Yes, there are too many left-handed pitchers in baseball.
Depending on whom you ask, there are anywhere between 7 and 12 per cent of left-handed people on Earth. If you ask Curtis, he will be quick to educate you that in ancient Mesopotamia left hand was used as a metaphor for misfortune, natural evil, or punishment from the gods. And then he will point at Jamie Moyer and let you do the math.
Italians call a lefty “maldestro” – a bad right-hander. Swedish go even further, using their word for left-hander (vänster, don’t try pronouncing this at home) as a root for term vänsterprassel, meaning cheating, infidelity, adultery. There is hardly a language without a more or less derogative expression for the minority handedness and there is hardly a sport these oppressed creatures call home more often than baseball.
Practice this in front of the mirror. If you do well, that’s enough to get a job in MLB and appear in Curtis Granderson’s nightmare
Twenty-eight. That’s the number, remember it. There will be numbers flowing in excess for the rest of this little write-up, probably many more numbers than you could care for, but if you have to stick with one, that’s it. Twenty-eight.
Last year, 28% of the pitchers to take a Major League mound were left-handers. I realize that one year is not necessarily a definite indicator, so I looked at the whole decade. The number is the same – 28% of the pitchers to take a Major League mound since the turn of millennium were left-handers. I could also tell you the percentage of southpaws in MLB since 1901, but if you’ve been paying attention, you already know the answer. It’s the magic number, I tell you. Major League Baseball teams drafted 2303 new pitchers over last three years. Twenty-eight strikes again, as 646 of those were of left-handed variety, accounting for 28.0504%.
Why in the world are these numbers so constant* and at the same time so high? How can left-handed pitchers, against all odds, populate professional baseball three times more frequently than they do other walks of life? Are left-handers just better right-handers? Or is this one of the last bastions of baseball traditionalism beating common sense?
*You know this story about how Space Shuttle parts could not be transported by rail? Well, to make a long story short, they didn’t fit in the rail tunnels, for those were made to be just wide enough for two rails to fit in. And the width of the railways was the standard one, as it was in the British Empire for centuries, where it inherited the width between the carriage wheels dating all the way back to the Roman Empire. So, basically the horse-ass-width-standard was passed on from generation to generation, giving a definite meaning to the “We’ve always done it this way”.
Somehow, I have no problem imagining this school of thinking in baseball. I can just picture a tryout under punishing Arizona Sun and this big-framed Tennessee right-hander letting vicious fastballs cut the dry air one after the other, moving with ease, hitting the corners, him snapping effortless curves with sharpest of breaks. As his session ends, a fat bald man in his late sixties walks up to the mound, simultaneously spitting tobacco and adjusting the imaginary cup. He pads the youngster on the back and says with visible regret: “Sorry kid, we are already at 72%. Gosh darn rules, I tell ya. It stinks kiddo, but we are full. Try again next year and come earlier”
I offer no answers, much less the definite ones. But it is early December, the evenings are long and quiet and if the most exciting discussion topic isJake Fox vs. Jeff Grey, then you can do much worse than grabbing a cup of coffee and reading a few more lines on this. I mean, if you’ve made it this far…
First and the most logical explanation, heartily endorsed by most every southpaw I know, is that lefties are just more talented for sports than the right-handers. Some complicated exegeses including brain-halves, wirings and electron-flows support this theory, but numbers generally don’t. Sure, there is an over-proportional number of successful left-handers in, say, fencing or tennis, but not so many in other sports. A good check is a widespread sport that seems to offer a minimum-to-none strategic advantage to the players of either handedness, such as basketball. Players in basketball change their positions on the court much more frequently than those in soccer or handball, where each wing is more suited for certain handedness or footedness, making basketball players more universally deployable. Also, there is no much actual difference in shooting from most any place on the court with either hand.
The best of the best basketball players play in NBA. I think it is fair to say that neither left-handers nor right-handers enjoy a priori strategic advantages. And only 7% (30 out of 430) of the world best basketball players are southpaws, much in line with the overall left-handed percentage in the world. I guess NBA didn’t get the Memo 28. Generally, in non-interactive sports and sports not based on dual confrontation (one on one sports) left-handers occur along the expected percentage lines, thus not really supporting a theory of all-lefty-sporting-world-dominance.
But, tennis shows different numbers. From 1968 to 1999 just over 24% of ATP Top 10 players were left-handed. This is statistically significant and it begs for explanation. If they are not more talented, why are they so successful in tennis (fencing, boxing, table-tennis)? The simple answer is – element of surprise. The more complicated one includes words like negative frequency dependent perceptual advantage. Get it? There is a very interesting study made by University of Münster and here is the core of their findings:
Beside the strategic argument (e.g. unusual angles of attack), it is suggested that lefthanders
enjoy a negative frequency dependent perceptual advantage. In interactive
sports the ability to anticipate an opponent’s intention based upon the contextual
information available early in an action sequence (e.g. postural orientation) is crucial to
successful performance. As a result of a perceptual frequency effect, player could
extract more meaningful information from a right-handed opponent’s postural
orientation or movement kinematics. Therefore, we assume that the strategic or
tactical advantage of left-handedness in interactive sports is partly due to a perceptual
frequency effect of handedness. The perceptual frequency effect should result in
better anticipatory skills of sporting competitors when facing right-handed opponents
than left-handed opponents.
What they did is that they played video sequences to tennis players. The videos were of other, unknown, tennis players just about to hit the ball. The videos were sometimes played in original form and sometimes horizontally flipped, thus turning left-handers into right-handers and vice-versa. The videos would then be stopped and audience asked to anticipate whether the shot will be long line or cross court. Regardless whether videos were played original or flipped, the audience always guessed much better when the image on the screen appeared right-handed. The handedness of the ones watching didn’t make the difference.
Spit image? Turning into left-hander is a recipe for success in tennis, due to rare occurrence. If you want to brag about reading texts including words like negative frequency dependent perceptual advantage, stop jumping over text and only looking at pictures, go back three paragraphs and enjoy
So, in what is otherwise a perfectly symmetric confrontation, left-handers enjoy a measurable advantage of being accustomed to the right-handers, while themselves posing a novelty, a surprise to the opponent. Time to take these learnings and finally go to baseball. What we have now are two theories (unproven, but with some merit).
1. Left-handers are not more talented for sports than right-handers.
2. Left-handers enjoy disproportional success in one-on-one confrontations due to the rarity of occurrence, also known as element of surprise.
So, back to the question that wakes up Curtis every night. Are there so many left-handed pitchers in baseball because they surprise batters?
The answer is neither simple, nor easy. See, in tennis, every player is both a pitcher and a batter. In baseball, the confrontation is broken down in four cases. And I can already tell you, left-handed pitchers may be a surprise, but depending on which side of the batters box the hitter is in, such surprise may range from What do you mean, your mother is moving in?! to Joe Morgan joins a monastery which requires an oath of silence.
Let’s look at the numbers. Over last five years there were exactly 937,598 MLB plate appearances (a number-crunching-dork’s dream, baseball is). And there is a certain silent beauty in large samples, numbers gracefully forming perfect shapes, much like sugar crystals.
First of all, isn’t the symmetry for opposing-handed confrontations (top-right, bottom-left)beautiful? Half a million samples living in perfect harmony.
There is nothing really new here, although it does quantify some things and allows us to come up with following postulates:
1. It is harder to face same-handed pitcher
2. It is harder to face opposing-handed batter
Combining this with a fact that right-handers outnumber left-handers both as hitters and pitchers, one could offer following lines, as well:
1. Life in MLB is in general easier on left-handed batters
2. Life in MLB is in general harder on left-handed pitchers
Mind you, this conclusions are only true in a league numerically dominated by right-handers. For lefty pitchers have actually better splits (OPS against of .814 and .730) than right-handers (.814 and .757), but, just as in baking a cake, it’s not which ingredients you take, but how much of each. So despite better splits, southpaws have actually worse OPS-against (.791 vs .784). The same is true for left-handed batters – worse singular splits than the right-handers, but favorable mixture puts them on top (OPS of .799 vs .778 for right-handers).
So, if I am a general manager, I’m theoretically looking to beef up on the left-handed hitting and lay-off left-handed pitching. There are two problems with accumulating left-handed hitting, though. First, as mentioned, only roughly one in ten people worldwide is lefthanded. So, it’s not like I can go to K-Mart and just buy me a dozen left-handed hitters whenever I feel like it. But, let’s imagine for a second that I could. So I come home with a bag full of shiny left-handed mashers and then the second problem strikes me. Where the hell do I play them?
Baseball, unlike most every other sport is not symmetrical at all. Pitching is, playing outfield is, but that’s it. Infield, with all the throwing going towards first base and infielders facing the batter, is right-hander-friendly, making exactly half of the defensive positions off-limits for lefties, thus limiting the deployment possibilities. Here are historical (1901 – present) percentages of left-handers broken down to defensive position they played:
Three catchers*, no second basemen and only two players on the left side of the infield appeared in modern day baseball game, last one of them exactly 100 years ago. Milo Netzel was 1909 Cleveland Naps question to which the Athletics answered with “Bobby Crosby!” a century later, as he compiled an uninspiring OPS of .466. The Naps at least limited him to 40 plate appearances, so I guess they get the credit for breaking a barrier and not being idiots all at once. Eight years before that, Cleveland Blues had another left-hander in infield, as Russ Hall (now, there is a baseball name!) went into history with a lifetime OPS of a 1.000, over 4 carefully assembled plate appearances.
* I am absolutely sold on not playing lefties on 2B, SS or 3B. But catcher? I mean, Molina brothers pick people off first and it’s not like Kendall would throw out any less runners stealing third if he were left-handed. Fielding bunts would be easier. Throwing to second and stopping the ball in the dirt unaffected. I don’t know and for once I am just blabbering without any numbers, but i would think that in 107 years at least one left-handed masher could have been found, who could have played decent enough defense as a catcher.
Opportunities for left-handed employment in the bottom of the inning are limited, indeed. Only four defensive positions to choose from, with three of them on the bottom of the defensive spectrum, meaning stiff competition from stiff right-handers, fielding their way to stardom with a bat in a hand. But, there is a trick. Right-handers earning a living with a bat realized that batting from left side can be learned. Or perhaps their stats-savvy high school coaches started suggesting that. Or their failure fathers wanted to do whatever it takes to at least relive some success and glory through their sons. Who knows? The fact is, batting from the left side can be learned and you don’t have to be born left-handed to bat left-handed* and improve your odds of succeeding in professional baseball.
* In modern day baseball, 20% of positional players were left-handers. However, 30% of the batters were left-handed batters. Also, there is an increased number of switch-hitters in MLB (about 9% lately as opposed to 5% in the first half of last century. 85% of switch hitters are right-handed**, which makes sense, as there is a higher return on investment for learning a skill.
** If I had to choose one single commentating line that sends me into uncontrolled rage it is – “But, he has more power from the left side”. Duh, yes! And more strikeouts, and more walks, and more everything, as like two thirds of the time he will be batting from that side. Wake up, already!
So the hitting environment has been set. There are 20% of left-handers (as in throwing hand), 30% of left-handed batters and roughly 40% of left-handed-batting plate appearances (due to switch hitters and managerial moves of using different line-ups against left-handed and right-handed starters). The last number is highly dependent on the mixture of pitchers faced*, so a much better baseline is the middle one. There are 30% of left-handed batters out there. How does this affect the competitive environment for left-handed pitchers?
* It is little like the well known foxes and rabbits exercise, the one in which population of foxes is affected by the number of available rabbits to eat, so that many foxes eating rabbits means little food left, starvation, decrease in number of foxes, few predators, lots of rabbits, lots of food, paradise for foxes, increase in number of foxes, and so on. Except, it’s nothing like that at all. First of all, foxes and rabbits were not managed by tradition-rich baseball people. If they were, there would have always been 72% of foxes and 28% of rabbits. Second, the supply chain is completely different. Whereas you can breed the theoretical fox in no time, in baseball real life you can not even get a single Fox for free. So, actual fluctuations in numbers are not to be really compared.
There is also another interesting piece of data. Contrary to what I thought before starting this exercise, left-handers are pretty evenly spread between starting and relieving, with only one percentage point of difference. That means that 27% of the starters are southpaws. So, it’s not like they are all sitting in the bullpen and waiting to strike out Granderson in the 9th. For simplicity, if such word can be uttered after 125,000 words already written, I will refer only to LHP, without distinction to starting or relieving.
So, I – a baseball GM, remember? – am going back to K-mart. I have already bought my hitters and I’ve heard that pitchers are dime a dozen this week. As I am walking down the aisle, with left-handers on the left and right-handers on the right, the way it should be in a well organized store!, I am taking out my pocket calculator and looking at the tags hanging around their necks. “Allows economical OPS of .757 against right-handed batters!”. “Unbeatable – only .730 against left-handers”. Quick calculation tells me that if all pitchers were average and all batters were average, I would be best served buying only right-handers*. But I know it is not that simple, that nobody is average and that I really want to buy the first left-hander in the aisle, for he exhibits tremendous upside (and downside, left-side, right-side and all other sides), goes by the name of Carsten Charles and seems positively goofy. I stick the calculator back in the pocket and take out the shopping list. It is dated back to 1912. It says “Get 28% left-handers”. I do it.
* This is of course very theoretical and not true. But the fact is that left-handers have an OPS-against between 10 and 15 points higher than right-handers, so if all players were really average and no match-ups played that would be the superior pitching staff.
But it is not an imaginary world, the people are not average and there is some real life talent on the top of the left-handed ladder. One-two punch of Sabathia and Santana is not the same as, I don’t know – Bruce Chen and Eric Milton. So, back to the 2005-2009 number crunching. Probably everyone who has made it this far knows what FIP is. For those who don’t, it is a metric that measures direct contributions (or retributions) of a pitcher to the score. Home runs, bases on balls and strikeouts. Right-handed pitchers compiled the FIP of 4.32 over last 5 seasons. Left-handers came in at 4.41. Knowing that there is a 3.20 baseline in that calculation, that is a significant difference.
So for reasons of more difficult working conditions, the left-handers are not as successful as right-handers. One could even say – they are not as good. At least not as good for the specific job they have been hired for, namely battling MLB batters, all of them. But, again, this is not to say that left-handers are relatively worse pitchers than right-handers. Quite to the contrary, their numbers as they are are amazing knowing how few of left-handers there are to start with. This exercise tries to confirm Curtis Granderson’s sentiments. The left-handed pitchers are good, but there are too many of them in MLB.
In order to get the current left-handed bunch to be equally successful as the right-handers, we have to let the worst ones go. Let’s get rid of the worst players (FIP wise) and see how many have to go, so that remaining group measures up with the right-handers average. It’s not like anyone will miss Phil Dumatrait, anyway. The scale comes to a still after we have removed 24 per cent from the bottom of the left-handed heap. This means that when you remove one quarter of the worst left-handers, the rest is equally good as the recent right-handers, all of them, good and bad. Yes, that includes Russ Ortiz. These numbers are more in line with expected, given that baseball, like tennis, favors left-handers in one-on-one match-ups, but makes it harder for left-handed pitchers, due to numerical dominance of right-handed batters. The revised number, or the percentage of worthy left-handers in MLB is around 22%.
If the worst one out of every four left-handers would leave the MLB, the rest would, on average, be of equal quality as current right-handers.
So yes, the left-handers are good, talented, they surprise, they are lethal on left-handed batters and yes, there are too many of them in the MLB on merits of quality and effectiveness alone. For every three left-handers employed by MLB on the base of merit there is one there because we have always done it this way. And Curtis, I just don’t have an answer as to why there are so many LHPs out there. From where I sit, I’d say – left-handed batters are exploiting the market, left-handed pitchers are exploiting the “tradition” and you are the collateral damage.