clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The 7-foot relief pitcher and why we can't have weird things

New, comments

Loek Van Mil is over 7-feet tall, and will be pitching in Japan this season. This is good news for him, but kind of a bummer for baseball fans.

Chung Sung-Jun

The simple fact of it is that Loek Van Mil may not be good enough to pitch in the Major Leagues. Which is nothing to be ashamed of, honestly. Most of humanity isn't, and only a vanishingly small number of people could do what Van Mil has done since he was 21 years old, which is play baseball well enough to get paid for it. Van Mil, who was born in the Netherlands and, it must be said, is seven feet and one inch tall, is decidedly not like most of humanity. He is unusual given his size and skill and the fact that he has already demonstrated the capacity to get professional batters out. That's for starters, although also it's probably enough.

But if what Loek Van Mil has done for a living since 2006 is unusual -- and it is, as no one standing above seven feet has ever demonstrated the ability to get even Double-A hitters out consistently, let alone throw multiple pitches for strikes -- it has in one sense not been enough. Van Mil is 29 years old and has put up a 3.01 ERA over parts of five season in Double-A, and yet has thrown just 21 innings at Triple-A and none in the majors.

Van Mil will throw no pitches at any of those levels next year, as he recently signed on with the Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Nippon Professional Baseball League, where he will, in an over-literal sense, take the place of Masahiro Tanaka on the defending champion Golden Eagles' roster. There's a decent chance Van Mil will never pitch in the bigs, which would leave the list of tallest big leaguers to be topped by Jon Rauch, Eric Hillman, Chris Young and a few other tall people who were around replacement level on teams other than the Mets.

It's tough to say how much of this is Van Mil's fault, exactly. He's pitched for four organizations in the last four years, some of them better than others but none of them willing to give him more than a handful of appearances at Triple-A, where he was generally awful. There are reasons why this was the case, presumably -- we might presume, even, that there were different reasons for those different organizations -- but the reasoning behind this sort of thing doesn't generally get shared. There are more important questions, and also there's the tendency towards gratuitous secrecy and picayune obfuscation that obtains in sports front offices. Loek Van Mil might never know why he didn't really get a shot in Triple-A, either.

We can guess, though. There are videos of him pitching on YouTube, and they reveal about what you might expect -- that it is very difficult to wrinkle and then unwind a body this size in the same way, repeatedly. Even to the untrained eye, Van Mil's motion does not have the sort of metronomic repeatability that big league teams demand. He doesn't have the Inflatable Thing Blowing Around Outside A Used Car Dealership aspect that you might expect, either, but there is the palpable tentativeness that's present in a lot of gangly pitchers' motions.

It's either projection or the easiest bit of armchair scouting, but it's simple to sense how deliberate a person this size must be in going through the specific torsion-generating contortions of the standard pitching motion. For all the leverage and other advantages that would seem to accrue to a pitcher this size, Van Mil -- and Rauch, and other pitchers their size -- didn't get a ton of strikeouts (6.4 K/9 over his career), and gave up a decent amount of walks (4.2 BB/9). There is no letting it rip at 7'1. If anything goes wrong, at that size, everything goes wrong. What begins as a pitching motion ends up as an avant-garde rhythmic gymnastics routine performed by a drunken Dhalsim. But, of course, it's not news that baseball is very difficult, or that it's more or less as difficult for very tall people as it is for very short ones.

Star-divide

At some point, the interests of Baseball People and Baseball Fans are no longer congruent. This is pretty far along the line, to be honest: Baseball People are paid to construct competitive teams, and fans, being fans, can only hope they'll do that job well. It's more fun to cheer for a team that is good, or intriguingly not-quite-good, or at least conveys the sense of some plausible impending goodness. This far, we're all together: whatever emotional investment we have in a given game's outcome, baseball's better when the best players are playing it.

What begins as a pitching motion ends up as an avant-garde rhythmic gymnastics routine performed by a drunken Dhalsim.

But at some point, we part ways. There are a great many ways to enjoy being a baseball fan, none of them exactly wrong -- well, using the first person plural to describe your baseball team of choice -- but they all come back to enjoyment. It's fun when the team wins, but there are any number of other baseball-related pleasures that will matter more to us than the people in charge of the team. This is inevitable, probably, because we are at the ballpark to be surprised and delighted and the Baseball People are there for work.

At least on the surface, there's something inherently conservative about baseball. There just isn't that much space or tolerance for stylistic excess in the game, and there are cop-faced grumps like Brian McCann on the beat who aim to keep it that way. The game polices itself culturally, but this game is also a business, and businesses broadly tend to behave in the same ways. To look at the people playing baseball at the highest level is to see this in action.

A certain broad visual homogeneity rules in the majors -- give or take a wee sprite like Tim Collins or a hulking beeflord in the girthy mold of Todd Coffey, it is easy to get the sense that three-quarters of big leaguers are 6'4, 225 pounds, and from either exurban Texas or the Dominican Republic. We can understand this as the result of a rigorous, efficient player-evaluation meritocracy, or we can see it as the result of executives under pressure behaving as executives under pressure generally do. Namely, by seeking the safety of the mean, sheltering in place under conventional wisdom, and talking themselves into believing that there really is something uniquely valuable about large rectangular humans named Cody who favor shark-tooth necklaces and throw fastballs in a specific way. It's probably both, honestly. There's evaluation, and also there's a stubbornly, inherently conservative corporate culture, and we get what we get.

This is not to say that closed-mindedness is the only reason why we've been denied the opportunity to watch various more unconventional baseball players. Calvin Pickering was listed at pretty much exactly the same size as Julius Peppers and was probably bigger, but that wasn't why he got only 310 plate appearances in the bigs -- it was because "Pickles" struck out in 91 of those plate appearances, and also played first base like Julius Peppers. If the 315-pound Mexican League slugger Japhet Amador doesn't ever get to play for the Astros, it won't be because he looks too much like Lil' Terrio; it will be because of how often he swings and misses.

We could go on like this, but at some point the discussion snares in a lattice of guesswork and lazyboned justification. Van Mil pitched fairly well in Double-A, never really got a look at Triple-A, and so his career assumed a self-fulfilling shape -- he was a 28-year-old Double-A pitcher, and those are not prospects. The same is true of Yankees farmhand Pat Venditte, who has been mostly excellent, if also consistently old for his league, over his minor league career while pitching with both hands; he's thrown just 13 innings at Triple-A, and will turn 29 at the end of June, effectively as far from the majors as Van Mil. This happens in every organization to varying degrees; prospect pedigrees and judgments as to the loudness of various tools carry more weight than they should, but no one really has any better ideas.

The good news is that baseball remains weird enough to be interesting despite this rote, reflexive tendency towards the Big Cody side of the continuum. As routinized and starchy as the game can be, it is never predictable -- strange things happen and continue to happen, players will continue to surprise us because humans are, if nothing else, reliably surprising. This understated and unpredictable weirdness, running relentlessly beneath the lockstep basebro culture and sepia mythos and carefully branded everything, is a big part of what works about baseball. There is no stopping it.

Still, as rosters thin with the approach of Opening Day, and teams begin to look more like baseball teams, it's tough not to wonder whether things could be different. Baseball progressives and sentimentalists alike choose to believe that there's something different about baseball; that's part of what makes it ours. At the end of spring, though, the decisions that get made are not ours to make. What's left for us is to watch.