity's sake, batters must be Pedroia's height (5'9") or less in order to take a ride on the LBM coaster.

To ascertain what statistical profile might be used to denote a Little Big Man, I tried subtracting OBP from SLG and called the result "LBM". OBP basically has a swinging-the-bat component (hits) and a bat-on-the-shoulder component (BB + HBP). SLG contains the same bat-wielding component (hits), but with additional points for extra base hits. The difference between a player's SLG and OBP can thus be viewed as roughly signifying the player's reliance on extra base power compared to their reliance on drawing walks.

As a crash-test for LBM, let's look at these numbers for the same cohort of batters used in the chart above:


               5'9" Or Less                   Over 5'9"
       Player                        Player
Decade Seasons  AVG/ OBP/ SLG  LBM | Seasons  AVG/ OBP/ SLG  LBM
1920s    346   .293/.358/.395 .037 |  1040   .302/.364/.432 .068
1930s    184   .281/.346/.400 .054 |  1243   .295/.361/.432 .071
1940s    162   .273/.352/.380 .028 |  1232   .275/.348/.398 .050
1950s    131   .279/.358/.401 .043 |  1229   .275/.350/.426 .076
1960s    148   .269/.332/.366 .034 |  1587   .265/.334/.409 .075
1970s    138   .261/.334/.354 .020 |  2135   .269/.339/.403 .064
1980s    141   .269/.338/.372 .034 |  2228   .270/.338/.412 .074
1990s    198   .277/.346/.385 .039 |  2337   .276/.350/.438 .088

Clearly, taller players have a much higher LBM. Note that OBP is often similar for both groups, but SLG is universally higher for taller players. This makes intuitive sense - if smaller players are less able to generate power, they would need to do something else (get on base a lot, play solid defense, steal lots of bases, or maybe all of the above) to stay in the lineup. Given that LBM is higher for taller players, especially sluggers, I'm comfortable using LBM (along with height) as my criteria for describing a Little Big Man.

Armed with this information, we can name a Little Big Man Award winner for each live-ball decade through the 1990s (I'm already carrying a torch for Pedroia's 21st Century LBM street cred), focusing on players that score well in the LBM metric numerous times. For each decade, I'll list the top LBM seasons - and to further honor these players' achievements in overcoming their diminutive stature, I'll shorten the standard Top Ten list to instead display a Top Eight.

The Twenties


Player          Year  Team  AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   LBM  2B  3B  HR Height
Hack Wilson     1929  CHN   574  .345/.425/.618  .193  30   5  39   5'6"
Mandy Brooks    1925  CHN   349  .281/.322/.513  .191  25   7  14   5'9"
Mel Ott         1929  NYG   545  .328/.449/.635  .186  37   2  42   5'9"
Hack Wilson     1928  CHN   520  .313/.404/.588  .184  32   9  31   5'6"
Hack Wilson     1927  CHN   551  .318/.401/.579  .178  30  12  30   5'6"
George Harper   1925  PHI   495  .349/.391/.558  .166  35   7  18   5'8"
Joe Harris      1925  WSH   300  .323/.430/.573  .144  21   9  12   5'9"
George Harper   1924  PHI   411  .294/.361/.504  .142  26   6  16   5'8"

Lewis Robert "Hack" Wilson is the embodiment of the Little Big Man. Listed at 5'6" and 190 lbs., but likely heavier, Wilson was built like a washing machine, with short, thick arms and an 18" neck. His power bat was the terror of the National League in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but unfortunately he was also well-known at every speakeasy in Al Capone's Cicero. Hack's long, slow dance with the demon rum likely contributed to his rapid career decline and untimely death at the age of 48 - but when he was right, he was a marvel. So in his honor, the Little Big Man award shall henceforth be known as the "Hack Wilson Award," and the trophy will be surmounted with this figure.

The Thirties


Player          Year  Team  AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   LBM  2B  3B  HR Height
Hack Wilson     1930  CHN   585  .356/.454/.723  .269  35   6  56   5'6"
Ripper Collins  1934  SLN   600  .333/.393/.615  .222  40  12  35   5'9"
Mel Ott         1932  NYG   566  .318/.424/.601  .177  30   8  38   5'9"
Mel Ott         1934  NYG   582  .326/.415/.591  .176  29  10  35   5'9"
Hack Wilson     1932  BRO   481  .328/.366/.538  .173  37   5  23   5'6"
Mel Ott         1931  NYG   497  .311/.392/.545  .153  23   8  29   5'9"
Mel Ott         1935  NYG   593  .308/.407/.555  .148  33   6  31   5'9"
Ripper Collins  1932  SLN   549  .308/.329/.474  .145  28   8  21   5'9"

Hack Wilson's 1930 campaign is the stuff of legend - his 191 RBIs is a record that hasn't been seriously threatened for 70 years, and his .269 LBM mark is the highest in history (for height and AB qualifiers). However, Wilson's quick decline leaves the door open for Mel Ott to be named the 1930s pre-eminent Little Big Man. The Giants HOF right fielder was the first NL player to reach 500 career home runs and, in addition to his smallish stature, was known for his unique (for the time) pre-swing leg kick - always a bonus when picking favorite players. Fun to see Ripper Collins on this list - his 1934 season helped lead the Gas House Gang to a championship, and his 369 total bases was an NL record for a switch-hitter until Jimmy Rollins' amazing 2007 breakout.

The Forties


Player          Year  Team  AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   LBM  2B  3B  HR Height
Yogi Berra      1949  NYA   415  .277/.323/.480  .157  20   2  20   5'8"
Yogi Berra      1948  NYA   469  .305/.341/.488  .147  24  10  14   5'8"
Enos Slaughter  1940  SLN   516  .306/.370/.504  .134  25  13  17   5'9"
Eddie Miller    1945  CIN   421  .238/.275/.404  .128  27   2  13   5'9"
Eddie Miller    1947  CIN   545  .268/.333/.457  .124  38   4  19   5'9"
Mel Ott         1944  NYG   399  .288/.423/.544  .121  16   4  26   5'9"
Chet Laabs      1941  SLA   392  .278/.361/.482  .121  23   6  15   5'8"
Chet Laabs      1942  SLA   520  .275/.380/.498  .118  21   7  27   5'8"

With the top two scores of the decade and a long history as one of baseball's most lovable characters, Yogi Berra is an easy choice as the pre-eminent Little Big Man of the 1940s. After helping dispatch a more virulent strain of LBM as a naval gunner's mate during the war years, Yogi hit double-digit home runs for 16 straight seasons while using his legendary plate coverage to rarely strike out more than 30 times per year. Glad to see the St. Louis Browns representin' with Wisconsin's own Chet Laabs, a flawed mini-prototype of the Three True Outcomes hitter whose ability to draw walks kept him from showing up higher on this list.

The Fifties


Player          Year  Team  AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   LBM  2B  3B  HR Height
Roy Campanella  1953  BRO   519  .312/.395/.611  .216  26   3  41   5'8"
Roy Campanella  1951  BRO   505  .325/.393/.590  .197  33   1  33   5'8"
Roy Campanella  1955  BRO   446  .318/.395/.583  .188  20   1  32   5'8"
Roy Campanella  1950  BRO   437  .281/.364/.551  .187  19   3  31   5'8"
Hank Thompson   1953  NYG   388  .302/.400/.567  .167  15   8  24   5'9"
Yogi Berra      1953  NYA   503  .296/.363/.523  .160  23   5  27   5'8"
Yogi Berra      1956  NYA   521  .298/.378/.534  .156  29   2  30   5'8"
Yogi Berra      1958  NYA   433  .266/.319/.471  .152  17   3  22   5'8"

Say what you will about the Holy Trinity of shortstops, or the Willie/Mickey/Duke convergence in NYC's center pastures - to me, having Campy and Yogi face off in a subway series five times in eight years ranks with any of them. Between them they recorded 14 of the top 17 LBM scores of the 1950s (the others were Hank Thompson's 1953 and two Smoky Burgess seasons) - that's what I call diminutive domination. With the top 4 scores of the decade, Campy wins this round hands down.

The Sixties


Player          Year  Team  AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   LBM  2B  3B  HR Height
Jimmy Wynn      1967  HOU   594  .249/.331/.495  .164  29   3  37   5'9"
Yogi Berra      1961  NYA   395  .271/.330/.466  .136  11   0  22   5'8+"
Smoky Burgess   1962  PIT   360  .328/.375/.500  .125  19   2  13   5'8"
Tony Gonzalez   1962  PHI   437  .302/.371/.494  .123  16   4  20   5'9"
Smoky Burgess   1961  PIT   323  .303/.365/.486  .121  17   3  12   5'8"
Jimmy Wynn      1966  HOU   418  .256/.321/.440  .119  21   1  18   5'9"
Don Zimmer      1961  CHN   477  .252/.291/.403  .111  25   4  13   5'9"
Don Zimmer      1964  WSH   341  .246/.302/.411  .109  16   2  12   5'9"

This award is tailor-made for Jimmy Wynn. "The Toy Cannon" was a low-average hitter with tremendous raw power, the fear of which caused pitchers to surrender plenty of walks. Playing in the Astrodome was a major drag on his raw power numbers - consider that from 1965-1969 Wynn launched 136 bombs, but Clay Davenport translates that to 202 home runs (including 54 during the 1967 season shown above). As charming as it is to see Popeye muscle his way onto this leader board, Jimmy Wynn was the man.

The Seventies


Player          Year  Team  AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   LBM  2B  3B  HR Height
Joe Morgan      1976  CIN   472  .320/.444/.576  .132  30   5  27   5'7"
Jimmy Wynn      1974  LAN   535  .271/.387/.497  .110  17   4  32   5'9"
Rich Coggins    1973  BAL   389  .319/.363/.468  .105  19   9   7   5'8"
Al Bumbry       1973  BAL   356  .337/.398/.500  .102  15  11   7   5'8"
Jimmy Wynn      1970  HOU   554  .282/.394/.493  .099  32   2  27   5'9"
Davey Lopes     1979  LAN   582  .265/.372/.464  .092  20   6  28   5'9"
Walt Williams   1973  CLE   350  .289/.316/.406  .090  15   1   8   5'6"
Denny Doyle     1975  BOS   310  .310/.339/.429  .090  21   2   4   5'9"

Joe Morgan was arguably the best player in baseball during the 1970s - and he was a little guy with lots of pop who posted 5 of the decade's top 8 slugging percentages among the Randy Newman set. But … Joe has gotten plenty of recognition over the years (much of it good, some not so much). So I'm going to give the award to someone who will appreciate it more: Jimmy Wynn, who launched 145 more round-trippers from 1970-76 (translated to 204 homers on his DT card). Full disclosure: I loved Jimmy Wynn when I was a kid. When I close my eyes and think of a little guy muscling up to crush a ball 500 feet, I picture The Toy Cannon - reason enough for him to win back-to-back trophies.

The Eighties


Player          Year  Team  AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   LBM  2B  3B  HR Height
Kirby Puckett   1986  MIN   680  .328/.366/.537  .171  37   6  31   5'8"
Kirby Puckett   1988  MIN   657  .356/.375/.545  .170  42   5  24   5'8"
Kirby Puckett   1987  MIN   624  .332/.367/.534  .167  32   5  28   5'8"
Darryl Motley   1985  KCA   383  .222/.257/.413  .155  20   1  17   5'9"
Luis Salazar    1985  CHA   327  .245/.267/.404  .136  18   2  10   5'9"
Oddibe McDowell 1985  TEX   406  .239/.304/.431  .127  14   5  18   5'9"
Darryl Motley   1984  KCA   522  .284/.319/.441  .122  25   6  15   5'9"
Lonnie Smith    1989  ATL   482  .315/.415/.533  .118  34   4  21   5'9"

Baseball players come in all shapes and sizes, and Kirby Puckett was, shall we say, unique. You'd look at him and wonder how he could cover so much ground in center field, or how he could get in one of those zones where they could throw a slider two feet off the plate and he'd still reach out and drive it into right field. You'd wonder how that guy, that guy right there, could be one of the best players in baseball. Glaucoma ended his career, scandal riddled his later years, and a stroke killed him at the age of 45 - but for a decade or so no one was bigger than Kirby Puckett.

Oddibe McDowell and Darryl Motley seem to fit the LBM profile well enough. But Lonnie Smith? I didn't realize he had morphed into the leading slugger on that woeful 1989 Braves squad which spawned the classic rhyme "Smoltz and Glavine, Then No One Worth Havin'."

The Nineties


Player          Year  Team  AB    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   LBM  2B  3B  HR Height
Ivan Rodriguez  1999  TEX   600  .332/.356/.558  .203  29   1  35   5'9"
Matt Stairs     1997  OAK   352  .298/.386/.582  .196  19   0  27   5'9"
Kirby Puckett   1994  MIN   439  .317/.362/.540  .178  32   3  20   5'8"
Luis Polonia    1999  DET   333  .324/.357/.526  .169  21   8  10   5'8"
Matt Stairs     1999  OAK   531  .258/.366/.533  .167  26   3  38   5'9"
Ivan Rodriguez  1998  TEX   579  .321/.358/.513  .155  35  14  13   5'9"
Terry Pendleton 1991  ATL   586  .319/.363/.517  .154  34   8  22   5'9"
Matt Stairs     1998  OAK   523  .294/.370/.511  .141  33   1  26   5'9"

The .203 LBM posted by Pudge Rodriguez in 1999 is the 4th highest in history - bully for him - and it's always good fun to catch up with Luis Polonia (La Hormiga Atomica), if only to be reminded of how Dennis Lamp described his defense. And yet the award here has to go to Matt Stairs. The Wonder Hamster posted three seasons in the top 8, and … well, just look at him. Tell me that's not a postmodern rendering of Hack Wilson.

So the roster of Little Big Man Award winners is:

1920s: Hack Wilson    (Hall Of Fame - Short Career Wing)
1930s: Mel Ott        (Hall Of Fame)
1940s: Yogi Berra     (Hall Of Fame)
1950s: Roy Campanella (Hall Of Fame)
1960s: Jimmy Wynn     (Hall Of Very Good)
1970s: Jimmy Wynn     (Hall Of Very Good)
1980s: Kirby Puckett  (Hall Of Fame - Short Career Wing)
1990s: Matt Stairs    (Hall of Oddities)

That's a pretty strong group, although we've gone from no-doubt hall of famers down to merely good players. With player size continuing to increase, is it getting harder for smaller players to slug their way to success? We're not yet through with the first decade of the 21st century, but there are still a few short-statured players putting up high LBMs: Pudge Rodriguez is the clubhouse leader, but Jimmy Rollins has made some noise as well. Counting players that are 5'10" as "short" seems justified given that the average batter is now nearly 6'1", and doing so would increase the pool of LBM candidates - but somehow that seems aesthetically lacking. I still want baseball's Little Big Men to be truly little, but carry a big stick.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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