The most left-handed lineups of the half-century

Sometime in the late afternoon on the third of October, 2012, Chicago White Sox reliever Leyson Septimo struck out shortstop Cord Phelps for the last out in a 9-0 romp to end yet another in a series of disappointing seasons for the Cleveland Indians.

The loss meant that the Tribe would finish the 2012 campaign with an unsightly record of just 68-94 and hardly a reason at all for optimism. The club featured an offense that lagged significantly below average at -25 wRAA, while the pitching staff was even less desirable, ranking just 26th in pitcher’s WAR. By late September, with just a few games remaining on the schedule, the organization had announced that manager Manny Acta had been fired, and that bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. would finish the season as the team’s interim manager.

But despite these disappointments from multiple fronts, the Indians still managed to make history in 2012.

Since 1960, when data for batter handedness for each plate appearance first becomes available to Retrosheet, no other team has sent more left-handers to the batter’s box than last year’s Indians club. With over 71 percent of their team’s at-bats occurring from the left side of the plate, the 2012 Tribe far exceeded the previous record of 65 percent they had established just a year prior.

Most left-handed lineups since 1960

Rank Team Year LHB PA% wRC+
1 Indians 2012 71.7 97
2 Indians 2011 65.2 98
3 Padres 1981 64.7 91
4 Dodgers 1991 63.3 97
5 Phillies 1993 62.1 105
6t Padres 1982 61.9 90
6t Mariners 2012 61.9 87
8 Yankees 2007 62.3 119
9 Tigers 1977 61.3 94
10 Twins 2001 61.2 99
11t Mariners 2011 60.4 80
11t Red Sox 2011 60.4 116
13 Yankees 2009 60.0 117
14 Phillies 1995 59.8 88
15t Tigers 2003 59.4 95
15t Yankees 1969 59.4 86

The 2012 Indians lineup featured four left-handed starters who saw regular playing time throughout the season with Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis and Casey Kotchman all seeing at least 500 plate appearances. Switch-hitting Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera saw most of the at-bats at shortstop and catcher, while the plurality of playing time at third base and designated hitter went to left hand-hitting Jack Hannahan and Travis Hafner.

Shelley Duncan saw the most playing time of all the Tribe’s right-handed batters with just 264 plate appearances, while the bulk of the remaining at-bats in left field were delegated to veteran left-handed hitter Johnny Damon.

All of this amounts to something baseball has not witnessed for at least the duration of the past 50 years, and possibly throughout all of baseball history: Almost three-quarters of all Indians at-bats were left-handed.

Only the San Diego Padres came close to this unusual feat, when they entrusted 65 percent of their at-bats to left-handers during the course of the 1981 season. That offense fared considerably worse than the recent Indians squads, however, struggling with a wRC+ nine percent below the league average that year. Although, most of that damage was wrought by their right-handed Gold Glove shortstop Ozzie Smith, with his insufferable 65 wRC+ in a league-leading 500 plate appearances. The team as a whole finished in last place (in both halves) for that strike-shortened season with a forgettable overall record of 41-69.

It would seem that the Yankees lineups from just a few years ago, as well as the more recent 2011 Red Sox, were the only offenses that managed to produce at an elite level with such a severely disproportionate amount of their hitting occurring from the left side. All three rosters managed a formidable wRC+ of at least 115.

The 2011 Red Sox featured some extremely dangerous left-handed threats of the American League that year with Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, and Jacoby Ellsbury all terrorizing pitchers in the neighborhood of 150 wRC+ for that season. Carl Crawford and J.D. Drew combined to undermine some of that left-handed onslaught, by simultaneously having the worst seasons of their careers. Ultimately the Red Sox would miss the playoffs in 2011, despite winning 90 games that year.

The 2007 Yankees and their 2009 world champion successors, on the other hand, presented a less concentrated left-sided attack led by Robinson Cano, Hideki Matsui, and Johnny Damon, in addition to the always dangerous switch-hitting Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada. Together this group combined to produce the eighth most left-handed lineup of the last 50 years, while also boasting one of the more succesful offenses of the decade. (The 2007 Yankees also featured Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi from the left side.)

While these teams fared extremely well with an inordinate amount of southpaws in their lineup, it is not impossible to achieve the same results with a glaring absence of left-handers:

Least left-handed lineups since 1960

Rank Team Year LHB PA% wRC+
1 Padres 1970 12 91
2 Padres 1969 14 75
3 Padres 1977 17 93
4 Rockies 1993 17 85
5 Astros 1998 18 113
6 Astros 2001 19 101
7 Braves 1979 19 83
8 Braves 1967 19 95
9 Astros 1996 19 98
10 Dodgers 1975 20 96
11 Padres 1971 20 81
12 Marlins 2010 20 92
13 Braves 1980 20 86
14 Brewers 1978 20 117
15 Dodgers 1979 21 104

Both the 1998 Houston Astros and the 1978 Milwaukee Brewers clubs featured an abnormally low lefty presence in their lineups and still hit well over 15 percent above league average.

If you’ll remember, all three of the Astros’ infamous “Killer Bees” hit from the right side of the plate, and all three were extremely dangerous. In 1998 Jeff Bagwell led the trio with a fearsome 162 wRC+, while Craig Biggio (145) and Derek Bell (129) weren’t too far behind. They were joined by another powerful right-handed bat that season when Moises Alou and his 157 wRC+ came over from the Marlins via offseason trade.

Only the third baseman, Bill Spiers, provided regular at-bats from the left-side for the Astros that year, and he wasn’t quite able to reach 500 plate appearences before the season’s end. The switch-hitting Carl Everett provided the team’s only source of left-handed power that year, amassing most of his 125 wRC+ in his 438 plate appearances as a left-handed hitter.

But while the ’78 Brewers and ’98 Astros performed at an elite offensive level with limited contributing left-handed at-bats, the upstart Padres teams of the late 1960s were not nearly as fortunate. In their inaugural season in 1969, the brand new Padres franchise combined for a team wRC+ of just 75 while setting the record for the lowest amount of left-handed plate appearances in a single season with just 14 percent. Backup third baseman Van Kelly led all left-handers in plate appearances for the Padres with just 222 that year. In the following season Kelly would see even less playing time, which meant the Friars saw even fewer left-handed at-bats with just 12 percent, establishing the record that still holds today.

All this may lead one to wonder if the amount of left-handed hitters on a team affects its performance.

Effect of left-handedness

Expanding on some data I originally ran for SBNation’s Cee Angi, I found that there seems to be little relationship between strength of offense and a lineup’s left-handedness. A test on the 1,372 team-seasons from 1960 and 2012 reveals very little correlation (r = .08) between a team’s wRC+ and the percentage of its plate appearances that occurred from the left side.

Teams that delegate less than 25 percent of their at-bats to left-handers typically fare no worse than teams who feature more traditionally balanced lineup cards. However, teams that have been featured unusually high amount of left-handed at-bats tend to be slightly more successful than average:

LH PA% average wRC+ # teams
> 25% 95.1 54
26%-30% 95.9 132
31%-35% 95.1 215
36%-40% 94.2 260
41%-45% 95.7 285
46%-50% 96.3 219
51%-55% 98.6 136
>55% 96.4 53

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Left-handed hitters are simply more successful as a group than their right-handed counterparts. So more left-handers will more often mean more success at the plate. This doesn’t mean that adding left-handed hitters will improve your team necessarily, but that simply adding better hitters to your team will improve your production.

image

What’s also interesting from our first table is that a third of the 15 most left-handed teams of the past 50 years have occurred in the past two seasons. Aside from the aforementioned Red Sox and Indians teams, the forlorn Mariners lineups of the past two years also ranked in the top 15. Nine of these sixteen teams occurred in the 2000s and there was only one team-season to represent the 1960s (and that occurred at the very edge of the decade in 1969).

I’m not entirely sure how to explain this. Could it be that front offices are more willing to trot out unbalanced rosters these days? Was there some sort of conventional wisdom prejudice against having too many left-handers in a lineup in the ’60s and ’70s? Or are left-handed hitters simply more available in recent years?

While it’s true that the percentage of left-handed at-bats in baseball has increased since the 1960s, that number has remained relatively static over the past 25 years:

image

The 2013 Indians and beyond

For 2013, the Tribe has lost left-handed Shin-Soo Choo, and gained right-handed hitting Drew Stubbs. The Indians also will be replacing some of the left-handed at-bats from Casey Kotchman with the switch-hitting of Nick Swisher, although I doubt anyone could blame them for that. It’s not unreasonable to expect more of these egregiously left-handed lineups in the future, but it’s very likely that we will not see a phenomenon like the 2012 Cleveland Indians for a very long time.

References & Resources
Thanks to Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. All LH PA percentages include post-season numbers. wRC+ figures include pitchers hitting.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    Interesting article.  I was wondering if it might be better to have a predominant right-hand lineup than left-hand because lefties generally have more trouble against left-handed pitchers than righties do against righties.

  2. Carl said...

    James,

    Somthing strikes me as wrong on the third chart.  How can every team be below 100 RC+?  I believe the average of RC+ is 100, so at least one line in that chart has to be over 100.

  3. TomH said...

    James, the LH batters avg over 100 because many of them play 1B/DH/OF, while RH batters are predominant at the C/2B/SS/3B positions.

  4. James Gentile said...

    Right Carl, I meant to mention this. The wRC+ figures listed will include pitchers hitting while the weights used to derive the averages are calculated without pitcher’s at-bats. So the league average will appear to be 95-96 or so.

  5. Guy said...

    If possible, it would be interesting to see the two graphs for non-pitchers only.  Since most pitchers are RH, including them will magnify the real performance gap between RHH and LHH.  Similarly, some of the post-1970 rise in LH PA is simply due to the adoption of the DH, as RH pitchers are replaced in lineups with LHH DHs.

  6. James Gentile said...

    Guy, it should be no problem to run RHB/LHB splits without pitchers. I’ll try to get to it tonight.

  7. Mr Punch said...

    I believe that there were relatively few left-handed starting pitchers in the ‘70s, particularly in the NL. That would tend to cause teams to avoid overloading their batting orders with lefties.

  8. Paul Moehringer said...

    I’m curious to see what if any effect this will have on lefty closers.

    There’s been plenty of great lefty starters in baseball history.  Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, Carl Hubbell, Whitey Ford.

    But when it comes to lefty closers the list is significantly shorter.  True you have Billy Wagner and Tug McGraw, but who else?  And why is this?  It because lefties have such a great advantage anyone decent is made into a starter regardless of how effective they can be out of the bullpen?  Is the lefty specialist role valuable to a point to where anyone effective in that role isn’t allowed to do anything else?  Is it a combination of both?  Or have there just been not that many great lefty relievers?

    I don’t have an answer for that, because there’s a clearly a difference between the number of dominant lefty starters we’ve seen versus the number of dominant lefty relievers we’ve seen relative to what it is for righties.

  9. Hank G. said...

    “But when it comes to lefty closers the list is significantly shorter.  True you have Billy Wagner and Tug McGraw, but who else?”

    Sparky Lyle comes to mind, but no one else.

  10. Jim G. said...

    Willie Hernandez, Gary Lavelle, Dave Righetti, Norm Charlton, Dan Plesac, B.J. Ryan, Arthur Rhodes, Jesse Orosco, Mike Stanton, John Hiller, Tom Burgmeier
    All of these lefties had success at closer (some more than others). Hernandez was the AL MVP in ‘84.

  11. Cliff Blau said...

    In the 1960s and 1970s, there were fewer pitchers on rosters, so teams had more players at other positions available and could platoon much more than they do today.

  12. Paul Moehringer said...

    I’m not saying a lefty can’t close.  What I’m saying is when you start ranking relivers all-time, compared to starters, lefties as significantly less represented.

    Once you get past Billy Wagner there is a significant dropoff to the next best lefty reliever.

    With righties you got Mariano, Eckersley, Wilhelm, Hoffman, Fingers, Joe Nathan, Bruce Sutter, Don McMahon, Stu Miller, Lindy McDaniel if you want to back a ways.

    I’m just saying there is a far greater percentage of great righty relievers versus great lefty relievers then there is with starters and I don’t have an answer for why that is and its not a trend that appears to be changing either.  Who were you top relievers last year?  Kimbrel, Rodney, Chapman, Street, Balfour.  They were all righties.  Best lefty reliever last year I thought was Jake McGee.

    Lefty starters though you can point to Kershaw, Gio Gonzalez, Price, Sale, Cole Hamels.

    Its just an odd thing that I don’t have a good explanation for.

  13. Jim G. said...

    Paul,  I understand your point. But you asked who else, and a couple of those I listed came immediately to mind.
    And for the record, Chapman is a lefty.

  14. Paul Moehringer said...

    All I’m just to do is just clear up any confusion to what people are thinking I’m trying to say.  It was a minor point I was trying to make, not the point, which nobody has commented on.  All I have are three comments on people naming lefty relievers which doesn’t do anything to dispute what I was trying to say, nor it is even on topic in how it relates to the historical effects for lefty versus righty batters.

    My point was how the increased presence of more lefty batters not in turn increasing the number of dominant lefty relievers.  We’ve seen it give rise to the lefty specialist and guys like Franco, Orosco and Rhodes have careers that go on far longer then they probably would if they were righties simply because they can market themselves as being able to get left handed hitters out.

    But common sense would also say this would give rise to more valuable lefty relievers that previously existed and I’m not sure if we’ve seen that over the past decade or so compared to the previous 50 some odd years.  Its still a very right handed dominant position when talking about who’s the best in the game.

  15. Josh said...

    John Franco and Randy Myers both saved a lot of games. They also happened to be traded for one another.

  16. Paul G. said...

    Paul Moehringer: Looks like someone could do a good article or two on that.

    If I were to make a guess, closers tend to be chosen because they are effective against all sorts of batters.  Handedness is less important for a closer than for the setup men that can be mixed and matched to their strengths.  Perhaps elite RH relievers tend to have more balanced splits than their LH counterparts?  I have read that RH batters hit RHP better than LH batters hit LHP, essentially because they have to.  May also apply to relief pitchers.

  17. Paul Moehringer said...

    What I find interesting is that the number of batters faced by lefties seems to be unchanged even as the number of lefty batters increases.

    Go back to 1970 lefties the chances you would face a lefty pitcher was about 30%.  1980 it was about 31%, 1990 it was about 33% and last year it was about 30%.  Go back to 1965 which is the lowest point on the graph it was about 31%.  Just going on that small sample size there doesn’t seem to be much if any correlation between the number of lefty batters there are versus the number of lefty pitchers.  Considering that lefty pitchers do fair better against lefty batters then righties do, you would not expect that to be the case.  It should have some noticeable impact.

    Go to bullpen funky things start to happen.  Last 65 pitchers made at least 30 starts.  23 of them were lefties giving you a ratio of about 35%.  Last 55 pitchers finished at least 20 games.  Of those 55 pitchers only three of them were lefties.  And if you go back to most years before 1960, the number of batters by lefties appears to increase.

    So if the number of lefty batters is going up relative to what its been in years past then where are all the lefty relief pitchers to help counter them?  And why has it seemed that the exact opposite has happened?

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