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 the 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: (To see the table, use the following link: http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/top-10-left-handed-catchers-for-2006/
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.