Left-handed pitchers are almost an enigma in baseball. Every team wants them but few can figure out how to develop them. Even if they are not very good they will probably have a job in some team’s bullpen. Most lefties are considered soft tossers or control artists and the ones that can “bring it” are considered gems. In the minors there are few of these power lefties and the ones that do exist top this list.
In the first article in this series, “A Bridge Too Far,” I started the quest to understand the how and why of Barry Zito‘s lost fastball (what little he previously had). It’s simply the result of never learning how to throw a baseball efficiently. The how and why of Zito’s lost fastball is the how and why of throwing mechanics (as opposed to pitching mechanics), along with what makes the pitcher successful at the major league level.
Finding Zito’s lost fastball requires an understanding of throwing mechanics (as opposed to pitching mechanics) and what makes a pitcher successful at the major-league level.
It is generally accepted that left-handed pitchers usually have an advantage over their right-handed counterparts at all levels of baseball. Why? As with all questions of pitching mechanics, there is as much mystique as there is fact. For example, many baseball people believe that a left hander’s ball moves differently than a right hander’s ball. Some will tell you that left handers throw differently because of the left brain versus right brain “thing,” that left handers are “wired” differently.
I became interested in left-handed pitchers because of their ability to succeed with a lesser fastball than their right-handed counterparts. Understanding how left handers throw could tell me something about how the body throws by studying the fastball exception rather than the fastball rule.
Going back in time to find video of the best who ever threw the baseball has helped me understand how the body optimally throws the baseball.
My answer to why left handers can succeed with less pure stuff than their right-handed counterparts is the same explanation as why/how a fastball rises. The physicists tell us that a fastball doesn’t rise, because there is not enough translational and rotational speed to totally overcome the effects of gravity. But players who faced fireballers such as Nolan Ryan will swear that his fastball rose!
Physicists will explain this apparent contradiction by saying that Ryan’s ability to throw the ball 100 mph did not give the ball time to fall as much as someone throwing 90 mph or less. And because hitters don’t see 100 mph fastballs as often as 90 mph ones, pitches approaching 100 mph may appear to rise because they (we) expect the ball fall more. In other words, our eyes and brain trick us into thinking the ball is rising.
This same phenomenon or principal can be applied to a batter facing a left-handed pitcher. As hitters grow up, they do not face many left-handed pitchers, especially quality ones. At the younger/lower levels of amateur baseball, 90 percent of the pitches they see come from a pitcher throwing from the right-hand side of the mound.
Most hitters do not develop the same comfort level facing left-handed pitchers as they do right handers. This disparity continues up to and including the major leagues. The same phenomenon also helps explain why some people believe that pitches thrown by left-handed pitchers move (behave) differently than the same pitch thrown by right-handed pitchers.
Mel Antonen has observed in USA Today that most left-handed prospects are graded on a lower scale. “They get drafted when a right hander with similar talent doesn’t. They get more time to develop in the minor leagues. And if they become established in the majors, they can turn a 10- or 15-year career into a 20-year run and pitch into their 40s.”
In general, the velocity of left-handed pitchers is lower than that of right handers. The average major league fastball is 88-90 mph. A right hander with an average velocity less than 88 mph is more an exception than the rule. But a significant number of successful left-handed pitchers throw fastballs in the 86-88 mph range, especially those who are considered left-handed “specialists.”
Left handers who don’t have good fastballs have another possible advantage: Hitters dial in their swings to the pitch speed they most often see. At the major league level, it is typically an 88-90 mph fastball. A left hander throwing in the 84-86 mph range can upset a hitter’s timing, especially if the hitter doesn’t see left handers frequently. But MLB hitters will adjust (that’s why they’re MLB hitters) and it’s not unusual for a left hander (or right hander) to get through the order the first time and encounter problems the second time through.
All of which would appear to be the good fortune of being a left-handed pitcher. But there is a nasty potential side effect: A left hander may never really have to learn how to throw the baseball.
What constitutes effective pitching?
In my previous article, I made the point that you throw baseball without pitching it but you can’t pitch a baseball without throwing it. I also said pitching instruction is everything that is necessary to defeat the batter, whereas throwing instruction is how to optimally move the ball through time and space. And, the article said, “pitching mechanics” is really a misnomer. It should be referred to as throwing mechanics.
In trying to better understand how the body optimally throws the baseball, I distinguish between skills and abilities. The skill of getting the batter out is the skill of pitching. Attributes that are important to developing the skill of pitching are demonstrated in the following diagram.
The physical aspect of pitching skill
Abilities such as strength, physical size, muscle composition, connective tissue, range of motion, flexibility, nervous systems, etc. are all physical attributes that play an important rule in the ability to develop pitching skill. Professional baseball understands this, as evidenced by the amateur player draft (with emphasis on physical size of the pitchers). But again, left handers receive a special physical dispensation. Major league clubs are more willing to take a chance on an undersized left hander than they are on an undersized right hander.
Mechanical aspect of pitching skill
Simply stated, this is the ability to efficiently and effectively throw the baseball. Efficiency means throwing with the least amount of effort while developing speed, location and movement of the ball. Attributes such as a quick arm and arm speed are highly sought after. Also there is a somewhat mystical quantity that has to do with effort. Scouts want to see pitchers who can throw 95 mph with minimal effort, as opposed to what they think is maximum effort. What they’re really talking about is being able to throw with no wasted, unproductive movements. There is no such thing as maximum effort.
Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax may have had the best pure “stuff” of any lefthander.
Mental aspect of pitching skill
All voluntary movement is the result of doing what is necessary to achieve a goal. The intent to throw is the most critical aspect of the throwing process. From a pitching perspective, this means that the intent to get the batter out is the most important part of the pitching process.
Intent affects all aspects of getting the batter out—type of pitch, location of pitch, speed of pitch, movement of pitch, etc.; all are determined by the intent of the pitcher. The mental aspect of pitching is what allows pitchers, whether right handed or left handed, to be successful without having the best throwing mechanics or physical attributes.
A few words about intent and maximum effort pitchers: Quite often I hear the term “max effort pitcher” used as a negative regarding a player’s pitching (throwing) mechanics. How do you throw a baseball 100 mph without maximum effort? Here is a clip of Nolan Ryan. By the expression on his face and looking at the muscles in his neck, I would say that Ryan, while he may not be putting his maximum effort into the pitch, is coming pretty close.
When people call a player’s mechanics “max effort,” I believe they are saying he doesn’t use his body to throw efficiently. That’s because unless the player is putting close to 100 percent of his effort (intent) into throwing the ball, he is not going to succeed at the major league level.
A few more words regarding individual differences: No two people will respond identically to the same situation or same stimulus. This difference is embodied in the principle of individual differences, which applies to just about every aspect of human behavior, ranging from how the body responds to training to how effectively and efficiently the body acquires movement skills.
Optimal flexibility varies considerably. These two teammates underwent similar training programs through high school and college. Variants of flexibility may lead to variance of techniques, selection or profiling of sport. The athlete being stretched in the first picture was a national champion in the freestyle stroke; the athlete being stretched in the second picture was a national champion in the butterfly stroke. Performances is the product of flexibility, strength and neuromuscular integration.
This principle of individual differences as applied to throwing a baseball is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it helps explain how players succeed at hitting and pitching by being different. On the other hand, not fully understanding or appreciating the principle leads to misinformation regarding how the body optimally swings and throws. Two words that I find frequently used in player selection and development as “fudge factors”—words used to explain the unexplainable”—are “talent” and “style.”
In throwing a baseball, the biggest abuse of individual differences is attempting to predict injury based on how the player appears to be throwing the baseball. Factors such as strength, flexibility, neuromuscular integration all combined to create a unique capability in every individual. Attempting to judge a player’s mechanics as being either good or bad based upon a single, stereotyped set of mechanics is a potential exercise in futility.
Some left handers who throw like left handers
These are players who don’t look to be using max effort and are also not throwing very efficiently. One of the first left handers who caught my attention was Denny Neagle, because at the time I was trying hard to understand the role of arm action. Neagle was listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, with a fastball 86-88 mph. Neagle’s arm action is “soft,” as is his entire delivery. Left handers have a tendency to sling the ball. Yet Neagle still got batters out and was rewarded with lucrative contracts.
Early on I used Neagle as an example of how not to throw the baseball.
Another left hander whose delivery I consider one of the worst I’ve viewed is a player I thought several years ago would be out of baseball but seems to be doing quite well. Mark Redman has atrocious arm action, but is another testimonial to the rule that if you are left handed and you can pitch (location, changing speeds and movement), you will be handsomely rewarded.
One left-handed pitcher who personifies the combination of adequate throwing mechanics and very good pitching mechanics (how to get batters out) is Andy Pettitte.
His success is in no small part due to his consistent ability to throw a 90-plus mph fastball along with his pitching smarts.
“Old Men Rivers” are players who have found the right combination of intent to throw and reasonably decent throwing mechanics for their physical abilities. This combination leads to longevity. One of the great potential advantages of a left-handed pitcher is the ability to minimize wear and tear on their body if they can find and maintain the minimum velocity necessary to get batters out. These four pitchers have managed to do this.
Show me a left hander who throws like a right hander, and I will show you a pitcher with potential to be very successful. Left-handed pitchers who throw like right handers have a greater opportunity to achieve MLB success than their right-handed counterparts.
One of the more blatant examples of how little MLB pitching coaches really know about pitching mechanics was the trade by the Mets of Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano. The word on the street was that the Mets’ pitching coach, Rick Peterson, thought Kazmir’s mechanics needed to be changed to prevent future injury. Apparently Kazmir did not agree, and hence the trade.
I found it quite interesting because I fell in love with Kazmir’s mechanics the very first time I saw him throw baseball (high school video clip).
I will also say that it appears that Kazmir’s mechanics have changed his since high school, and in my opinion not for the better. Possibly that’s a subject for another day.
Erik Bedard throws the ball well, having led the American League in strikeouts last year. He also has a very interesting baseball history.
A Franco-Ontarian, Bédard began his baseball career in the Orleans Little League and the Ontario Baseball Association. He pitched he 1992 Orleans Junior Red Sox team which beat Glace Bay in the 1992 Canadian Championship. Bédard did not play high school baseball, which is the norm in Canada due to the short season. Just 5-foot-4 and 120 pounds as a senior, he grew seven inches and gained 30 pounds during the summer between graduating from high school and beginning college. He accompanied a friend to a tryout at Norwalk Community College in Norwalk, Conn., and made the baseball team as a walk-on
While in college, he added 10 mph to his fastball, gained another 30 pounds, took the “lowest level” non-credit English language course to enhance his knowledge of the language, and became a junior college All-America.
Bedard has the throwing tools to be a successful left hander. At least the Mariners think so.
Willis burst onto the baseball scene in 2003 as much for his funky delivery as for his success on the pitching mound. Willis’ delivery was a throwback to the likes of Louis Tiant. And Willis can throw the ball. He had statistically solid years from 2003 until last year. His ERA jumped, as did his home runs, and his ability to locate seemed more a problem than in previous years. It would be interesting to compare his mechanics of 2003 to what he was doing last year to see if he is another potential victim of MLB coaches making his mechanics “look better.”
Sabathia is probably the most interesting of all. The Cy Young Award winner in 2007, he has gotten off to a shaky start. And then there is the little matter of his pitching for contract this year. The hot stove talk before the season began was whether Sabathia would break Johan Santana’s contract record. (The three largest contracts for pitchers
all have gone to left handers—Mike Hampton, Zito, and Santana.
Sabathia has been a workhorse for Cleveland since 2001, averaging almost 200 innings a year. Hde can get it up there (fastball consistently in the low 90s). But I never liked the way he threw the ball—a portion of his velocity is simply due to his size, in my opinion.
Raw throwing ability does not guarantee major league success. You still have to know how to pitch. But given two pitchers of equal throwing ability, the left hander has a greater chance of achieving success.
Still, the same things that work for a left hander are also working against him. And in some ways, the left hander is on a more precarious precipice than his right-handed counterpart.
Next: What the Lord giveth, the MLB hitter taketh away—and exactly what are effective throwing mechanics?