The Success and The Failures of Lefthanders in Sports
Why Not More Lefthanded Baseball Players?
The game of baseball has welcomed and encouraged lefthanded pitchers and lefthanded batters since its beginning over 150 years ago. The development of these lefthanders has influenced the way the game is played and strategies still used today. At the same time, baseball continues to drive lefthanded children away from the game by limiting their defensive positions and their opportunities to participate.
In those earlier days of baseball, there weren’t a lot of lefthanded people around, but if a lefthander came along who could catch and throw and hit the ball, they would get a chance to play. Then people began to notice that batting lefthanded might be an advantage, with the batters’ box closer to first base and the swing leading into their first steps down the base line. Also, the other teams’ worst defensive players often played in right field since it received less action from the majority of righthanded batters.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, they started putting up outfield fences, and then building stadiums to surround the ball-fields with bleachers for the fans. For some reason many of those fields had shorter right-field fences than left-field fences, and the advantages for lefthanded batters increased. For the next 20 or 30 years the game was dominated by lefthanded batters hitting for higher batting averages and hitting more home runs than most of the best righthanded batters in the game.
By the 1930’s statistics started to show that many lefthanded pitchers had a better success rate against those lefthanded batters than most righthanded pitchers did, and the lefty vs righty strategy as we know it began to develop. Teams sought some lefthanded pitchers to counteract the lefthanded batters, and they taught lefthanded pitchers to throw sweeping curveballs that broke away from lefthanded batters. Teams started putting more righthanded batters in the lineup against lefthanded pitchers, and more lefthanded batters against righthanded pitchers. Switch-hitters became valuable commodities, and lefthanded relief pitchers became part of the game strategy.
Even before the rise of lefthanded batters and lefthanded pitchers, experts had determined that players who threw lefthanded could not efficiently play 2ndbase, shortstop and 3rdbase. They might be able to catch the ground balls and line drives, but it took extra time for them to turn their bodies before throwing to 1st, which allowed more runners to beat the throw. These experts also determined that lefthanded throwing catchers could not do the job, because righthanded batters would get in their way when they threw to 2nd, and because they would have to turn their bodies before throwing to 1st.
Since the experts made these determinations over 100 years ago, baseball has lived by this unwritten rule that lefthanders are not able to and not allowed to play these positions. There has not been even one lefthander who has played any of these positions in MLB (or minor league baseball) on a regular basis, just a few who have played a few innings or games in an injury/roster emergency.
We can agree with the experts that say it is more difficult for a lefthanded thrower to play catcher or one of the infield positions, but we will never concede that it is impossible. With proper training and practice, and maybe adjusting their footwork and their throwing motion, a lefthander could get the job done. And if not well enough to earn the starting job, maybe well enough to save a roster spot and give a manager a few more defensive options. Even if none of them ever make the major leagues, allowing lefthanded catchers and lefthanded infielders to compete from little league through high school and maybe even college baseball, will benefit them and benefit the game of baseball.
There are some youth baseball coaches who feel that lefthanders should not be allowed to play these “forbidden positions” at any level of baseball. They feel that allowing a lefthander to play one of them is a waste of their time that just gives them false hope, and it prevents a righthanded prospect from getting the playing and practice time. Way too often, from little-league baseball up through high-school baseball, lefthanded children are told that there only options are pitcher, first-base, or outfield.
Imagine the frustration for a lefthanded child, who has managed to get a baseball glove that fits his right hand so they can throw with his left. They have probably practiced playing catch, and pretended they were the shortstop fielding ground balls and throwing to first base. They are looking forward to trying out for the team, showing what they can do, and learning how to play the game. Then they find out they are only allowed to play certain positions, and not allowed to have as much fun as other children.
Even if their only chance of making the major leagues is playing outfield, first-base, or pitching, their best chance of making the majors might actually come from starting off as an infielder or as a catcher. Catchers are more involved in the defensive game than any other position, and playing catcher might help make a player better when they switch to another position. Playing the infield keeps a player more involved than playing outfield, and learning to field ground balls well help make them better outfielders when the time comes.
Very few major leaguers are playing the same position that they played when they were in little league. Most of them played different positions until a coach or scout suggested they move to their current positions. Lefthanders do not have that luxury, and unless they are a good pitcher, they don’t have as much fun in the game. Even lefthanded pitching prospects can lose interest in the game if they do not get to play other positions on the non-pitching days.
There is something terribly wrong with not allowing them to try, especially at the earliest levels of the game. When children first learn to throw and catch a ball, they often practice by taking turns throwing ground balls toward each other and fielding those ground balls and making the throw to first base. If they join a team and are not allowed to even compete or practice at all positions, their opportunity to learn the game and enjoy the game is limited. Even though there is an important valuable role for lefthanders to play in baseball, they are not as welcome in the game as it seems.