Little humor (or not) in the title of this article. You see, I’ve noticed that THT articles that rate players or otherwise have an impact in fantasy baseball, well, those articles are very popular with our readers. So, I thought I’d boost my own personal readership a little with the bait-and-switch title. If you fell for my little trick, well, stick around anyway. It won’t help your fantasy team, but you might get something out of these ruminations. At least, that’s my hope.
Of course, there are no left-handed catchers to rank, and if you’re like me, you probably on occasion put down what you’re doing and begin wondering why the heck not? Okay, so you’re probably not like me, which is a good thing for you. But, now that I’ve brought it up, don’t you think it’s odd that there are no lefty backstops in major league baseball? I do, mainly because I can’t think of any good reasons why this should be the case.
If you do some research on left-handed catchers (and let’s admit it, nowadays this simply means sending the words “left-handed catcher” to Google and sifting through the results), you will find a number of articles on the subject, each of which proposes one or more explanations for the absence of southpaw catchers at the upper levels of the game.
Most of these articles mention the difficulty a lefty would have throwing “through” right-handed batters when attempting to nab a base runner who is trying to steal second base. Of course, right-handed catchers have to throw “through” left-handed batters, but there are fewer of these, hence the righty backstops have an advantage. There are various other possible reasons given, ranging from difficulties in throwing to third base, problems tagging out runners trying to score and even the lack of left-handed catcher’s gloves for would-be catchers at the Little League level.
So, yeah, many folks have weighed in on this subject, including the estimable Bill James (we’ll get to him later), but as far as I can tell, nobody has tried to determine if any of these explanations are correct. Actually, there is a good reason nobody has tried: nobody cares all that much. Still, I’m going to waste time on baseball one way or another, so I might as well waste it seeing if I can shed some light on this lefty catcher conundrum. Some insights can be gleaned by looking at catcher caught stealing data, but there’ll be more than just number crunching in this study. Before we start investigating, though,
let’s have a look at the last real left-handed catcher.
The Last (Only) Left-Handed Catcher
Jack Clements is the only left-handed thrower to have caught at least 1,000 games in the major leagues. Clements had a 17-year career (1884-1900), most of it spent with the Philadelphia Phillies. He only accrued 4,300 plate appearances in that period for three main reasons: 1) he was a backup for several of those seasons, 2) even full-time catchers caught a smaller proportion of their teams games back then and 3) teams played fewer games than they do now.
In his prime Clements was a fine hitter; his OPS+ ranged from 124 to 171 in his age 25—31 seasons. Those numbers are Piazza-like. Can you imagine Mike Piazza throwing left-handed? (Strangely, I can.) Bill James, in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, ranks Clements the 58th-best catcher of all time. To compare him to some more recent catchers, James has Terry Kennedy a little higher (#52) and Jerry Grote a bit lower (#66). James also reports that Clements was the first catcher to wear a chest protector and adds the interesting tidbit that he was the only 19th century player to hit more home runs than triples in his career (minimum 1,000 games).
There is no recorded data on caught stealing or stolen bases allowed during Clements’ career, so it’s impossible to assess how well Clements was at controlling the running game. James, however, includes a quote from the Philadelphia Ledger of 1890:
…his fine throwing held runners so closely to their bases, that they could not
get around unless by consecutive hitting or through errors by the fielders.
Not many lefties have strapped on the tools of ignorance since Clements
left the game in 1900. Fred Tenney, a lefty-throwing first baseman who
also caught 71 games in his career, donned the mask and chest
proctector for the last time in 1901. Jiggs Donahue, another first
baseman that had a handful of games (45) behind the dish, caught
his last game in 1902. Since then there have been a total of 11
games caught by left-handers, the three modern players to have done it
are Dale Long (two games in 1958), Mark Squires (two games in 1980) and
the most recent lefty-throwing catcher Benny Distefano,
who caught three games in 1989.
Why There Are No Left-Handed Catchers
Let’s review the various reasons that have been given to explain the non-existence of the lefty catcher.
- Difficulty in throwing to second base with a right-handed batter at the plate. This is th reason, I think, most commonly given. It also happens to be the one we can check with a high degree of confidence. If it’s hard for a left-handed catcher to throw out a runner at second base when there is a right-handed batter in the box, we should be able to observe the same difficulty for a right-handed catcher throwing with a left-handed batter at the plate.
First of all, just how many more right-handed batters are there than left-handers? Perhaps not as many as you might think. In 2004, 57% of plate appearances were by right-handed batters. A majority, yes, but not a huge one.
So, how did catchers do throwing out runners when a lefty or righty was at bat? We can measure this directly using play-by-play data, but there is one subtlety that needs to be considered. Because of platooning, right-handed batters will face left-handed pitchers more often than left-handed batters will and the opposite is true for left-handed batters. It’s also true that the average stolen base success rate is significantly worse when a left-handed pitcher is on the mound. This makes sense, as the left-handed pitcher has a much easier pickoff move to first base.
So, to take this into account, I will compare the stolen base success rate when a left- or right-handed batter is at the plate for a given pitcher handedness. Here, it’s easier to see if I show you a table:
+--------------+-------------+------+------+--------+ | pitcher hand | batter hand | sb2 | cs2 | sb2pct | +--------------+-------------+------+------+--------+ | L | L | 714 | 383 | 0.651 | | L | R | 1707 | 1023 | 0.625 | | R | L | 4366 | 1822 | 0.706 | | R | R | 5357 | 2140 | 0.715 | +--------------+-------------+------+------+--------+
Columns 3-5 show the stolen bases, caught stealing and stolen base success rate at second base for the different combination of pitcher/batter handedness.
You can see that the average stolen base percentage is higher when a right-handed pitcher
is on the mound. Given this effect of the pitcher handedness, we need to compare the first two rows and rows three and four separately. Remember, we are looking at right-handed catchers, and if there is a problem with “throwing through the batter,” we should observe a higher stolen base percentage when a left-handed batter is at the plate.
The table shows that this seems to be the case when a left-hander is pitching, but the opposite is true when a right-hander is pitching. In both instances, though, the differences are quite small and a statistical analysis of these results (I’ll spare you the hairy details) shows that there is no significant difference between the stolen base success rates with left- or right-handed batters at the plate. In other words, throwing through the batter does not have a measurably negative effect on caught stealing rates for catchers.
- Difficulty in throwing out a base stealer at third base.
To make the throw to third base, a left-handed catcher would have to swivel his body to the left to make the throw. A right-handed catcher can throw to third base almost without moving his feet after he catches the pitch. Unfortunately, we cannot do a similar check as we did above. (We could if a runner on second base tried to steal first!) However, a right-handed catcher who makes a pickoff throw to first base has to execute the same footwork as a left-handed catcher throwing to third.
So, to try to understand the mechanics of throwing to first or third base from behind the plate, I watched some video of such plays. Armed with my subscription to MLB.TV and my play-by-play database (to tell me where to look), I looked at several pick-off throws to first base and some throws to third base on stolen base attempts.
While watching throws to first base, it didn’t appear to me that a left-handed batter standing in the box interfered in any way with the throw. A right-handed catcher throwing to first has to turn quickly to his right to be in position to throw. This motion brings his right arm well behind the batter, who doesn’t seem to interfere at all.
I also watched several throws to third base. Here the catcher does not have to make the jump-turn, but rather can just throw without moving his feet at all. So, that’s an advantage for a righty catcher. However, there is a disadvantage for the righty: a right-handed batter in the box is somewhat in the line of fire. I observed that batters will move out of the way to varying degrees. On one play Vlad Guerrero was at the plate, Pudge Rodriguez was behind it
and Erstad attempted a steal of third. While Pudge made the throw, Vlad bent fully over at the waist, his torso ending up parallel to the ground. He looked like a near-sighted person who has just dropped something valuable and is peering at the ground looking for it. Erstad was out.
Even though batters will generally try to get out of the way, at least to some degree, it still looks like they disturb the throw to third base somewhat. The caught stealing data for steals of third base bear this out: the average success rate for steals of third is higher when a right-handed batter is at the plate, 73.7% compared to 68.2%, and this time the difference is statistically significant.
So, based on my observations, I would say that a lefty catcher would be slightly slower on the throw to third, based on the more complex footwork required, but he’d be hindered less by the batter. 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.
- Lefty throw “moves” more, causing trouble for second baseman. I came across this “explanation” recently and I’m not convinced. Obviously, any catcher, lefty or righty, would have to learn to make accurate throws to second base. If left-handed pitchers like David Wells, Mark Buehrle and Andy Pettitte can show excellent control, I don’t see why a left-handed catcher couldn’t make an accurate throw to second base.
- Difficulty in tagging out a runner at home.
When a catcher sets up to receive a throw from the outfield for a play at the plate, he generally stands in front of the plate, with his left foot on the third base foul line, just off the plate. As he catches the ball, he leans down over the foul line, closing off the path of the approaching runner. The ball is in his left (glove) hand which can easily sweep down for the tag. This play for a left-hander would definitely be more difficult. To make the tag with the right hand, he’d have to make a half-turn of this body (a counter-clockwise rotation) to get the tag down.
I think this is a real disadvantage, but I doubt in the end it makes a ton of difference, simply because the play doesn’t happen that often. In 2005, the average team threw out 12 runners at the plate (excluding force-outs, where no tag is required). Of these 12 plays, some fraction are not close and some don’t present any particular difficulties for a left-hander, for example a basic 5-2 fielder’s choice, or a play that resulted in a run-down. In any case, I would estimate that the tagging problem for a lefty results in no more than a run or two for the opposition over the course of a season.
- Left-handed catcher’s mitts are not available to Little League players.
This was true when I played Little League ball and in fact, it would have been a real impediment for a left-handed kid becoming a catcher. That was a while back though, (I don’t enjoy broadcasting my age, but let’s just say that Joe Pepitone was the Yankee first baseman my first year of Little League) and I thought I’d check to see what the current situation is.
So, I contacted Craig Seidel, who is the President of the Palo Alto Little League, in Palo Alto, California. Craig told me that left-handed catcher’s gloves are supplied to every team in the Palo Alto Little League:
In keeping with Little League principles, we wish to make baseball as accessible as possible…we provide almost anything a child will need to play, regardless of size, skill, handedness or other factors.
Asked if there were any left-handed catchers currently in the league, Craig responded:
I don’t know exactly how many left-handers we have catching. At lower levels, players rotate positions so most players are likely to try catching. As they specialize more in upper divisions, we tend to have fewer catchers in general. I don’t believe there are any impediments for a left-hander to become a catcher in our league.
So, sometime between the days of Joe Pepitone and Jason Giambi left-handed catcher’s gloves became available to Little Leaguers.
Advantages for Lefty Catchers
There are not many advantages for left-handed catchers, but there are a couple:
- Fielding bunts/nubbers in front of home plate. The left-hander has an easier throw to first base after fielding a ball in front of home plate. This is especially true for a ball fielded up the third base line, where a right-handed catcher would have to rotate his body about 180 degrees to be able to make a strong throw to first base.
- Catching breaking pitches from right-handed pitchers. With the glove on the right hand, a lefty catcher would be in better position to catch low outside (to a right-handed batter) pitches. A righty will often have to backhand that pitch, while a lefty can frame it normally (perhaps coaxing a few extra called strikes from the umpire).
Of course, the opposite is true for a lefty-pitcher, left-batter combination, but there are fewer of those.
What Bill James Said
Bill James himself comments on the left-handed catcher issue in his Historical Baseball Abstract. James writes:
The notion that a left-handed person could not be a major league catcher is absurd…The biggest reason there are no left-handed catchers is natural selection. Catchers need good throwing arms. If you have a kid on your baseball team who is left-handed and has a strong arm, what are you going to do with him?
The answer to the question is, of course, turn him into a pitcher.
This actually sounds like a pretty good reason to me. Pretty good, but not perfect. I agree that there’d be a tendency to move lefties who can throw into pitching roles, but I find it hard to believe that every single strong-armed lefty would end up on the mound. Maybe the kid doesn’t like to pitch. Maybe he likes to wear shin guards. Maybe his hero is Brad Ausmus. If natural selection were the primary force at work, I think you’d see a preponderance of righties behind the plate, but an occasional lefty would come along. But they haven’t, at least not in the last 100 years or so.
My Own Theory
Based on the above reflections, I feel like it’s safe to say there is no good reason why a left-handed thrower could not succeed at the professional level. So why aren’t there any? My own guess, and this is just wild speculation (one of my favorite activities), is that originally left-handers were not trusted as much as their righty counterparts. They were considered fluky, flaky, crazy if you like. Left-handed pitchers were considered the worst: Hall of Famer Rube Waddell is an example of a nutty left-hander from the old days, while Spaceman Bill Lee is a more modern example.
Ring Lardner, baseball reporter and short-story writer, is considered one of the finest observers of the game back in the Dead Ball Era. Here’s a bit from his story “My Roomy,” in which the narrator tries to explain the bizarre, downright psychotic behavior of his teammate, Buster Elliot. After concluding that Elliott “wasn’t no stew” nor was he a “dope,” our narrator observes:
There wouldn’t of been no mystery about it if he’d been a left-hand pitcher—but he wasn’t. He wasn’t nothin’ but a whale of a hitter and he throwed with his right arm. He hit left-handed o’ course; but so did Saier and Brid and Schulte and me, and John himself; and none of us was violent.
Since the catcher is also traditionally a team leader, it makes sense that teams would be reluctant to give that job to perceived nut-cases. Later, when left-handers had mostly lost their reputation for goofiness, tradition has assured the continued absence of the left-handed catcher.
One might ask, then, how the lefty-throwing Jack Clements overcame the obstacles and became a regular catcher. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think we can eliminate the lack of a left-handed catcher’s mitt at the Little League level as one of those obstacles.
References & Resources
Ring Lardner’s baseball stories give great insight into the early game and they are also laugh-out-loud-funny.