On the other-hand... Handedness in baseball

Benny Distefano, the last left-handed catcher to play in the majors. Will we ever see his like again? via graphics8.nytimes.com

Mixing stuff about this week. With pitchers and catchers reporting on Friday, I'll be using that day to give a summary of what we should be looking for in spring training. So, I'm moving up the last in my "off-season randomness" articles to today.

As a left-hander thrower who bats from the other side of the plate, the subject of how handedness is a part of the game has always fascinated me. In the regular world, the percentage of people who are left-handed seems to be around 7-10%, but the number is much greater in baseball. Of all the players active in 2009, 29% batted left-handed, and another 9% were switch-hitters. When it came to throwing, the numbers were lower, but still more than double the average, with 21% of players being lefties. This is comparable to other sports: a study on cricket players showed that 20% of bowlers (pitchers) are left-handed. But it always seemed unfair that some positions were more or less barred to us southpaws, such as catcher.

After the jump, we'll take a look in more depth at the benefits and problems of being left-handed when it comes to playing baseball - in particular with regard to where about on the field they play.

One surprising thing is that this number hasn't actually changed much over the years, even though left-handedness has become a great deal more accepted. My father was forced to write with his right-hand at school, just after the war, and as a result, can now write with either hand, though prefers his left. But the percentage of left-handed batters in 1945 was exactly the same, 29%, as last season, and left-handed throwers was only fractionally lower, at 18%. It seems baseball was ahead of the societal curve when it comes to accepting us sinister men.

HITTING

This is probably less altruism than self-serving, because we lefties are simply better players. Or are we? At first glance it seems so. Left-handed batters in the majors during 2009 had an OPS 22 points higher than right-handers, the same number in 2008. Woo-hoo. We rock. Case closed.

Being a left-hander in the batting box has some obvious advantages. When facing a right-handed pitcher, you have a better view of the ball as it comes out of his hand. A right-handed batter almost has to see the pitch as it comes from behind his lead shoulder. Another advantage is after making contact. A left-hander is not only closer to first-base, by about five feet, his momentum is also taking him up the line. A right-handed follow-through is heading towards third-base, and he has to reverse that motion to get going. Obviously, left-handers are closer to first-base to begin with. And, because right-handed pitchers are still the majority, they get the platoon advantage more often.

However, it seems not all these confer the expected advantage. For instance, the benefit of an LHB being closer to first, and thus better able to leg it out, is countered by the fact they are more likely to hit to first or second-base, balls which have a lower chance of becoming an infield hit. Righties actually get more infield hits than lefties. The overall numbers are also skewed because of the dominance of right-handed players at weak-hitting positions, such as catcher or middle-infield. [Though as we'll see, that dominance with the bat, becomes an outright monopoly with the glove] If you compare left-handed 1B and OF with their right-handed counterparts, the difference largely evaporates.

Analysis seems to indicate that it is mostly the platoon advantage that helps left-handed batters. They are not necessarily any "better" than their right-handed counterparts, but they see more opposite-hand  pitching, and that is what helps their overall numbers.

PITCHING

This also factors into the numbers on the mound. Perhaps surprisingly, there was hardly any difference in the overall numbers put up by left-handed pitchers. However, this is purely because of a big difference in the batters seen. LHP saw more than twice as many right-handed batters as left-handed ones; righty pitchers saw about the same of each type. If you break the numbers down, lefties actually proved better against both same-handed batters (.703/.725) and opposite-handed ones (.771/.777) - they just saw a lot more of the latter.

Being left-handed on the mound gives a couple of advantages, particularly with a runner on first. As you're facing that base, it's harder for a runner to get a good lead. That not only reduces the chance of a stolen-base, it also makes it more difficult for a runner to go first to third on a hit. In addition, you usually face right-handed hitters, and it's harder for them than left-handed hitters to take advantage of the hole on the right side, caused by the fielder holding the runner at first

There's some discussion that left-handers naturally deliver the ball at a lower angle than right-handers. Said Clyde King, long-time adviser to George Steinbrenner, "A left-handed pitcher has an advantage because his ball moves,. You don't know why, but it does. There's no answer. I've asked Mr. [Branch] Rickey that question, and he could not answer it. It's the only question I asked him that he didn't answer." But others say that's just an optical illusion, and it's simply a benefit of unfamiliarity: the ball comes at the hitter from a radically different angle.

FIELDING

There is a wide discrepancy around the field, and it's the area that I found the most interesting The table below counts the number of players who throw left- and right-handed at each position on the diamond in 2009 [note: a player needs only one game at the position to count]

Left Right %
C 0 106 0.0%
1B 25 123 16.9%
2B 0 147 0.0%
SS 0 113 0.0%
3B 0 161 0.0%
LF 51 152 25.1%
CF 46 96 32.4%
RF 48 145 24.9%

If the numbers for left-handers by position seem low, given the 29% overall rate, this is because right-handers are more likely to play multiple positions. For instance, Augie would count as a right-hander at 2B, SS and 3B, diluting the overall total more than he 'should'. Still, the numbers are startling. The only position those who throw left-handed can play on the infield is at first. And this is not a statistical aberration. In fact, in the past 20 years, there has only been one game where a left-handed thrower has even been listed at anywhere on the infield, except at first-base.

That was on July 2nd, 1997 when Mario Valdez of the Pirates pinch-hit for Jason Schmidt in the top of the eighth, and stayed in for three outs in the bottom-half, at third-base, without seeing a ball hit his way. Since full play-by-play records became available in 1954, only thirteen players have done it., less than a handful on more than a couple of occasions. And some of these appearances deserve an asterisk, such as when Rusty Ryal's father, Mark, played "shortstop" for the Angels against the Yankees in 1987. He led off the top of the first at that position, but was replaced defensively before taking the field.

Just two players mustered more than half a dozen at-bats in such games. One was Don Mattingly, who started two games at third-base for the '86 Yankees, and also made a very brief i.e. one out, appearance at second-base for them in 1993, during the conclusion of the infamous George Brett Pine Tar Game. The other is less well-known: Mike Squires, a journeyman offensively, with a 78 OPS+ over 779 games between 1975 and 1985, but who won a Gold Glove at first in 1981. He appeared at seven different positions on the diamond over his career, including four starts at third and two single-inning stints behind the plate.

Of the 41 total such games, here's the breakdown.
Catcher: nine games, five players
Second-base: five games, four players
Third-base: nineteen games, four players
Shortstop: eight games, three players

As noted, not all these saw action at the position. The three shortstops never took the field there: they were all lead-off hitters, replaced in the middle of the first. Two of them played for Earl Weaver, who discusses this topic in his book, Weaver on Strategy

Mark Belanger was a .220 hitter for me during most of his career, but he was also the greatest defensive shortstop I have ever seen. I spent some time trying to figure out how to get the best of both worlds - a good bat, and Belanger's amazing glove... When my team was on the road, I would list someone else as our leadoff hitter and shortstop. Often it ws Royle Stillman, a young outfielder we had brought up from Rochester. Stillman would bat in the top of the first, and then Belanger would go in to play shortstop in the bottom of the inning... I used this strategy only in September, when the roster swelled from twenty-five to forty and we had plenty of players available.

Hard to say how effective it was. Stillman did go 3-for-6 in those games [not the 4-for-9 Weaver claims], but never actually scored a run in any of those contests. A similar tactic was used in the middle of Lou Gehrig's streak, to help keep it alive in 1934, after an attack of lumbago rendered him unable to play the field. [Thanks to The Immaculate Inning for pointing me to these two nuggets; their piece also reveals the last out made by a left-handed shortstop was likely all the way back in 1905].

The last left-hander to record an out at second-base was also the result of an interesting tactical ploy. It came at Cleveland, on July 6, 1970.  Sam McDowell pitched into the eighth inning for the Indians against the Senators, and was holding on to a 6-4 lead, but the tying run was on second-base with two outs. Manager Alvin Dark went to the 'pen - but did a double-switch, moving McDowell to second-base while Dean Chance got the third out (McDowell making the out on a force at second). The starter then returned to the mound, striking out the Senators in the ninth. While the tactic has been used elsewhere, the pitcher is usually stashed in the outfield.

It's probably easier to see why there are few left-handed second baseman in particular. While having a glove on your right-hand would make it easier to get to ground-balls hit back up the middle, just about any throw to first-base would be considerably more difficult and/or take longer to accomplish. Coming in, a left-hander would almost have to backhand the ball to first, rather than being able to throw across his body like a right-hander. The same would apply to positions on the other side of the infield, though to a somewhat lesser degree. On the other hand, Squires said the complete lack of lefties at thid is because they'd get eaten up when coming in on bunts.

Finally, there's the position of catcher, perhaps the thorniest of all. By the time you extract the ones who didn't play the position at which they were listed (like Tom Chism and Chris Short), only two left-handed catchers have appeared in the majors in the past 50 years. One is the aforementioned Squires, with two innings of work for the 1980 White Sox, under the ever-innovative Tony LaRussa. The other is Benny Distefano, now the hitting coach of the West Michigan Whitecaps, an A-ball affiliate of the Tigers. In an interview to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his fear, he explained to Baseball Prospectus how he got the job:

Normally, the third-string catcher is a utility infielder, and with the Pirates that year, our backup infielder was Rafael Belliard. He was an outstanding player, but he was very small, so they asked me if I wanted the opportunity, and started letting me catch in the bullpen. They sent me to the instructional league to learn how to catch, and in 1989 I made the club as a pinch-hitter/first baseman/outfielder/third-string catcher. In 1989, the major league roster went from 25 men to 24 men, so everyone had to do a little more, which helped keep me in the big leagues.

His last appearance there was August 18th, 1989, catching the last three innings against the Braves, allowing a wild pitch, passed-ball and stolen-base. According to Distefano, there were two main problems as a result: "On bunts down the third base line, I found it hard to pick up the ball and throw in the first base direction when my body was moving in a different direction. And throws from the outfield always were back-handed catches, and my left shoulder was open, so I couldn't brace my weight for a bang-bang play as the plate. I was exposed to be hit."

However, they hardly seem like an overwhelming justification for their complete absence. There are a host of other potential theories to explain it: difficulty throwing through a right-handed hitter to second-base; problems going down to third; his throws curving 'the other way' and proving more troublesome for receiving fielders; even a lack of left-handed mitts for catchers at the Little League level. However, the evidence for most of these is thin or at best they would have a minimal impact on the game.

It seems to me that Bill James probably got it right, and it seems an appropriate point on which to close. In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract he wrote: "The biggest reason there are no left-handed catchers is natural selection. Catchers need good throwing arms. If you have a kid on your baseball team who is left-handed and has a strong arm, what are you going to do with him?" If you're not sure about the answer to that question, than Randy Johnson - who apparently did catch at one point early in his career - is waiting for you in the dugout tunnel,  and wants a quiet word...

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