Thinking Big: The Twins and Really Tall Pitchers
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsTall pitchers have a natural mystique, which is rooted in both romantic and scientific thinking. Scouts cherish a tall young thrower, evoking adjectives like "angular" and "projectable." A mountainous figure on the mound is inherently imposing, and there are also more tangible advantages, like a deeper release point and sharper downward plane. Six-foot-10 Randy Johnson represented the epitome of these qualities, and he's rightly revered as one of the most dominant to ever take the hill.
To an extent, you could argue being tall is almost a requisite for greatness. Last year Eli Ben-Porat of The Hardball Times reviewed the top pitchers from 2016 through 2018, and he more or less reached this conclusion.
"All seven of the top pitchers over the past three seasons were at least 6-foot-3, with only two of the top 14 (6-foot-2 Aaron Nola and 6-foot-1 Trevor Bauer) shorter than that. Of the top 23, only five are below 6-foot-3, and all are at least 6-foot-1," he wrote. "Marcus Stroman is correct that Height Doesn’t Measure Heart; however, it definitely measures an individual’s potential to be a front-end major league baseball starter, especially in today’s game."
Now, there's a difference between being lower-case "tall" and upper-case TALL. While the former is prototypical, the latter is more experimental, and Minnesota's many ventures on this front have been uneven.
Standing 6-foot-9, Ober certainly lands in the TALL category. Starting with him, here's a backward-chronological look at some notable altitudinous specimens of the franchise's recent past.
Bailey Ober, RHP (6'9"): He was recently added to the Twins' 40-man roster, paving way for a not-too-distant MLB debut. Drafted in the 12th round of the 2017 draft, Ober put up big numbers during his first two professionals seasons (181.2 IP, 2.38 ERA, 11.0 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 0.94 WHIP), and was lights-out in his 2019 stint at Double-A, where he allowed one earned run on 10 hits over 24 innings with a 34-to-2 K/BB ratio. Despite the huge numbers (largely accrued as an advanced college arm facing inexperienced competition), Ober's stuff isn't considered overpowering and his fastball tops out in the 80s.
Michael Pineda (6'7"): It wasn't necessarily Pineda's height that attracted Minnesota's front office to him three offseasons ago, so much as a favorable opportunity to land a quality pitcher on a savvy contract coming off surgery. But Big Mike is a big man, and his size certainly plays a role in his standout ability. He's the closest thing to a dominant starting pitcher on this list, which is saying something because while he can throw in the mid-90s and induce a fair share of whiffs, he's more of an efficient strike-thrower than intimidating power arm.
Aaron Slegers (6'10"): Terry Ryan's Twins added Slegers in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, viewing him as an interesting project despite his meager strikeout numbers at the University of Indiana. Slegers was fairly similar to Ober in build, and likewise, didn't bring much heat. Unlike Ober, though, Slegers never posted impressive K-rates in the minors, and that has translated to a 5.3 K/9 rate in 58 MLB innings. He did make three appearances in the playoffs for Tampa this year.
Mike Pelfrey (6'7"): Six months before Ryan's front office added Slegers in the draft, they added Pelfrey as a free agent. Pelf is the banner example of a tall pitcher whose primary appeal seems to be that he's tall. And to his credit, I guess, it's a trait that carried him through a remarkably lengthy major-league career. He was a first-round draft pick (ninth overall) by the Mets in 2006, and went on to make more than 250 MLB starts, logging nearly 1,500 innings. This despite the fact that he consistently put forth poor strikeout rates, poor control, and generally lackluster results. Pelfrey never struck out even twice as many batters as he walked, and never posted so much as a league-average ERA after his career year in 2010. Despite that, he pitched in the majors through 2017, receiving not one but TWO contracts from TR and the Twins.
Alex Meyer (6'9"): One month before signing Pelfrey as a free agent, the Twins acquired Meyer from the Washington Nationals in exchange for Denard Span. Ryan definitely had a type in his second stint as GM. A lean, lanky fireballer with a quirky delivery, Meyer was much more of a high-upside prospect in the theoretical Randy Johnson mold. Unfortunately, his fate was one that befalls all too many tantalizing prodigies of this ilk: erratic control and injuries. They derailed the righty before he could even scratch the surface of his potential. Meyer threw 95 innings in the majors (just six with the Twins) before retiring.
Jon Rauch (6'11"): While Terry Ryan clearly had an affinity for tall pitchers, it was his temporary replacement Bill Smith who traded for the tallest pitcher in major-league history. With the Twins racing for a playoff berth run in 2009, Smith acquired Rauch from Arizona in exchange for Kevin Mulvey. Minnesota was one of seven major-league stops for Rauch in an 11-year MLB run spent mostly in the bullpen. While he definitely carved out a nice career for himself, Rauch was known more for steadily solid reliability as opposed to overpowering dominance. His fastball often sat in the upper-80s and he never averaged even a strikeout per inning.
Michael Tonkin (6'7"): The Twins took a liking to Tonkin as a high schooler in Palmdale, CA. They chose him with a late-round pick in 2008 and convinced him to sign for a huge over-slot bonus ($230K). At the time, Baseball America spoke highly of Tonkin's "projectable frame" and "ideal build." Fitting more of the prototypical mold for a tall and lanky pitcher, Tonkin used a power fastball to tally big strikeout totals and strong overall numbers in the minors, but he never translated it to sustained MLB success, mainly because of his proneness to home runs. Tonkin made 141 appearances over five seasons with the Twins, posting a 4.43 ERA, then spent 2018 pitching in Japan before returning in 2019 and pitching on a few different minor-league clubs. Still only 31, it's possible we haven't seen the last of him.
Loek van Mil (7'1"): If he ever got his shot, Van Mil would've supplanted Rauch from his title as tallest MLB pitcher ever. Minnesota signed the unconventional Dutch right-hander out of the Netherlands in 2005, and he showed occasional flashes while rising through their system, though – much like for Meyer – injuries and control were constant battles. The Twins traded Van Mil to the Angels in exchange for Brian Fuentes in 2010 – incidentally, just two days after they acquired Rauch from Arizona. From there, Van Mil bounced around between a few different organizations, went to pitch in Japan and then the Netherlands, resurfaced in the Twins system for a bit in 2015-16, and then spent a few years pitching in Australia. Tragically, he passed away in July of 2019 at age 34.
It's possible I'm missing a name or two, but these are the players that stand out to me from over the past couple of decades. Kyle Gibson (6'6") would be another borderline example but I kind of (arbitrarily) set the threshold at 6-foot-7 or taller. Such pitchers are relatively rare, but as you can see the Twins have found plenty to try and work with.
So what have we learned on this journey? Maybe not much, other than that height is anything but a dependable predictor of dominance. While a few pitchers on the list above have managed to carve out lengthy and respectable major-league careers, none did so in a fashion even remotely resembling The Big Unit.
In terms of stuff and approach, Ober is fairly comparable to a guy like Slegers, coming consistently over the plate with an arsenal that doesn't sizzle. But Slegers never put up remotely impressive K-rates at any level of the minors, whereas as Ober has shown an exceptional ability to miss bats, all the way up through Double-A. In his four starts at Pensacola to close out the 2019 campaign, Ober struck out 40% of the batters he faced with a 21% swinging strike rate. Velocity or not, those are the kind of flat-out dominant results you dream of from a 6-foot-9 figure on the hill.
Even in light of the checkered history of outcomes, I'm really curious to see what becomes of Ober as the latest experiment in sky-scraping pitchers for the Twins. With his tremendous early success in the minors, he carries quite a bit of intrigue in the context of this list. If you want to learn more about the new Twins 40-man addition, in his own words, Seth interviewed Ober shortly after the roster move was announced. You can watch their conversation below on Twins Spotlight:
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