Lefty Catchers II: The People Speak

When I wrote my piece on lefty catchers a couple of weeks ago, I secretly felt that I was giving in to a little self-indulgence. I mean, who, besides myself, cares about something so esoteric as left-handed catchers? The article contained some historical material from 19th century baseball, again not exactly stuff to attract hordes of readers in the year 2006. It was also rather short on numerical analysis, so my hard core sabermetric readers (there must be two or three, no?) wouldn’t have a lot to chew on.

But, I figured what the hell, I’m free to send in whatever article I please, right? (Aaron, please let me know if I’m misguided on this.) If I want to spend a few hours cranking out 2,000 words on something that nobody will read, well that’s my prerogative. But a funny thing happened when the article ran: lots of people read it and many of them e-mailed me about it. I was really surprised and delighted by the quantity and the quality of the feedback. Some folks wanted to comment about the various “reasons” for the non-existence of left-handed
catchers. Several had some ideas of their own. Many people sent in personal stories of their experiences with left-handed catchers at the lower levels of baseball. I loved getting these e-mails and I thought that they deserved recognition, hence this article. So, let’s get to them.

On Throwing Runners out at second base

Craig Burley, my colleague here at THT, pointed out that I should remove pickoffs from my sample when evaluating catcher throws to second base. You may know that if a runner is picked off first base, but takes off for second and is thrown out there, that is officially scored as a “caught stealing” and not a “pickoff”. The play is officially designated a “pickoff” if the runner is tagged out diving back to first base.

In any case, the data I presented previously did not have these types of caught-stealing plays removed, which was an oversight on my part, since the catcher is not involved in these plays. Nice catch, Craig.

When you do remove those plays (I won’t subject you to another table of numbers), the conclusion remains the same: there is no evidence that throwing out a runner at second base is harder when there is a left-handed batter at the plate. From which we may infer that lefty catchers would not be at a disadvantage when throwing runners out at second base.

Throwing Out Runners at third base

You wrote “Add in the fact that steals of third, in the grand scheme of things, make up a very small portion of a catcher’s responsibilities, and I don’t see this as a problem for a left-handed catcher.” I think that resting the argument here is problematic, since a substantial difference in SB% at third base is of large strategic import, and any catcher who has difficulty throwing to third will be run on with such frequency that it would, in essence, make up a large portion of the catcher’s
responsibility.
– Tom M.

Touche’, Tom. If a catcher has a very large problem throwing to third, we’re going to reach a <a
href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0316316962/ref=ase_gladwellcom/103-9551768-0338269?s=books&v=glance&n=283155&tagActionCode=gladwellcom”
target=”new”>Tipping Point where teams will start stealing third at will. However, as I discussed in the original article, I don’t think the difficulties in throwing to third base are really all that great.

More Advantages for Lefty Catchers

The biggest advantage of the lefty-throwing catcher was one that I didn’t mention in the article (oops!). THT’s Steve Treder pointed it
out to me in an e-mail:

The cost of the longstanding paradigm is very real, as has been
pointed out, in that it dramatically reduces the pool of left-handed
*hitting* catchers, and a left-handed hitting catcher is a damn
valuable commodity to possess, to the point where his defensive
aptitude becomes a secondary consideration.
– Steve T.

Having a lefty-righty platoon tandem for catchers is especially valuable, since starting catchers generally sit out anywhere from 15 to 35 games a season.

I thought of another advantage for left-handed catchers, which you kinda touched on. Pick off throws to first base which would keep runners closer and reduce their secondary leads as well. This would probably result in fewer SBs and runners going 1st to 3rd.

– Steve P

Ah, this is a good point. I can’t think of a good way to estimate the importance of such an effect, but I imagine it’s pretty small. But, as we’ve seen, all the effects here are pretty small.

When a throw does not come from over the top, regardless of
handedness, it tails (slices). A righty throw to 2B would tail toward
1B. A lefty throw to 2B would tail toward 3B. If, however, the throw
is to the 1B side of the bag, a lefty tail (toward 3B) would bring the
ball into the bag as the catch was being made. It would actually be
preferable to the righty throw/tail. A righty’s tail would cause the
receiver to turn his glove away form the approaching runner’s slide
(see illustration below).
– Michael B.

Several people wrote about the slice on a lefty’s throw to second
base. Michael B. notes that the angle of approach of the lefty’s throw
as it arrives at second base
is indeed preferable to that of a righty and he actually included an illustration to show this.
Several others pointed out, though,
that if a throw is inaccurate, then the righty tail may still give you
a chance to tag the runner, while the slice of a lefty would not.

Left-Handed Catcher’s Mitts

Oh man, several of you took me to task for the bit about left-handed
catcher’s gloves and their availability at the Little League level.

I couldn’t help but note your
fundamentally flawed methodology for tackling the issue of left-handed
catcher’s mitt availability in youth baseball. I’m currently enrolled at
Stanford University, in Palo Alto, the site of your only research effort.
Palo Alto, of course, is one of the wealthiest areas in the country, having
benefited from skyrocketing housing prices and the Silicon Valley tech boom.
That PA’s Little League offers lefty catcher’s mitts proves nothing about
the 99% of leagues nationwide that operate in less advantaged areas. In
Chicago, my hometown, such mitts were unheard of.
– Mike V.

Yes, I admit, the availability of left-handed catcher’s mitts in the
Palo Alto Little League doesn’t prove anything general. Frankly, a serious survey on left-handed catcher’s mitts
was beyond the scope of my article (i.e., I didn’t feel like
doing it).
However, I admit that I did not do a good job of explaining what we could conclude
from the Palo Alto case, which, to be honest, is not much.

Here’s another data point on the availability of LH catcher’s mitts:

I’ve coached for 4 years in an Austin TX T-ball and coach pitch league
and have never seen a lefty catcher’s mitt. Maybe the fact that you
queried a California league had something to do with the “assessable
as possible” approach. Austin’s pretty progressive, but we don’t have
a mess of lefty catchers. I’ve not seen a lefty catcher’s mitt in
sporting goods stores either.
– Michael B.

 

Additional Theories on the Non-Existence of the Lefty Catcher

Several people pointed out that the biggest obstacle to becoming a
left-handed catcher is coaches who don’t want to buck tradition. Craig
Burley, again:

One thing
that’s important to consider is the fragility of most HS-level
coaches. Not very many coaches at that sort of level have the
willingness to flout convention that would allow them to let a LH
thrower play catcher. Most of the amateur coaches I’ve known would
be horrified at the thought b/c they’d be afraid of being perceived
as ignorant by others.
Certainly at the college level, it would be a very tough sell.
– Craig B

Excellent point, and it shows just how hard it will be for a lefty
catcher to break through. He’ll have to have the good fortune to play
for enlightened coaches as he moves up through the levels of
baseball. Not very likely.

Could pitchers have a harder time pitching to lefty catchers, since
the target would be slightly different in appearance and pitchers have
little if any experience throwing to southpaws?
– Roger L.

Roger, yes they could. I see no reason why pitchers couldn’t get used to
throwing to lefty catchers, if there were any. This problem is similar to the coaching one:
there are no left-handed catchers because there are no left-handed
catchers.

Personal Stories

Several people wrote not to agree or disagree with my analysis of
left-handed catching, but simply to relate
their own experiences with southpaw backstops. These were some of
the most enjoyable e-mails for me.

John, you reminded me of a left handed catcher (first string) playing
on another team during a state playoff game when I was in high
school. Our coach told us to steal third every time we got the
chance. The opportunity never came, our only hits were two home runs.
– Roy C.

Hah, you can’t steal third if you don’t get to second!

In the early/mid 1970s, there were a few very talented left-handed
players playing little league baseball in the town where I grew up
near Pittsburgh. I was right-handed, but my father and a couple of
the other fathers acquired a catcher’s mitt for left-handers. Two or
three of these players caught fairly regularly when we were 12, 13,
14 years old. We went to different high schools, so I’m not sure
whether any of them caught after that or not.

One of them was a guy named Terry Mulholland, who, as I’m sure you
know, is in his 20th season as a major league pitcher. I wonder if
catching my 63-mph fastball and dinky 51-mph curveball helped make him
the pitcher he is today.
– Chip T.

So, this is Bill James’ theory in action: strong-armed lefty catcher
gets moved to pitcher. But, wait, has anybody ever referred to Terry
Mulholland as “strong-armed”? I think what we have here is a catcher
with a below average arm being moved to a role that requires less arm
strength: Crafty Lefty.

Finally, here’s a testimonial from a real left-handed catcher, a gentleman named
Harvey Soolman.

I am slightly older than you and a lefty. In my Little League days,
the first team I ever played on, I wanted to catch. And they wouldn’t
let me for whatever reason. I think it was simply, that “lefties
can’t play catcher” not from a talent standpoint, but from an
unwritten rule sort of thing. Yet, when they had no one else to put
back there they let me catch.

I became a good enough player to play outfield until my senior year in
high school when I rode the bench. My coach there was so against
left-handed catchers he would stop me from warming up pitchers (he
also went bananas if there were crossed bats on the ground—so much for
his mental acumen).

The usual excuse by now that I heard was the right handed batter
nonsense. Now 56 and still playing ball I can honestly say that I
have never been up at bat and felt that a catcher was about to plunk
me in the head on throws down to second. It is one of the biggest
myths I have ever heard. It is positively disgraceful, if you ask me.

For years I played in the Boston Park League, one of the top amateur
leagues in eastern Massachusetts. My first manager there was
absolutely against LH catchers until he used up the first three, and
then I’d get the call, seeing very limited action with a nothing
special glove I happened to come across.

Years later, as I slowed down and underwent shoulder surgery, outfield
became quite tougher. So the local sporting goods dealer
special-ordered
a professional quality mitt from Wilson for me. And I began
to work on catching—unfortunately at 35 instead of as a 12-year-old.
I was good at calling a game — I love that aspect of it — and managing the
diamond. But I was average at receiving and poor throwing, with my
arm all but gone at this point. Who knows what would have happened
— no
pro career to be sure—had I been able to grow up and develop as a
catcher with some good coaching.

Bitter? Yes, I guess I am though I have certainly moved on long ago.
It was always a losing battle I was fighting, and there was no reason
for having to go through it.

– Harvey S.

I really enjoyed this story and I wrote back to Harvey thanking him
for sending it along. I got another message back from him, this
time about a right-handed catcher:

An aside: I coached high school ball for several years, and one year
had a pitcher/infielder on my team with modest talent — a real good kid
but one would think not one making a career in professional baseball.
The second year I had him he started out more as an infielder but
somehow wound up as my catcher—not sure whose idea this was—and did a
very commendable job nudging aside the hockey player who I had had
behind the dish. I don’t know if the kid had ever caught before. But
once given the chance he was able to do the job. His name: Theo
Epstein.

 

Final Thoughts

So, this (finally) concludes my investigation into left-handed
catchers. I’d like to thank everybody that wrote to me on the subject—your e-mails made for interesting reading, but most importantly, they contributed
over half the word count for today’s article.

If anybody else has any thoughts on the subject of lefty catchers, especially
personal stories involving lefty backstops, shoot me an e-mail as I’d
be happy to hear about them.

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