Bats left, throws right (Part 1)

This past summer, the 2008 U.S. Olympic Baseball team happened to hold its first workout in my hometown, at Steve Schott Stadium. The practice session was open to the public, and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon watching the squad go through the infield and outfield fungo drills, and take batting practice.

My enjoyment was enhanced by a companion in the grandstand: one of my sisters-in-law. This sister-in-law doesn’t know a heck of a lot about baseball, but she’s highly knowledgable about basketball (her eldest daughter recently accepted a full-ride basketball scholarship to Santa Clara), and has a keen mind for athletics. And thus having her ask me intelligent, perceptive questions about baseball techniques and strategies as we watched the ballplayers undergo their workout was refreshing. There’s no better way to grapple with one’s own understanding of principles than to attempt to describe and explain them to a genuinely curious inquirer.

During batting practice, she was quick to notice that a few of the players hit left handed sometimes, and right handed other times. “Isn’t that against the rules?” No.

“Why do they do it?” Well, because they gain an advantage by batting left handed against right-handed pitchers, and vice-versa.

“How does that give them an advantage?” Well, that’s always been a bit of a mystery, but the prevailing theory is that it’s a combination of better sightlines on the ball and the effect of the angle and typical break of the pitch toward the batter rather than away from him.

“Then why doesn’t every batter do it?” Well, because it’s a very difficult skill to master; most players just aren’t ambidextrous enough to be able to be successful at it.

This concept resonated with my sister-in-law. She described the difficulty her daughter and other excellent basketball players often encounter in learning to dribble and/or pass with their opposite hand. Virtually no one shoots ambidextrously.

And then she noticed that one of the players who’d been throwing right handed during the fielding drill was now taking BP left handed, even after they’d switched to a left-handed batting practice pitcher. “Why doesn’t he bat right handed against this pitcher?” Well—how to explain this—he’s one of the rare players who naturally throws with his right hand, and naturally bats with his left. He’s ambidextrous in that way, but not ambidextrous enough to be able to switch-hit.

She laughed. “That’s just weird!”

I had to laugh with her. It is just weird, isn’t it?

This delightful conversation stuck with me. Obviously I’d always known of the bats-left-throws-right category of ballplayer (and his even rarer mirror image, bats-right-throws-left), but realized that I hadn’t ever thought much about this phenomenon. Switch-hitting is one thing: mastering (or at least attempting to master) a difficult skill in order to gain an obvious tactical advantage. But the player who “naturally” bats one way and throws the other—hang on now, he’s ambidextrous enough to do that, but not ambidextrous enough to simply switch-hit, and gain that obvious tactical advantage?

The world is an endlessly fascinating place. And a weird one, I guess.

So, how weird is it?

The split between right handedness and left handedness in the human population is roughly 80/20. It’s more complicated than that, of course, given that there are varying degrees of intensity in either direction, with a very small proportion of people being completely ambidextrous. But as a rule of thumb, four out of five people are right handed.

Baseball is a sport that distinctly rewards left-handed hitting. Traditionally cited as an explanation for this is the fact that the left-handed hitter is an extra step closer to first base, but the research of John Walsh (see the References and Resources section below) indicates this isn’t a significant issue. The genuine reason is simply that the left-handed hitter generally enjoys the platoon advantage, since the majority of pitchers are right handed.

Because of the left-handed hitting advantage, baseball attracts more than its share of left-handed athletes, or at least athletes ambidextrous enough to learn to bat lefty. The proportion of left-handed batters (including switch-hitters batting lefty) at the major league level is always far greater than the 20 percent that a random sample of the population would yield; indeed it’s generally more like 40 percent.

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Because of the left-handed hitting advantage, teams are motivated to counteract it by recruiting and developing as many left-handed pitchers as possible. Unlike batting, practically no one is ambidextrous enough to be able to pitch effectively with their non-dominant arm: A left-handed pitcher is genuinely left handed. But baseball’s hunger for southpaws means that the proportion of left-handed pitchers at the major league level is also always greater than 20 percent; interestingly it’s also generally around 35-40 percent.

Positional issues

The overall proportion of 40 percent or so left-handed batters isn’t uniform across the defensive spectrum. While any batter (at least those properly ambidextrous enough) can choose to bat right handed or left handed, the demands of various defensive positions aren’t so accommodating.

As the bases are run in a counter-clockwise direction, the challenge of pivoting and throwing to first base has rendered it practically impossible for about the past 100 years in the major leagues to be anything but a right-handed thrower and play third base, shortstop or second base. And, at any level higher than Little League, one virtually never sees anything but a right-handed throwing catcher, for reasons that are far less obvious (the most commonly offered, that since most batters are right handed a lefty-throwing catcher would have his throwing impaired by batters, isn’t very convincing) and is probably just a function of hidebound tradition.

In any case, what this means is that while a right-handed thrower can play anywhere, there are only four fielding positions (other than pitcher) that a left-handed thrower is allowed to play: first base, left field, center field and right field. But there’s no advantage (or disadvantage) to being a left-handed thrower in the outfield, and while at first base there’s a slight advantage for lefties (it’s easier for a southpaw to start the 3-6-3 or 3-6-1 double play), it’s fair to say that which hand a player throws with is largely irrelevant at first base and the outfield.

Who hits which way?

So, just how does all this positional throwing protocol impact the handedness of hitters?

From Retrosheet I’ve gotten my hands on the stats on what proportion of plate appearances were taken by right-handed batters, switch-hitters and left-handed batters playing each position in the major leagues from 1957 through 2006.

Our first look is at right-handed batters playing first base or the outfield. I’ve tossed designated hitters in here too, since which hand they throw with is utterly irrelevant.
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We see that over this half-century, the proportion of RHBs at these positions has generally been around 50 percent, or slightly below. There’s a trend in the downward direction over the period, but it isn’t very strong; the proportion has never dropped below 40 percent.

Let’s compare this with right-handed batters playing those positions at which right-handed throwing is universal (okay, pardon me, Dale Long, Mike Squires and Don Mattingly: near-universal):
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The distinction could hardly be clearer. Not only is the percentage of right-handed batters filling these “high skill” defensive positions quite a bit higher—ranging between 60 percent and 80 percent, and usually at about 70 percent—the variation between positions is significantly less here than among the outfielders and first basemen. The pattern for all of these positions is tightly consistent, while the lines in the upper graph vary all over the place, between one another and from season to season.

None of this should be surprising. The positions that demand right-handed throwers yield a higher and more stable proportion of right-handed batters.

Before considering strictly left-handed batters, why don’t we first take a look at switch-hitters. First let’s see them at first base, the outfield, and DH:
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Interesting, yes? Switch-hitters at these offense-first positions were nearly unheard of a half-century ago (if it weren’t for Mickey Mantle in center field, that “TOTAL” line would be barely above zero in the first few years we see). But the prevalance of switch-hitters dramatically increased over the rest of the century before appearing to stabilize in the most recent seasons.

Still, let’s bear in mind that all these percentages are small: The proportion of switch-hitters at these positions has never approached 50 percent; indeed the combined total peaked at just over 15 percent in the mid-1990s. Even though these are positions from which offensive production is essential, and even though the skill and training of ballplayers has never been more highly refined than in the current era, switch-hitting among outfielders, first basemen and designated hitters remains a rarity.

How about at the defense-first positions?
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Two things jump out. First, as with the other positions, we see a remarkable growth in the quantity of switch-hitters across the decades. And second, even though these players are selected for their fielding skill to a far greater degree than at the other positions, the prevalance of switch-hitting here is higher than at the other positions. Switch-hitting second basemen and shortstops have on occasion gotten into the 35-40 percent range.

But the overall total of switch-hitters at these positions still isn’t high. It’s stabilized at around 20-25 percent.

Considering both of these graphs of switch-hitters, a couple of concepts seem to be suggested. One is that switch-hitting tends to be practiced more by smaller, less-powerful hitters than by the big guys at the power positions, indicating that it’s easier to swing from the other side of the plate if you’re focusing more on contact than on swinging for the fences. And other is that even for slappy little guys, switch-hitting ain’t easy. If it were, everyone would do it, and the fact is that even as this skill has been mastered by more players than ever before, it remains beyond the reach of the great majority of players at every position.

All right, finally, how about the straight-lefty hitters? Here are the who-cares-how-they-throw boys:
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The first basemen stand out here. Not all of these are left-handed throwers, of course, but given that first base is the one position at which throwing lefty constitutes an advantage, it isn’t surprising that it’s almost always the position with the most left-handed hitters.

The rest are fairly closely bunched together, averaging somewhere around 40 percent overall.

Now for the guys who truly pique my interest: the left-handed hitters handling the positions at which right-handed throwing, and throwing very well, is a necessity:
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Several intriguing implications here.

First, all the lines are reasonably steady over the 50-year span, except for the catchers: What’s up with that? There would seem to have been something of a Golden Age for left-handed hitting catchers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but that line soon came down to earth and joined the others.

Second basemen and third basemen have been rather consistently in the 15-20 percent range. And shortstops—handling the most demanding fielding position on the diamond, the position from which hard, accurate, often off-balance right-handed throwing is a vital skill—display the lowest degree of straight left-handed hitting of any position, indicating that “true” dominant right handedness is rewarded at shortstop as nowhere else in baseball.

All right then

This particular phenomenon intrigues me, because as a right-handed-all-the-way specimen myself, the notion of switch-hitting alone has always struck me as an exceptionally difficult thing to do (and if you ever saw me bat left-handed, you’d be sympathetic), and so the further notion of surrendering the opportunity to bat from your natural side against left-handed pitchers just boggles my mind.

As you may recall, I recently had the opportunity to talk with Terry Kennedy, a quite successful left-handed-hitting catcher for many years, and I asked him how he came to be a left-handed batter. He explained that his ex-pro-ballplayer father had guided him to do so from his earliest childhood, reasoning that gaining the platoon advantage in close to 70 percent of your at-bats is worth having to hit from the unnatural side. Kennedy says that batting is the only thing in life he’s ever done left handed—well, that and putting in golf, though, interestingly, he swings his woods and irons right handed.

But, I asked, did you ever switch-hit? His blunt reply: “I should have been a switch-hitter and regret it to this day.”

I tell ya, this phenomenon intrigues me.

Upcoming installments

Just who are the most prominent among this distinct minority of major league ballplayers, who bat left and throw right while occupying these “high skill” defensive assignments? We’re going to get to know them:

{exp:list_maker}The best left-handed hitting catchers in major league history
The best left-handed hitting third basemen in major league history
The best left-handed hitting second basemen in major league history
The best left-handed hitting shortstops in major league history {/exp:list_maker}
And finally, because they’re the weirdest of all:

{exp:list_maker}The best right-handed hitting, left-handed throwing players in major league history {/exp:list_maker}

References & Resources
Huge shout-out to my buddy John Walsh, for painstakingly pulling all these data for me from the Retrosheet data set. And for a fascinating read on the issue of left-handed versus right-handed batting, please see John’s November 2007 Hardball Times article, “The advantage of batting left-handed.”

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