From My Sporting Perspective

Everything you find in this blog is excerpted from John Walsh's story for the Hardball Times. This is going to be a 4-part series. Here is the first part:

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.


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