Baseball Pitchers Dominate With Length

Justin Verlander
“You can’t coach height.”  While that scouting advice is usually heard around high school and college basketball courts, it applies equally well to pitching prospects in baseball. 

The trend towards taller, dominating pitchers has been rising for years.  A quick check of this season’s MLB stats shows the average height of the top 10 pitchers with the most strikeouts this season is 6’ 5” compared to the average height of all MLB players of 6’ 1”. 

In fact, the height of pro pitchers has been on the rise for the last 110 years and they're throwing harder. In the 2009 MLB season, all but two of the fastest 20 pitches thrown came from pitchers 6’ 2” or above. It makes intuitive sense that with greater height usually comes a faster pitch, but now a mechanical engineering professor at Duke has helped to explain why.

Tall pitchers are not alone in their domination of a sport.  World record sprinters have gained an average of 6.4 inches in height since 1900, while champion swimmers have shot up 4.5 inches, compared to the mere mortal average height gain of 1.9 inches.  During the same time, about 7/10 of a second has been shaved off of the 100-meter sprint world record time while over 14 seconds have come off the 100-meter swim record.  Even in golf, the top 10 players in driving distance in 2010 were, on average, 2.5 inches taller than the bottom ten.

What do all of these athletes have in common?  According to Adrian Bejan of Duke University, it is the “falling forward” motion of their athletic task.  The taller the athlete, the more force they can put behind either themselves or an object that they want to propel forward.  It is what Bejan calls the “constructal law” theory of sports, which he describes in this recent Ted Talk.

His latest research is reported in the current online edition of the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics.

"Our analysis shows that the constructal-law theory of sports evolution predicts and unites not only speed running and speed swimming, but also the sports where speed is needed for throwing a mass or ball," Bejan said.

Pitching anglesTrebuchet

He compares the pitching motion with that of a trebuchet machine, (ala Science Channel’s Punkin Chunkin).  "According to the constructal law predictions, the larger and taller machine, like a medieval trebuchet, is capable of hurling a large mass farther and faster," Bejan said. “In the case of the human thrower, the height of the mechanism is the height of the ball that is accelerated overhead. This height scales with the size of the athlete, in this case, the shoulder height plus the arm length. The other players on the baseball field do not have to throw a ball as fast, so they tend to be shorter than pitchers, but they too evolve toward more height over time. For pitchers, in particular, height means speed.”

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule.  Two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum, all of 5’ 11”, pitched a no-hitter this month.  Still, scouts and manager have learned over the years that taller is better, even if they have no idea what the constructal law says.

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Racial Physiology Differences Determine Race Performances

In the record books, the swiftest sprinters tend to be of West African ancestry and the faster swimmers tend to be white.  A study of the winning times by elite athletes over the past 100 years reveals two distinct trends: not only are these athletes getting faster over time, but there is a clear divide between racers in terms of body type and race.

Last year, a Duke University engineer explained the first trend -- athletes are getting faster because they are getting bigger. Adrian Bejan, professor of engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, now believes he can explain the second trend.

In a paper published online in the International Journal of Design and Nature and Ecodynamics, Bejan, and co-authors Edward Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University currently teaching at Howard University, and Duke graduate Jordan Charles, argue that the answer lies in athletes' centers of gravity. That center tends to be located higher on the body of blacks than whites. The researchers believe that these differences are not racial, but rather biological.

"There is a whole body of evidence showing that there are distinct differences in body types among blacks and whites," said Jones, who specializes in adolescent obesity, nutrition and anthropometry, the study of body composition. "These are real patterns being described here -- whether the fastest sprinters are Jamaican, African or Canadian -- most of them can be traced back generally to Western Africa."

Swimmers, Jones said, tend to come from Europe, and therefore tend to be white. He also pointed out that there are cultural factors at play as well, such as a lack of access to swimming pools to those of lower socioeconomic status.

It all comes down to body makeup, not race, Jones and Bejan said.

"Blacks tend to have longer limbs with smaller circumferences, meaning that their centers of gravity are higher compared to whites of the same height," Bejan said. "Asians and whites tend to have longer torsos, so their centers of gravity are lower."

Jordan Charles (L) and Adrian Bejan
Duke University

Bejan and Jones cite past studies of the human body which found that on average, the center of gravity is about three percent higher in blacks than whites. Using this difference in body types, the researchers calculated that black sprinters are 1.5 percent faster than whites, while whites have the same advantage over blacks in the water. The difference might seem small, Bejan said, but not when considering that world records in sprinting and swimming are typically broken by fractions of seconds.

The center of gravity for an Asian is even more advantageous to swimming than for a white, but because they tend not to be as tall, they are not setting records, Bejan said.

"Locomotion is essentially a continual process of falling forward," Bejan said. "Body mass falls forward, then rises again. Mass that falls from a higher altitude falls faster. In running, the altitude is set by the location of the center of gravity. For the fastest swimmers, longer torsos allow the body to fall forward farther, riding the larger and faster wave."

The researchers said this evolution of body types and increased speeds can be predicted by the constructal theory, a theory of natural design developed by Bejan that explains such diverse phenomena as river basin formation and basis of animal locomotion (

Jones said that the differences in body densities between blacks and whites are well-documented, which helps explain other health differences, such as the observation that black women have a lower incidence of osteoporosis than white women because of the increased density of their bones.

Jones notes that cultural issues can play a role in which form of athletic competition someone chooses, and therefore might excel in.

"When I grew up in South Carolina, we were discouraged from swimming," said Jones, who is black. "There wasn't nearly as much encouragement for us as young people to swim as there was for playing football or basketball. With the right encouragement, this doesn't always have to be the case -- just look at the Williams sisters in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf."

Source: Duke University and The Evolution of Speed in Athletics, Int. Journal of Design & Nature. Vol. 5, No. 0 (2010) 1–13

See also: The Physiology Of Speed and The Fastest Man On No Legs