FORT MYERS, FLA. – Some were good, some were bad, but Twins pitchers for a long time seemed to have their basic averageness in common. There were exceptions, of course, but most were medium height, medium build, a squad of Brad Radkes. Even the great Johan Santana had to fib a little to reach 6 feet tall.
But something has changed on the Hammond Stadium pitchers mound. As a pitching staff, the Twins look like a pretty decent basketball team these days, lanky and imposing, and it’s not a coincidence.
“You look for power arms, and a lot of times, the power pitchers are tall guys,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We definitely did talk about body types, and finding people who can throw the ball hard. We’ve got a few of those types now.”
More than a few. The Twins this spring could fill almost an entire pitching staff with pitchers 6-5 or taller in their camp, and perhaps they will soon. Over the winter, they signed 6-7 starter Mike Pelfrey from the Mets. They added 6-6 Kyle Gibson and 6-7 Michael Tonkin to the 40-man roster. And they traded two of their smallest players, outfielders Denard Span (6-0) and Ben Revere (generously measured at 5-9) to acquire 6-5 Trevor May and former high school center Alex Meyer, 6-9 and perhaps still growing.
“It’s really different, isn’t it?” pitching coach Rick Anderson marveled. “It seems like [it’s] just about everybody.”
So much so that 6-5 relievers Jared Burton and Tyler Robertson appear almost average size.
“If there’s a brawl,” Gardenhire joked, “we’ve got protection.”
Height is handy, no question, if you’re looking for dunks and rebounds. The critical question for the Twins, however, is: Can it translate into outs?
The Twins believe it can, especially for such hard throwers. Simple geometry says it’s an advantage, points out Gardenhire.
“As a hitter, a tough pitch to hit is a ball going down,” Gardenhire said. “You get a big guy who’s got a bit of an angle, he can get away with a little bit more than a little guy, even if he throws it just as hard.”
“We talk about it all the time — angle, angle, angle,” Anderson added. “It’s nice to get these guys with some size to them, because we’re seeing them throw the ball down. The shorter you are, the flatter the pitch appears as it comes toward [the hitter].”
Anderson even preaches widening that advantage when possible. He and lefthander Scott Diamond — a relatively diminutive 6-3 — were watching Meyer throw in the bullpen, when they made a suggestion. “[Diamond] said, ‘Have you ever thought about standing taller on your back leg, just to make sure you get a little more tilt?’ ” Meyer said. “I told him I had, but hearing from a guy like that convinced me.”
Meyer and his fellow big men all throw relatively hard, and their velocity is accentuated by their size. The ratio of height to miles per hour isn’t definitive — 6-10 former Twin Jon Rauch topped out at only 91 mph when he was in Minnesota — but Gardenhire believes the illusion of speed can be as important as the real thing.
“It’s like being side-armed — you put a little fear in the hitter when you’re bringing the ball he doesn’t see that often,” he said.
The classic disclaimer about tall pitchers, however, holds that gangliness equals wildness, that the longer the limbs, the greater the chance for something to go wrong. “You look at [6-10 former Cy Young winner] Randy Johnson — he was out of control for a while until he got all the parts moving in synch,” Anderson pointed out. “Sometimes long arms and legs don’t repeat a motion very well, so we try to keep it simple for them. The guys we have, all are pretty repeatable deliveries.”
Pelfrey made it a point to keep his delivery as stripped down as possible for that reason. “I always heard that, but I’ve been a guy who’s always been able to repeat it pretty close, pretty consistently,” Pelfrey said. “No long windup, no unusual delivery. My height hasn’t been a problem that way. I’d say it’s a real advantage.”
Well, with one exception. He owns an .098 career batting average, and being tall has definitely not helped.
“If you’re smaller, you have a smaller strike zone at the plate,” Pelfrey said. “Mine is too big.”