Over the last handful of years, the baseball world has watched Jose Altuve become one of the game’s best hitters and a perennial all-star. At just 5’6’’ tall, Altuve has broken all preconceived notions about professional athletes needing to be big, strong, and powerful to be among the best players in the game. There’s not another player in the game today that’s akin to Altuve. But there have been in the past, and one of the more memorable is David Eckstein.
During his playing days, Eckstein was generously listed at 5’7’’ and 175 lbs., although it’s possible that may have been exaggerated. Naturally, Eckstein was overlooked as a player, much like undersized athletes in all sports. He was forced to walk-on to the baseball team at the University of Florida before earning a scholarship.
The year before he made big league debut, Eckstein was placed on waivers by the Red Sox, the team that drafted him, while he was at triple-A and on the verge of reaching the majors. But he caught on with the Angels, gaining another opportunity. He took that opportunity and turned it into a 10-year major league career.
“The back of my baseball card reads: OVERACHIEVING SMURF.”
Eckstein’s career numbers are rather modest, hitting .280 with an OPS of .701. When he was eligible for the Hall of Fame, he garnered just two votes. But during his 10 seasons in the big leagues, he was a two-time All-Star, two-time World Series champion, and was the 2006 World Series MVP.
To be fair, Eckstein is nowhere near as naturally talented as Altuve. There’s little doubt of that. But it makes what Eckstein did in the majors all the more impressive. To make up for the size and strength he lacked, Eckstein would choke up on his bat and crowd the plate, knowing he was quick enough to cover the inside pitch. He had a distinct batting stance in which he would stay crouched, further minimizing his strike zone as best he could in order to turn the tables on opposing pitchers and challenge them to find the strike zone.
One way that Eckstein actually surpassed Altuve as an undersized infielder was on the defensive side. While Altuve’s size and arm strength has limited him to second base throughout his career, Eckstein was a shortstop, and a good one. These days, it’s far more common to see a 6’4’’ shortstop like Altuve’s teammate Carlos Correa than a 5’7’’ shortstop like Eckstein. But because Eckstein put incredible amounts of effort and energy into his defense, he remained a solid major league shortstop for much of his career.
To use the old cliché, Eckstein was worth more than the sum of his parts. He was a smart and savvy player who found a way to be in the right place at the right time. He was a great teammate, offering leadership and advice whenever possible. But above all else, he was a hard-working player. Eckstein put forth the maximum amount of effort and hustle into everything he did on a baseball field, and that allowed him to spend a decade in the big leagues.
“When we win, Eck seems to do something in that game to help us win. Whether it’s a hit, a play in the field, something he says on the field to a defender. To a teammate. Or something he says in the dugout.”
With the metrics used in baseball today, undersized players like Eckstein are overlooked even more. Altuve, for instance, was sent home from his first tryout with the Astros, only to be signed a year later for a measly $15,000.
He’s now a five-time All-Star and two-time batting champion, proving that players who lack prototypical size and strength not only can play in the big leagues but can become stars. Perhaps it was the efforts of an undersized player like Eckstein that helped Altuve get his chance.