MOOSIC, Pa. — Baseball players, even very good ones, have always come in all shapes and sizes. Look no further than Brett Gardner (5-foot-11) and Aaron Judge (6-foot-7), who patrol the Yankees outfield together.
Pitching, however, remains the domain of the tall.
Of the 8,981 players who have logged at least one appearance on the mound in the major leagues since 1901, only 4 percent — 367 players in more than a century of games — have been 5-9 or shorter, according to the statistics website Baseball Reference. As of Friday, in fact, there were only three pitchers of that stature in the majors, the most notable being the Mets starter Marcus Stroman, who is 5-7.
Those ranks may be about to grow. The Yankees’ top prospect, Deivi Garcia, 20, who is 5-9 and 163 pounds, could become the latest undersized pitcher to reach the major leagues when rosters expand on Sunday. (Even if he is not called up then, the team said he would be a key part of its future.)
The first-place Yankees, who decided not to add any pitching help at the July 31 trade deadline, may deploy Garcia during the final push toward the playoffs. He is a right-hander known as Pedrito or Little Pedro because of his similarities — in size, homeland and strikeout arsenal — to the Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez.
“I’ve had that nickname for a long time,” Garcia said in Spanish in an interview at PNC Field, the home of the Yankees’ Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. “Since before I really knew about Pedro.”
Like many young men in the Dominican Republic, Garcia dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. As a boy, he usually played in the infield, and he said he loved hitting. But when he was 13, Garcia, his coaches and — soon enough — major league scouts discovered that his dazzling right arm might be more effective off a mound. The discovery was almost accidental, he said; he was asked to pitch one day and struck out most of the batters he faced.
Garcia embraced the switch because he saw in it a quicker path to signing with a major league organization. The play worked: In 2015, at 16, he accepted a $200,000 signing bonus to join the Yankees.
That potent arm and an arsenal of pitches were what propelled Garcia through the minor leagues this season. He began the year with Class A Tampa, but after he dominated there he was promoted to Class AA Trenton, where he did the same. That led to another move, to Class AAA, but his results — despite the increasingly difficult opposition — remained impressive: In his combined statistics this season, Garcia has struck out batters at an exceptionally high rate: 161 times in just over 107 innings, through Friday.
Garcia’s jump to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre came after an appearance in the Futures Game, a showcase of baseball’s best prospects held during All-Star weekend in July. He has sputtered at his most recent stop, posting a 5.25 E.R.A. that his coaches suggested could be a byproduct of uneven command and perhaps his struggles adjusting to the new home run-prone ball in Class AAA this season. Also, Garcia’s curveball, one of his best pitches, hasn’t been as sharp as it was earlier in the year.
CreditDarron Cummings/Associated Press
Regardless, coaches and teammates have raved about Garcia, the son of a doctor and a baseball trainer. He has been imperturbable on the mound and shown a curiosity to improve off it, from sharpening his already solid English to perfecting his craft.
“I’ll tell you what’s impressive for his age: his makeup, his poise, his competitiveness, and what I’m learning, his aptitude,” said Tommy Phelps, the RailRiders pitching coach. “He’s able to make adjustments and understand what he’s doing.”
Behind home plate during a recent start was the best vantage point to see how Garcia fooled opposing batters despite his limited velocity and his size, which he joked wasn’t intimidating anyone. As he wound up to throw, Garcia twisted, angled his back toward home plate and dropped his arm behind his body, hiding the ball from the hitter. The ball reappeared, with a quick whip of his arm, at the last moment before being released.
Some coaches have tried minor adjustments to Garcia’s delivery, but he said that this was his natural way of throwing. It helped Garcia that his fastball possessed above-average spin and fooled batters into thinking the ball was rising, which induced swings and misses even with velocity in the low 90s. Garcia is able to slip his fastball by batters because it appears faster, Phelps said, thanks to his ability to release the ball closer to the plate than a hitter might expect of a pitcher his size. “It’s sneaky,” Phelps said.
The Yankees so coveted Garcia that they resisted dealing him for pitching help at the trading deadline, even though they had said publicly that their staff was a weakness. As a result, there was more pressure to improve from within. They banked on starter Luis Severino and reliever Dellin Betances to return from injuries in September, but also on the potential call-up of Garcia, who could be eased into the major leagues by working out of the bullpen, like other top pitching prospects.
A signal that his call could come soon is that Yankees minor-league coaches have been careful with Garcia’s pitch counts all season; he was recently moved to the RailRiders’ bullpen because he had never thrown as many innings in a season as he did this year. But the switch had an added benefit: It served to audition him for a September in pinstripes.
“I have a big responsibility with this team,” Garcia said. “Although I’m 20 years old, I want to show that they made a good decision by not trading me and leaving me on the team to help in any which way I can.”
To do so, he will have to push back against deeply held conventional wisdom about pitchers. With pitchers throwing harder than ever these days, durability is always a concern. Add in Garcia’s size, and some talent evaluators have wondered how his body will hold up to the demands of being a starting pitcher in the major leagues.
“When I was coming up, there wasn’t much belief in the people of medium statures,” said Martinez, 47, now an analyst for MLB Network. “Thankfully I was able to stay healthy and be successful in the big leagues, and doors have opened with new studies and new ways of thinking about the players of smaller statures.
“My suggestion is that maybe he can do the things I did to stay healthy and show the world that someone of medium stature, with good mechanics, control, work habits and a lot of discipline, can also last in the big leagues.”
Growing up, Garcia said he heard often that his size would prevent him from signing with a team.
The comparisons to Martinez started when Garcia was a teenager. So he began learning more about Martinez’s career and devouring videos of his pitching, particularly examining the way Martinez threw his changeup. There is a particular three-minute YouTube video of Martinez highlights that Garcia has watched before every start for the past two years.
“It motivates me to try to strike hitters out the same way,” he said.
Yet while there are some similarities between the two pitchers, there are also many differences. Martinez was bigger (5-11, 170 pounds); he threw harder in his younger years (95 miles per hour or more); and his changeup is still considered one of the best pitches of all time. Still, when coaches or teammates call Garcia Pedrito or Little Pedro, he wears the name with pride.
While the two have never met — Martinez’s commenting on one of Garcia’s Instagram posts in July remains their sole interaction — Martinez called it an honor that Garcia looked up to him.
“I hope the future holds a lot of good for him, like it did for me,” Martinez said. “Or better.”