Is There Such a Thing as Too Big for Baseball?
By several measures, Aaron Judge, the superstar outfielder for the Yankees, has been the best player in Major League Baseball this season. After Friday’s loss to Tampa Bay, he had a .294 batting average with a major league-leading 51 home runs and a 1.059 on-base plus slugging percentage. The closest hitter to him in the home run race, Philadelphia’s Kyle Schwarber, had 36.
At 6 feet 7 inches — and 282 pounds — Judge is the tallest person in baseball history to have a 50-homer season, and he has done it twice. In fairness, fewer than 150 players of that height have reached the major leagues, the vast majority of whom were pitchers.
After finishing second in the American League Most Valuable Player Award race in 2017, Judge may finally claim the prize this year if he can hold off Shohei Ohtani, the two-way star of the Los Angeles Angels.
How long Judge, 30, will continue to shine in a Yankees uniform is unclear. In spring training, he placed a bet on himself, turning down a contract extension that would have guaranteed him $213.5 million over seven years. The bet will likely pay off, as he is likely get an even larger deal given his performance and both the Yankees and Judge have said they want the relationship to continue. But negotiations are paused until after the season, when the 29 other teams will pursue him as well.
As front offices weigh how much it will take to sign Judge, they must ask themselves how much he is worth and for how long. He turns 31 next season, around the age when players traditionally begin to decline. (Superstars, though, are often the exception to this.) With Judge, there is the added complication of his size.
A prevalent belief around the game is that large players break down faster than their smaller peers. But it is worth asking: Is that true?
No Yankees-Astros series is complete before a photographer gets a shot of Judge standing next to Houston’s Jose Altuve. Credit…Bob Levey/Getty Images
“This is such a complicated question,” said Jimmy Buffi, a former Los Angeles Dodgers analyst who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and who is now the chief executive officer and co-founder of Reboot Motion, a sports biomechanics company. “I don’t think there is an easy yes or no.”
First, some context. Baseball players come in all sizes. Jose Altuve, the Houston Astros second baseman who beat Judge for the 2017 A.L. M.V.P., is listed, perhaps generously, at 5-foot-6 and 166 pounds. Daniel Vogelbach, a designated hitter for the Mets, stands 6 feet tall and weighs 270 pounds. And Oneil Cruz, a rookie shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, is 6-foot-7 and weighs only 220 pounds.
Judge is as tall as Cruz, heavier than Vogelbach and better than both. Pictures of Judge next to Altuve are one of baseball’s longest running sight gags.
Granted, heights and weights have been embellished in either direction over the years, but according to Baseball Reference, only seven position players have been listed at 6-foot-6 or taller and 250 pounds or heavier. They are Adam Dunn, the former slugger known as the “Big Donkey,” who amassed 462 career home runs; Frank Howard, the former Washington Senators star, who smashed 382; Judge; and the former outfielders Kyle Blanks, Brad Eldred, Steven Moya and Val Pascucci.
(Judge’s teammate Giancarlo Stanton, a former M.V.P. who has dealt with his fair share of injuries, just missed the cut at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds.)
The reasons for baseball having so few players of Judge’s size are debatable.
“Maybe there haven’t been so many guys this size is not only because of the injury stuff but also because of performance,” said Glenn Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala. “Hitting a baseball and throwing a pitch, this takes perfect or excellent coordination to do these things. And the bigger your body parts are, the more potential you have, but the more challenging it is.”
Judge thinks it might be something else.
The reason there aren’t “100 more of me” in M.L.B. “is because they’re either playing basketball or football,” Judge said.
A large, skilled basketball player can get drafted into the N.B.A. after one year of college and quickly earn seven figures. A football player, he said, can go to a university that has better facilities than some major league teams and can play in the N.F.L. immediately after getting drafted. Baseball, where eligibility is more complicated and making the majors typically involves years of low pay in the minor leagues, is “a tougher draw for some kids, especially my height,” he said.
Putting aside the reasons for the smaller amount of massive M.L.B. position players, biomechanics experts said those people could theoretically be at greater risk of some types of injuries. Of the seven supersize position players, only three have appeared in more than 300 career games: Dunn (2,001), Howard (1,895) and Judge (699).
“It’s hard to stay healthy,” said Blanks, who is 6-foot-6 and was listed at 265 pounds while playing 278 games over seven seasons. He dealt with a range of injuries (elbow, shoulder, Achilles, calf) and suggested that both his style of play and a switch to the outfield from first base were possible factors. “And I personally wouldn’t argue it’s harder as a big guy, but that’s because I’m not anybody other than myself.”
Smaller players certainly get hurt, too. Altuve, for example, has been on the injured list five times since 2018. So wouldn’t the wear and tear of playing baseball be relative to the person’s height, weight and strength? Not exactly.
Although Buffi said much more remained to be studied about the movement of the human body, he pointed to a 2019 study published in the American Journal of Human Biology that found that the skeletons of taller people were not simply proportionally expanded versions of shorter people. In taller people, researchers found “a significant increase” in the percentage of body mass that was bone, especially in the limbs, and thus a possible explanation for the correlation between height and fracture risks.
“There’s theoretical reasons why a bigger person might be more prone to injury, which is just that their bones are proportionately a little bit bigger,” he said. He added later, “It’s also theoretically possible that a bigger person, because they’re using the same or similar sized bat as a smaller person, they’re exerting less effort to swing that bat and to make contact with that same size baseball. There’s just competing factors in both directions.”
Fleisig divided baseball injuries into three groups: impact, traumatic movement and chronic movement.
As far as impact injuries — getting hit by a pitch or colliding with an outfield fence, for example — he said he didn’t see how being larger would increase the chance of injury. Regarding traumatic movement injuries — pulling a hamstring while running to first base, say, or tearing an oblique muscle on an awkward swing — Fleisig said “those are less related to your body size and more related to being in proper conditioning, including warming up and also hydration and nutrition.”
But size, he said, can be a factor in chronic movement injuries, sustained from a repeated motion such as throwing from the mound or outfield. While an advantage of longer levers — forearms, in this case — can be the creation of more force and thus more velocity at the hand, a disadvantage can be more tension on ligaments and tendons, which could cause them to tear.
“Bigger people as a group can have stronger muscles,” he said, “but what’s weird is your ligaments and tendons don’t strengthen proportionally with the muscles.”
Several experts said that one of the biggest predictors of future injury was past injury, whether those injuries were a result of a lack of training or if they indicated a predisposition to a certain type of ailment. After playing 155 games in his rookie season, Judge appeared in only 63 percent of the Yankees’ games from 2018 to 2020 because of a wrist fractured by a hit-by-pitch, a strained oblique and a twice-strained calf.
Since then, Judge has been relatively healthy. He played in 148 games in 2021 and had missed only four of the Yankees’ 132 games this season, through Friday.
Judge believes his size is an asset, he said. Asked if any parts of the game were harder, he smiled and said, “I got to bend a little farther for ground balls, but that’s about it. Fly balls are a little easier.” In fact, he has used the doubts about his height as fuel.
“It has kind of motivated me throughout the years,” he said. “People are like, ‘Oh, you’re 6-7, and you can’t do what this 5-10 guy does.’ Why can’t I? He can play shortstop, so why can’t I play shortstop? He can play the outfield, so why can’t I play the outfield? That’s just an easy thing people can just go to at times.”
Judge continued, later referencing amphetamines, a stimulant that was banned in M.L.B. starting in 2005: “The game has changed, and there is so much more information on the body, recovery and taking care of your body. This isn’t the ’80s where I’m going out drinking every night and take some greenies and roll out to play. I think it’s the emphasis on the recovery process and me learning my body over the years kind of gives me an advantage.”