The Most Definitive Hypothetical Lefty Catcher Musings

There should be more catchers who throw with their other hand (via Matthew Straubmuller).

There should be more catchers who throw with their other hand (via Matthew Straubmuller).

Articles about lefty catchers will stop making the rounds for one of two reasons: lefties are accepted at the professional level as viable contributors at the position, or sufficient evidence confirms they are at an inherent disadvantage to right-handed throwers. As it stands now, the traditional arguments against it happening are unsubstantiated at best, and just plain stupid at worst. Here I collect some of the most common arguments against the cause, as well as the best reasons why these arguments are unfounded, and why this is an untapped source of value for every major league team.

First up is the issue with tag plays at home plate. Since lefty throwers catch with the right hand, they have to position themselves differently to make a swift tag on the runner. Some worry that this leaves them susceptible to more home plate collisions. But wait! Collisions at home are soon to be a thing of the past, allowing catchers to tag runners with a bit more confidence than they used to. Runners will have to avoid contact on scoring plays, just like every other base. A left-handed player at home plate can set up much in the same way a right-handed fielder catches a pickoff throw at first base. He can either tag across his body, like Joe Mauer here:

joe-mauer-first-base-e1377565866271

Or he can turn his back to the runner and make a blind swipe tag like Chris Davis here, without worrying about getting run over:

brett-gardner-thrown-out

Catchers must make throws to every base on stolen bases, pickoffs, balls they’ve blocked in the dirt, and bunts in front of home plate. For throws to second base on steal attempts, many traditionalists posit that left-handers have a disadvantage throwing since their ball tails away from the runner. To me, this is the most enraging argument on the topic. We are talking about some of the premier athletes in the world, masters of their sport, and assuming they won’t pick up on the fact that their throws tail. Either learn how to throw straight or aim further to the right. That’s dumb.

Others argue that it takes longer to get the ball to second when a hitter is standing in the way. Most batters are right-handed, standing on the side of the catcher’s left arm.  But if this were important, we should see a distinct difference in stolen base success when left-handed batters are up to bat. Surely right-handed throwers would have the same problem then. In a 2009 article for Baseball Prospectus, Tim Kniker compiled league-wide stolen base percentages over a five-year span with righty and lefty batters at the plate. He found no statistically significant difference — the stolen base success rates were 79 percent while lefties were at bat and 78.5 percent with right-handed batters.  We can poopoo this one.

Not only does this logic not hold up, there is pretty strong evidence that catchers do not have as heavy an influence over the running game as you would expect. Max Weinstein has done some great work over multiple articles, most notably here and here, attempting to quantify how much blame can be placed on the catcher for a stolen base. He uses two methods to answer the question: historical caught-stealing percentage for the pitcher and catcher, and pitcher times to the plate and catcher pop times on specific stolen base attempts. In both, the numbers show the pitcher is about twice as influential over the likelihood of retiring the runner, and by extension is twice as responsible for controlling runners on first base.

On to third base, where lefties may actually have a disadvantage. When a runner is stealing third, a left-handed thrower has to switch his feet to make a throw across his body, likely allowing the runner an extra step. However, talk to anyone in the game about stealing third base, and you’ll hear it is almost always on the pitcher if a runner successfully advances. While the pitcher is statistically twice as responsible for steal attempts to second, that number certainly climbs way up for third base. Runners do not take advantage of pitchers who are slow to the plate in this situation; rather, they pay attention to when pitchers fall into habits with set times and number of looks to get an extra jump.

If there is an advantage for throwing runners out, it should show up in the game pop times, with right-handed catchers being noticeably faster to third base than first base. I looked at pickoff throws and stolen base throws to first and third, respectively, from 2013 for the top nine qualifying catchers according to The Fielding Bible‘s rSB stat. (I used the top nine because that was everyone who was at average or above in the metric.) For this group, I found 30 plays in the video archives where a runner was thrown out at third or first. I got rid of 10 of these plays because they were not useful for measuring glove-to-glove pop time, due to some form of delay between catch and throw. Here are the composite data for the observed pop times, for eight pickoffs at first base and 12 caught stealing throws to third:

Catcher Pop Times to First and Third
Breakdown First Base Third Base
Average 1.503 1.463
High 1.67 1.64
Low 1.40 1.27
Std Dev 0.0853 0.1030

A difference of only .040 seconds between the two groups, though there is certainly a wider spread on the numbers for third base. For the six catchers for whom I had timed throws to both first and third base, the average difference was only .032 seconds. Just for fun, here are the fastest throws to first and third by Salvador Perez and Matt Wieters.

Salvador Perez 1B

 Salvador Perez pickoff to first – 1.40 seconds

Wieters 3B

Matt Wieters throw to third to nab stealing runner – 1.27 seconds

While it certainly seems catchers can be quicker to third base than first, the actual difference come game time is not as appreciable as expected. If I am interested in reducing the number of runs scored against my team, I would lean toward holding runners close to first rather than worrying about steals of third.

The risk a team takes by attempting to steal third is much higher than second base on average, as evidenced by the higher break-even success rates shown in the graphs here. The payoff is not as high stealing third base most of the time. The average run value of an extra base is worth about .25 runs according to The Book, though that number varies depending on who you talk to and what period you look at. I would guess that this value is a bit higher today as power continues to decline across the league.   The average successful stolen base is worth .2 runs.

With a left-handed catcher behind the plate, runners would be forced to stay closer to the first base bag on their secondary leads, making it more difficult to take two bases on a single or score on a double. Hypothetically, let’s assume one out of 10 steals of third is the responsibility of the catcher. If a catcher can keep just one runner from taking an extra base in the same amount of time it takes for 10 guys to attempt to steal third, he has more than made up for the disadvantage. Runners are on first base far more often than they are on second, so the number of chances to impact the running game is much higher at first than second.

Lefties also have an obvious advantage fielding bunts and making throws to first, particularly down the third base line. Righties are forced to take more steps or throw off balance for a well-placed bunt on the left side. Having a left-handed catcher would allow the third baseman to play another step back, potentially taking away an extra hit or two.

In terms of receiving, I originally thought lefties would have a huge advantage over righties, since they could expand the zone against right-handed batters, which are still the majority at this point. Right-handed catchers enjoy an expanded strike zone on the outside corner when lefty batters are up. Umpires set up on the inside corner to protect themselves from most foul balls. Catchers can receive the ball on their glove side without having to move as much of their bodies, making more pitches appear like strikes there when the umpire is on their arm side. However, data show that the strike zone does not get bigger, but rather just shifts over a few inches, presumably because reaching across the body to the arm side makes some inside strikes appear like balls to the umpire.

Jon Roegele researched how the strike zone changes in myriad conditions, showing that in 2012, the strike zone to right-handed hitters was actually seven square inches bigger than that for lefties (460 to 453). Here are some lovely images of the 2013 strike zone from Baseball Heat Maps:

ts5bsrf8htdjirpr0jco22s1q754RWM.png

2013 Right-Handed Hitter Strike Zone

ts5bsrf8htdjirpr0jco22s1q754LWM.png

2013 Left-Handed Hitter Strike Zone

We can probably assume a left-handed catcher would have the same shift with right-handed batters up. There may be some advantage to the strike zone being different with a lefty receiver behind the plate, but surely major league hitters would be able to adjust to a shift more than an expansion of the zone. As an aside, I think it would be interesting for a catcher of either persuasion to use a switch-mitt, like what switch-pitcher Pat Venditte uses.

SI Yankees Pat Venditte

I even asked a glove company to make one out of curiosity; I never got a return call. Hypothetically, catching with either hand (with no threat of a steal obviously) would allow a catcher to take advantage of both corners expanding. Aside over.

It is important to mention that this potential advantage may not be as useful if the current trends continue, however. A more recent article by Roegele for The Hardball Times illustrates how the outside border of the strike zone has been slowly moving back over the plate, particularly for left-handed batters. As you can see in heat maps above, the difference is still obvious; it is just less so than it was a few years ago.

The last reason I believe lefties should be allowed to catch is the advantage they would have as hitters. We know that left-handed hitters have the platoon advantage more often than right-handers do. What may not be as obvious is that left-handed throwers have a more natural hand path in their left-handed swings than left-right combos do. When catchers are excused in from working on their swings due to their defensive obligations, why not put someone in that position who can more comfortably swing like he throws. This is a much more debatable topic, especially since survivor bias at the major league level makes it nearly impossible to show statistically. In my experience, it is much more difficult to get hitters to understand the proper swing if they do not have a natural throwing motion with their top hands. It’s the same arm action whether throwing sidearm:

Miguel Cabrera Slow Roller

Or hitting:

Cabrera Swing

The hands load up under the back elbow, followed by the elbow and hand(s) switching places as the elbow drops under the shoulder. This move with the elbow creates the first segment of the whip as the ball or bat is propelled forward. It allows energy to be created without having to use large, slow muscle groups to do it. In hitting, the elbow attack allows the hands to stay inside the baseball and extend all the way through the ball after contact.

Players do not have to be life-long catchers to play there in the big leagues. Russell Martin and Jorge Posada were two of the most notable catcher conversion stories of the past 20 years; both started as infielders and converted after being drafted. Buster Posey converted in the middle of his college career after never playing the position at any level before then. You don’t have to look hard to find left-handed first basemen and outfielders in minor league baseball who could raise their stock by changing positions.

I can think of at least one potential candidate in every organization that I have scouted in my spare time. As a left-handed position player, your options are already limited if you don’t have plus speed or power. Surely there are some athletic players with soft enough hands that could approximate an average catcher, but wash out of pro ball because they do not fit the traditional positional profile of a left-handed thrower. It certainly would not hurt the average offensive production from the catching position to increase the available pool of players.

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Comments

  1. Frank Jackson said...

    I’ve never understood the absence of left-handed catchers either. It’s hard to believe that a kid with all the
    tools — strong arm, quick release time, agility afoot, etc. — would be disqualified simply because he throws left-handed. I’m wondering if it’s not also because of the traditional notion of left-handers being more eccentric or flaky. Imagine the backstop equivalent of, say, Bill Lee. Would a manager entrust such a catcher with all the mental tasks that go with being a catcher, even if this hypothetical catcher had all the physical tools? The other left-handed position players out there (first basemen and outfielders) don’t have anywhere near the responsibilities the catcher has.

  2. said...

    I appreciate the thought you put into this, and I agree with your rationale that “if leftys can catch as well as right-handers, they’re an untapped rescourse.”

    Your argument about holding runners close to first being most beneficial in the long term is quite clever. Nice insight!

    However… There are a couple huge issues you gloss over that render the discussion moot, in my opinion.

    First, the tag is more difficult for a LH catcher. Just because righties can make it work at first doesn’t mean they make it work as well. A dropped ball or missed tag at first is not nearly as costly as at home. A blind swipe tag like Davis demonstrates is completely unacceptable. And a forehand swipe is slower than a backhand one. Try it!

    Second, the fact that pitchers account for a larger portion of the variance in defending the run game really has nothing to do with the dicsussion. The question is, of the variance accounted for by catchers, which handedness will be most effective.

    Third, pop time is not the only issue for throws to third – accuracy is just as important. The required mechanics for leftys make the throw more challenging. Again, an errant throw to third is more costly than one to first.

    Finally, regarding the pop time numbers. It is incredible that the catchers are faster to third than first in your sample, even though 100% of their throws to first were preplanned while none of the throws to third were. What a huge difference that would make! Yet, their times were quicker to third. You can actually see evidence of the advantage of preplanning in the SDs for throws to each base. Even though the throws to first were slower and more challenging, the times were more consistent. This is because they were planned prepitch.

    Thus, in a game of slim margins played out over long seasons, the disadvantage of a LH catcher would add up. We accept the disadvantage of a RH firstbaseman because a) there are so many more righties that we need to find places for them, and b) the disadvantages for righties at first are of the least importance. Catcher is arguabley the most important everyday position. Not the place for someone with obvious structural disadvantages!

    • Dan Farnsworth said...

      1. Why is the blind tag unacceptable? Even so, I have played first base (as a RHT) and haven’t had a problem making the forehand tag. It may be slightly slower, but I would bet money on it being on the order of hundredths of a second difference, nothing substantial.

      2. When throwing down to second is used as a primary reason for why catchers can’t be left-handed, I think it is very pertinent that all catchers have less control over SB% than they are credited, but that’s fine if you disagree.

      3. As a catcher myself, I have never had more accuracy issues to first base than third base. It is certainly different footwork, but nothing guys who are more athletic than I am couldn’t handle. I think that’s underestimating the capabilities of Major League Baseball players in general. Second basemen practice the same footwork turning double plays on balls to their left. Sure, some are better than others, but that doesn’t add up for me.

      4. On the contrary, it was very difficult to find throws to first that didn’t have a lag time between the catch and the attempt to throw. Again, as a catcher myself, very rarely did I have a play put on to pick off someone at first. I would say about 75% it was reactive; the other times making sure the first baseman saw how far off the bag the runner was getting before thinking about picking him off.

      All that said, I appreciate the thoughts and you adding to the discussion. Thanks!

  3. Billy said...

    I also like the idea of left-handed catchers for another reason: platoons. Catchers already have to take more days off than the other position players as it is, so the split in playing time between a starting catcher and a back-up is closer to that between platoon partners than that between starting players and backups at other positions. If you’re going to have to use the back up more anyway, why not try to get an advantage in match-ups. Having more left-handed catchers (and therefore more left-handed hitting catchers) would make this easier to do.

    As for the fielding issues, the tag and the throw to third were always the two things I figured were the barriers, but you make excellent points about how they may make up for that on bunts and throws to first. I’m not sure we have an answer, but as someone who has pondered this quite a bit himself, I found some of your points that I hadn’t thought of very interesting.

  4. Paul G. said...

    Bill James’s theory was that most left-handed catcher candidates become pitching prospects. Left-handed, throws hard, pulse.

    That said, even if the traditional beliefs of left-handed catcher disadvantages are true, to justify no left-handed catchers would presume that all the left-handed catcher prospects are worse than the worst right-handed catcher prospect. I seriously doubt that. A lefty with elite skills should be able to overcome any disadvantages, assuming they actually exist, to be a legitimate major league catcher. At the very least some team should try it and see what happens.

    Honestly, I think that lefties should be able to play third base. They put Don Mattingly there for a few games and he did fine. It would not surprise me if a truly elite defensive talent could handle shortstop and second base. Stop worrying about what the player can’t do and focus on what the play can do. If what he can do is good enough, then he is good enough.

  5. mikecws91 said...

    Great article. As a left-handed thrower myself, it frustrates me to no end that I’m only allowed to play first or outfield, or pitch. This should give me more fuel for the fire in arguing that there’s no reason a lefty can’t be a catcher. I sometimes hear that lefties have an advantage at first—why, then, is not EVERY first baseman left-handed? Come on.

    One argument that I’ve heard, which I didn’t see here, is simply that a pitcher would be thrown off by seeing his target—the catcher’s mitt—backwards, on the catcher’s other hand. I’m not a pitcher, so I won’t assess it, but do you suppose there’s any merit to it? If lefty catchers were a relatively normal part of the game, would it matter?

    • Dan Farnsworth said...

      If pitchers are that thrown off by something that doesn’t affect them, he will not last long in pro ball anyway. Let him play a few games in Yankee stadium where the fans are experts at finding ways to berate and insult a pitcher.

      Plus, once the pitcher enjoys a couple extra inches off the corner to a righty batter a few times he’ll forget all about it.

  6. David said...

    The faster time to 3b can be explained by your gifs. Weiters is already standing up when he catches the ball, but Perez is still in his crouch. I’m surprised Weiters is getting the strike call on that one.

    Also, how many youth teams/leagues are going to spend the money on a lefty catcher’s mitt when it will be used so sparingly. That should explain why we’ll probably never see it.

    • Dan Farnsworth said...

      Those just happened to be the two fastest times. There are some to both bases where they pop up to throw, some where they throw from their knees, etc.

      I’m not expecting or advocating youth leagues to be the pioneers. When has any change in professional baseball come about because of how the game is played by 10-year-olds?

      You don’t have to catch from birth to be a professional catcher. I don’t think anybody bemoans Russell Martin or Buster Posey’s defense because they started in their 20s.

  7. Rob said...

    First reason we don’t see it is definitely the tradition bias. Second is that only ~10% of the population is LH. Those that are LH with good arms will end up at pitcher more often than not. Third, unless your family is made of $$$, how many dad’s are going to go buy their LH son a catcher’s mitt? And he’s not going to be able to borrow someone else’s because the thing hardly exists–it has to be the rarest glove in baseball. Fourth, I am LH and tried catching a couple times, and since LH people are more intelligen, we don’t WANT to be catcher, its the toughest position on the field.

    • said...

      But it has the most action aside from pitching…and well, once you are slotted a pitcher, how many typically succeed? The odds may stack against there, but when you’re behind the dish:
      1) If you really catch well, call the game well, coaches will notice that… eventually
      2) Can hit well enough – what kid doesn’t want to do that more, not less (as in pitching)
      3) And never let the quirk bother (psychology)
      4) Results should matter – sabermetric Front Offices have to be the ones to break the barrier
      5) Publicity – notice – and therefore, it will no longer be unusual (and the first one successful will get plenty of fans/dads buying gloves for their lefty sons. Branding the model glove: will sell like hot cakes. 10 years – 5/6 catchers will be lefties, guaranteed, after the first one makes it.)

      JMO

  8. Alex said...

    By the way, I think Mike Squires was the last left handed catcher. He did that in 1980 with the White Sox.

  9. Scott said...

    Interesting article. I am left-handed, and never gave a thought to catching from little league thru college, because there was never a left-handed catchers mitt to give it a try. Most kids don’t start out to be a catcher. They usually give it a try and then find out they either like it, they are good at it, or it is the only position open to play. So no youth team is going to invest in a left handed catchers mitt on the off-chance that a lefty will come along and actually end up as a catcher. Very few lefty’s would spend their personal money on a left-handed catchers mitt until they knew they liked the position or found out they were good at it. Which will never happen since they will never get a chance to try the position without a mitt (kind of like the age old chicken vs. egg argument)

    After college, I started playing fast-pitch softball, and since fast pitch catchers usually use a first baseman’s mitt behind the plate I gave it a try and found out I loved it. There is bunting and stealing in fast-pitch, and I found the advantages of fielding bunts and picking off runners at first were incredible. Throughout my playing days, runners always took shorter leads since I would make one or two pickoff throws a game just to keep players honest.

    • said...

      I remember my Babe Ruth coach stumbled onto a lefty catchers mitt. And so, I did catch when I didn’t pitch. For 2 seasons, I did nothing but those two things. Sadly, I was too proud to take it to high school.

      (And our HS catchers were slow and couldn’t hit a lick. I was better suited, if I had desired it…then. But I thought I be Brett Butler, except: I was really slow (7.3 in 60….ugh.))

  10. shoewizard said...

    When I was living in the baseball mecca of Arizona, I searched the valley far and wide to try to find an adults left handed catchers mitt. My son was a pitcher, and started throwing too hard to catch with my regular gloves.
    I couldn’t find one.

  11. said...

    Loved this article. When I was 14-15, in Babe Ruth, I was a lefty catcher/pitcher. I always enjoyed catching when I wasn’t pitching even though it was tough in the hot weather. In high school, in JV ball my sophomore year, I played 3rd too. Mainly, my plus arm and glove got me moved around the field, I think. I was a singles/doubles guy, not super speedy at all (though I was a very good CF, in my opinion, due to reactions and understanding positioning). Anyways, I think the engrained natures in baseball are just hard to change.

    I was critical too of it then, as I thought I was wasting my talent on fruitless experiments. (I was 15 -16, what can you expect.) Anyways, I never applied myself enough to the game thereafter – and my growth stopped at mid-80MPH pitching but too short for the mound (5’6″) and not enough bat to be noticed.

    The point is: it would be plausible to convert guys who aren’t gonna be pitchers, and can’t run, but can throw well and hit. Learning to actually catch is not that hard; this from catching a future college pitcher (at 15), if you are committed to taking a licking back there, have some brains, and can set aside the teasing (that will come) until you prove tough enough to those around you. As you note, the value would be tremendous.

    And as we also know, stealing bases is not (at all) that conducive to scoring runs. Certainly not without doing it 250 plus times at above 80% success rate.

    And finally, I guess the goal is to ID wash-out pitchers (Rick Ankiel types) that can poke it a little, and certainly aren’t bad with normal throws. And put them threw an intensive program to first get over any psychological hang-ups and then get the time all others need to do it well.

    JMO.

  12. Dave said...

    so… we’re looking for who exactly?

    Lefty-short (at least not too tall)-slowish (at least not speed as primary skill)-”quad A” type hitter-1b or corner OF-thats 25yo or less (as will need development time in minors).

    who’s that?
    Caleb Gindl. But Brewers already have Lucroy and Maldonado. And I wouldn’t think they’re ready to give up on Gindl just yet.

    who else? Gotta be a number of this type of player floating around…

    • said...

      Need a FO that is willing to experiment early. Outside the pool rounds, international amateur FAs where the investment is low. The first one developed will be all on that one team.

      Rookie through A+ ball, he’ll be a total oddity, and the psychological makeup of the guy (have to take being the oddball) will factor a lot. If the guy succeeds beyond others (better CS%, hitting well, handles staff, et. al.), then at AA will be the test. Split time with a traditional catcher there. Maybe some 1B/DH too. If he does better in the head to head, acceptance, begrudging though it will be, will come. AAA polish him up.

      New service – lefty catcher
      Idea generation – development techniques, draft strategy or acquisition of base talent
      Concept develop & evaluation – test against righty catchers stats in low minors
      Business Analysis – profitable/feasible to forgo the standard sys. for catcher develop/team design
      Service development – testing this prototype catcher (speedy runners, handling fielding tasks, framing skill)
      Market testing – AA level (against typical top prospects) will determine further success (abandon project/go ahead?)
      Commercialize – from AA to Majors, he’ll get attention as the oddity. Good press and bad alike.

      Given a few guys have played through quirks (Jim Abbott), this can work out.

  13. Dennis said...

    Scott is correct: the main reason for the dearth of left-handed catchers is that Little League-Babe Ruth-High School teams supply catcher’s gear, and they don’t have leftie mitts. Posey and Martin (not to mention the Jamie Moyers of the world) are exceptions: the vast majority of players stick to the positions that they grew up with, with the exception of all bat/no glove people at skill positions that migrate to the less-skilled positions as they advance.
    Does anyone know of a study of position switches during career progress?

  14. Kris said...

    One of the better articles on lefty catchers.

    For those of you looking for gloves – My son uses Nakona gloves. They stock right hand receive/left hand throw.

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