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Why are baseball managers so short?

In business and politics, taller people tend to make more money and get more votes. Most importantly, they're perceived as better leaders. But not in MLB! Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

There's an odd thing about MLB managers: They're pretty short.

They're even shorter now than they were. They're shrinking! Or, more accurately, some of the taller managers have been replaced by shorter managers: Jeff Bannister (74 inches) by Chris Woodward (72), and Bryan Price (74) by David Bell (70), and Mike Matheny (75) by Mike Shildt (72ish), and so on. The one exception among the recent batch of turnovers is in Minnesota, where Rocco Baldelli (76, now tied for the tallest manager in baseball -- shorter than 150 players who appeared in the majors last year) replaced 6-foot Paul Molitor.

Now, "short" is relative and cultural and impermanent. The average American male is 5-foot-9, or 69 inches, tall. Fifty years ago, the average was an inch shorter than that. The average Bahraini male is 65 inches tall. The average human, gender-neutral, is shorter still. Shildt, the Cardinals' manager, is tall(ish), as a human.

But baseball managers almost all come from baseball players, and baseball players are much taller than the average human. The average listed playing height of the 29 active managers (Baltimore's dugout is currently empty) was 72.4 inches, just a nudge over 6 feet. Tall for humans, but short for ballplayers: During these managers' playing careers, the median ballplayer height was, on average, 73.4 inches.

Furthermore, baseball heights are generally assumed to be a bit misleading at the bottom of the scale, where a scout who wants to convince his boss to draft a player might fudge upward and a player who wants to be drafted might embrace the higher estimate. Five-foot-nine "rounds up" to 5-foot-10, and 5-foot-10 becomes 6 feet. So while the data say managers are short, the circumstantial evidence suggests the data might even be underselling the degree.

Does this matter? It's obviously not an important matter in the way racial and cultural representation among baseball managers is important. "Managers are short" is a much more frivolous observation. But it tells us something about baseball teams when they collectively do something different than we might expect.

For almost a century, scientists and economists and insurance actuaries have found tall people get the edge in most leadership promotions: Tall people get bigger signing bonuses, tall people are more likely to be promoted into management positions, and tall salesmen make more sales. These biases favor tall presidential candidates -- the taller candidate has won the popular vote in two-thirds of elections -- but they also favor tall employees in all categories of fields, including, surprisingly, back-office professional services and blue-collar occupations.

"Taller individuals are judged as being more persuasive ... and more likely to emerge as a leader of other people," wrote Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable in the Journal of Applied Psychology. They introduced a "theoretical model of the height-career success relationship," which looks like this:

Tall people feel more confident; others feel more confident in them; and those two factors boost both subjective performance (how they are viewed to be doing their jobs, regardless of the truth) and objective performance (especially in jobs like sales or management, where leadership and confidence are probably advantageous). It's all a self-reinforcing system: "People tend to take on the attributes that society ascribes to them," Judge and Cable wrote. A 6-foot male, their research suggested, "would be predicted to earn almost $166,000 more across a 30-year career than an individual who is 65 inches tall."

Drawing this back to baseball: Teams are apparently not falling for this bias, which is surprising and impressive. Sports are often described as a pure meritocracy -- with precise measurements and clear, unambiguous incentives -- so it's pretty hard to scam your way into the majors. But sports managing is the opposite. The skills required are squishy; the evaluation is subjective; a huge part of the job is interpersonal, or public relations; and it would make sense that teams (and the public) would unwittingly favor the taller candidates, as most of the world apparently does.

This isn't the case.

One possible explanation for why not is a cousin of Nichols' Law Of Catcher Defense, coined around the early 1990s by pioneering sabermetrician Sherri Nichols: A catcher's defensive reputation is inversely proportional to his offensive abilities. The worse the hitter, the better we all tend to regard his defense. Because something has to explain his existence in the majors, right?

In the same way, baseball players who make the majors with less obvious physical gifts might be credited, by the public and their peers, with being smarter, or harder workers, or better in the clubhouse, or simply better to be around. And maybe a lot of them are! Or, maybe, they just get credit for those intangibles that other players (who also have them) don't get, as we seek to explain their success in a way we don't need to for Giancarlo Stanton. Start keeping track of all the active players who get described as "a future manager." Do they tend to be shorter players? I bet they do!

And just as a tall salesman might be perceived as a better salesman, and also be a better salesman (because the customer favors tall salesmen), a shorter ballplayer might be perceived as a better manager candidate and also be a better manager candidate (because his players might more easily believe he had to work hard and be smart to get to where he got).

But another, more powerful factor is one that you might well have been shouting at your screen all along: Managers mostly aren't pitchers.

Pitchers are taller than hitters. (Height is a bigger advantage for pitchers than it has been for hitters.) For that matter, first basemen are taller than outfielders, and outfielders are taller than third basemen, and so on:

1B: 74.6 inches, on average, in 2018
P: 74.5
OF: 73.1
3B: 72.8
C: 72.8
SS: 72.7
2B: 71.6

Of the 29 active managers, only two -- Mickey Callaway and Bud Black -- were pitchers. (Both are taller-than-average managers. And pitching coaches are, on average, an inch and a half taller than their managers.)

Only two managers were first basemen, and only five were outfielders. Nine were catchers, who are about two-tenths of an inch shorter than the average major league hitter, and (including pitchers) close to an inch shorter than the average major league player.

So we did some math. We compared each manager's listed playing height with the average ballplayer height during his career, but adjusted for what position he played. The average manager's height, remember, is 72.4 inches. His contemporary peers, at the same position, were on average 72.6 inches tall. Our managers are still short, but only a little short. Not, you might argue, enough to write an article about.

But this actually confirms the two points worth thinking about. The first is, unlike most of the rest of the world of management, teams do not give extra credit for height. They don't fall for the fallacy that "tall" equals "leader." They might go the other way -- there might be something related to Nichols' Law that applies to managers -- but they definitely don't think that "height equals power," as researchers have hypothesized.

The second point is that baseball very well might have a costly bias based on position, and height was just the correlative. Back in 2006, when Jerry Crasnick polled players, executives, managers and coaches about which active players would make the best future managers, few named pitchers.

"The common perception is that pitchers prepare in their own little world and lack a grasp of in-game tactics," Crasnick wrote. "They're best suited to become pitching coaches, where they can focus on mechanics and playing head doctor rather than executing strategy. Even some pitchers buy that argument. 'We're so one-dimensional, it's not like we know all the facets of the game as well as we should,' said Atlanta's Tim Hudson. 'Most pitchers have no idea when they should put on a hit-and-run. All we know is when guys do it against us.'"

But in 2018, the manager's most important tactical decision is almost never the hit-and-run. Or sacrifice bunting. Or even fielder positioning, which is all prepared in advance. It's managing a pitching staff. It's preparing for four relief appearances a game, knowing who can handle more flexible roles, knowing how long it takes to warm up, knowing how to spot the signs of a tiring pitcher, knowing how to make pitchers comfortable with bullpen games, early hooks, multi-inning relief appearances. And the manager's most important role is almost certainly not tactical, but interpersonal.

Should there be more ex-pitchers who manage? We can't really say. We can hardly even say with confidence what makes a good manager -- whether it's leadership, or charisma, or maturity, or preparation, or knowledge of the game. But there were about 700 hitters in the majors this year, and 750 pitchers. It's hard to believe 93 percent of the players with leadership skills, charisma, maturity, preparation or knowledge of the game are on one side of the clubhouse. As the strategies of modern baseball increasingly tilt to the defensive side of the game, it's easy to believe it won't necessarily stay that way.