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Thursday, September 16, 2010
MLB, tennis, NFL, NBA power push

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

Monday's gem of a pitching duel between CC Sabathia and David Price offered continued confirmation that 2010 is, at long last, the Year of the Pitcher. Even without the runaway profits and interest that flourished when chicks dug the long ball, pitchers are responding to a decade-and-a-half of monstrous offense with mound stinginess of their own.

David Price
At one point in time, David Price would have stood out in a crowd of baseball players. Now, he barely overshadows Joe Mauer.

Asking why pitchers have suddenly carved out living space in an era of bashers has produced answers ranging from sheer coincidence to the long-awaited efficacy of baseball's drug-testing policy. Maybe a season of no-hitters is a mere fluke, and maybe hitters aren't taking the combination of anabolic substances and amphetamines that gave them the increased muscle mass and hyper alertness that tore the record books to shreds. Maybe.

But a look at the headlines across sports Monday may have provided another answer: Size matters, and the combination of athlete size and power is more important and more coveted than ever. The same day Price and Sabathia tossed zeroes at one another, the United States won the FIBA World Championship, beating Turkey behind a record tournament from Kevin Durant. The NBA has been trending taller for years, and other sports have followed.

In New York , Rafael Nadal won his ninth Grand Slam title. His first U.S. Open victory came in part because of increased velocity on his mysterious and devastating left-handed serve. For the fortnight, Nadal's served was clocked at an estimated average of nearly 120 mph, well above the 107 mph he averaged in 2009, and he topped out at 135 mph.

And on the football field, the power game continues to reduce the NFL to a game of attrition. In Week 1 alone, five players were knocked out with concussions.

The increased size of the players and the greater emphasis on power is indisputable. Part of the reason players are bigger today is evolutionary, but most of it is a byproduct of self-preservation on the part of talent evaluators who find it safer to miss on a 6-foot-5 prospect than a 5-11 one.

Skill will always be a part of the game, but in the land of the giants, the dedicated, relatively undersized athlete may no longer have an opportunity to escape from behind the prohibitive firewall that is the athletic gene pool. Across sports, bigger is better, and the search for big, power arms -- far more than absent greenies -- may be the reason for resurgent pitching.

Price and Sabathia are not just prime Cy Young Award candidates, but also Exhibit A of the new trend: Pitchers are bigger than ever. Sabathia is 6-7, Price 6-6.

Talent evaluators have always placed a premium on tall pitchers, but tall once meant being 6-3. Above 6-4, however, scouts had believed a pitcher to be too tall to control his arm slot and mechanics. Such thinking is now extinct, as is the thinking that once discouraged hitters from lifting weights.

Neither Price nor Sabathia stand out the way J.R. Richard and Dick Radatz once did. Across the 40-man rosters this season, 20 of 30 MLB teams have at least five pitchers who are 6-foot-4 or taller, a statistic even more pronounced for contending and playoff teams. The Texas Rangers and New York Yankees  potential first-round foes in the American League Division Series -- have eight pitchers 6-4 or taller, while the Cincinnati Reds have nine, including 103-mph flamethrower Aroldis Chapman.

One of the great allures of baseball has been the illusion that the players are just like us. Greg Maddux and David Cone and Pedro Martinez could walk down the street and blend in as an everyman, creating a closeness and identification to the players that doesn't exist in basketball or football. Hard throwers have always existed regardless of height -- David Cone and Ron Guidry both threw extremely hard -- but the volume of hard throwers in baseball today represents a continuing, significant change.

In the Year of the Pitcher, height makes right: Nearly half of the teams, 14 of 30, don't list a pitcher on the 40-man roster under 6 feet tall.

The average height of an American male is 5-foot-9. Average-sized Dustin Pedroia and slightly under average Jimmy Rollins both won MVP awards, but men of their height on a major league roster are increasingly an aberration. The average height on a big-league roster is 6-1 and nine teams list an average height of 6-2.

John McEnroe
John McEnroe is unsure he would be able to compete against today's bigger, more powerful players.

John McEnroe is not only the best color commentator in sports, but he also won seven Grand Slam singles titles (four U.S. Open, three Wimbledon) and was a great doubles champion (five Wimbledon, four U.S. Open). He has spent the better part of the year in a state of marveling resignation that at 5-11, for all of his athleticism, skill and guile, he might not be big enough or strong enough to compete at the championship level today. With the combination of bigger players and technology, tennis has turned into a game of pure power.

McEnroe's first serve never topped 100 mph and for his career was clocked roughly in the 85-88 mph range almost three decades ago. During the 2010 U.S. Open final, Nadal's second serve averaged 88 mph, while Novak Djokovic's averaged 96 mph.

Nadal provides an interesting example, because at a 105 mph average in previous seasons, he had never been in the class of the big-serve players on the tour, such as Andy Roddick and Fernando Verdasco or 6-9 giant John Isner. Since Nadal's average velocity has increased to 120 mph, allowing him to win easy points through aces and service winners, he has become virtually unbeatable.

As racket technology improves -- and McEnroe's serve would certainly benefit from a modern, carbon-composite racket -- the game is less a net game than one for baseline bashing. The size of the players also reflects this. In 2002, Lleyton Hewitt was the last player under 6 feet to finish the year ranked No. 1 in the ATP rankings. Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, McEnroe, Mats Wilander and Andre Agassi, each under 6 feet tall, all held the top spot during the two-and-a-half decades prior to Hewitt.

Of the top 30 players in the world now, only three -- Nikolay Davydenko, David Ferrer and David Nalbandian -- stand under 6 feet tall.

The NBA, naturally, is the big man's game, but throughout the 1980s, nearly half the players in the league were 6-6 or under. It was not uncommon to see starting backcourts under 6-3. Legendary teams like the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers started Maurice Cheeks (6-1) and Andrew Toney (6-3) as did the Detroit Pistons with Isiah Thomas (6-1) and Joe Dumars (6-3). Toney was considered a big shooting guard. Today, if you're looking for a starting 2-guard who is 6-3, you won't find one. They disappeared along with short shorts.

The NBA might be the best example of the runaway gene pool. It is a sport that, except for the exceptionally short (Nate Robinson) and the exceptionally tall, virtually has no positions. The game is so athletic and vertical that a player such as 6-6 Kobe Bryant or 6-8 Scottie Pippen -- tall enough to play in the frontcourt, athletic enough with ballhandling skills to play guard -- has become the prototype.

Wes Welker
Wes Welker may be only 5-foot-9, but he's had more than 100 catches and 1,000 yards receiving in each of his three previous seasons with the Patriots.

"All you need to know about football," Mike Ditka told me on Sunday, "is that the quarterbacks are 6-4 and 6-5." Ditka coached Doug Flutie with the Chicago Bears and played the game when offensive linemen weighed 225 pounds, or about 20 pounds lighter than QB Ben Roethlisberger. "Now, you have to be that big to be able to see over your linemen, but it gives you an idea about how special a guy like Drew Brees is. He's only 6 foot tall. To me, that still means that being able to play is always the most important thing."

The sport adapts. In the early and mid-1990s, Jimmy Johnson revolutionized the defensive game by turning linebacker into a speed position. Lawrence Taylor's blend of speed and power had been an anomaly in the previous decade, but by the late 1990s, the linebacker position had become the best example of pure athleticism. Football responded by cultivating a generation of highly athletic quarterbacks (and by extension began to extinguish the racism that had long plagued the position) to combat faster sideline-to-sideline defenses.

Today, the overall size and speed of NFL defenses has created a counterinsurgency, ironically, of smaller, quicker slot receivers, a position pioneered by forerunners like Troy Brown and Wayne Chrebet, and illustrated today by players such as Brandon Stokley, Wes Welker and Julian Edelman (how they'll hold up in the collisions with their oversized defensive foes is another question).

Ditka's comments were telling and applicable across sports. He's only 6 foot tall underscores the transformation, whether the game is football or tennis. Basketball long ago had become the sport of the very short and very tall, with everyone else being 6-8 to 6-10. The real question isn't talent, of course, but opportunity. When Ditka says that "being able to play" is always the most important thing, he's right, but the real issue is whether pro talent evaluators five or 10 years from now would even give an athlete with skill but not size, such as Brees, an opportunity to prove he could play at all.

It appears the gene pool has won, and the price of that victory is quite possibly the next McEnroe being forever extinct from playing on Centre Court.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" Follow him @hbryant42 on Twitter or e-mail him at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.

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