Confusion Behind The Plate

The family had just gotten home from the son’s little league game. During dinner, the mom wondered aloud why all the left-handed kids in the league were pitchers, even the ones who weren’t so good at it. Since the dad had once been a not so good left-handed pitcher himself, he felt a special affinity for the subject.

“First of all,” he said, slicing his steak, “Most kids are right-handed, so left-handedness is inherently confusing.”

“For you or someone else?”

“In fencing, they say it’s a killer advantage.”

“So baseball is like fencing?”

“Not really,” he admitted, putting down the knife. “But batting from the opposite side does favor the batter. Not only does the batter get a better look at the ball, but it doesn’t leave the pitcher’s hand on a line with the batter’s head, which can be very influential if the batter is you.”

“But wouldn’t you want right-handed pitchers if most people bat right-handed?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “And that’s why there’s a premium on left-handed batters, to get the opposite-side batting advantage against those right-handed pitchers. A left-handed batter is also a couple of steps closer to first base.”

“What’s that got to do with left-handed pitching?”

“Well,” he said between bites, “If you need left-handed batters, then you need left-handed pitchers to throw to those guys, which is why if you’re left-handed you will pitch at some point in your career, even though you won’t have the same-sided pitcher’s advantage until the less talented get winnowed out at higher levels of the sport, where the conventional wisdom expects more winnowing of righties than lefties.”

“How do you know that happens?”

“I don’t. It’s conventional wisdom. It doesn’t have to be correct, just conventional.”

“Go on,” she invited.

“There’s even some left-brain, right-brain research suggesting lefties have a natural reaction-time advantage. All of which,” he proclaimed, “supports the conventional wisdom that it’s easier for lefties than righties to get ahead in baseball.”

“Then what’s your excuse?”

“Premature winnowing?”

“I heard you can take something for that.”

“Nah,” he said. “I’m like the guy in Landmark Status, whose basketball career was cut short by his height.”

“Except less funny,” she said, bringing dessert. “Why don’t you check the percentage of left-handers in the big leagues against the population at large? Then you’ll know if your conventional wisdom is just a myth.”

“Hmmm,” he said, sounding thoughtful, but enjoying his work-free weekend, and his myth. “I guess there’s another reason for making lefties pitchers,” he offered. “They can only play first base or outfield otherwise.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll bite. Why’s that?”

“Because they can’t play on the left side of the infield.”

“Where’s that?” she asked, sipping her coffee.

“Third base, shortstop and second base.”

“Why not?”

“Because they have to either spin or step back to make the throw to first base, while a right-hander is already pointed that way when he fields the ball.”

“What about catcher?” she asked. “Catcher isn’t on the left side of the infield. It’s in the middle, right behind the plate.”

“Hmmm,” he said, mulling it over. “Well, you do want to have your throwing arm on the opposite side from the batter.”

“I know,” she said, clearing the dishes. “And most batters are righties, except where they’re not.”

“Exactly,” he said, triumphantly pushing back from the table and pitching in.

“But once you’ve got all those left-handed batters,” she asked, “Wouldn’t you also want left-handed catchers?”

“Hmmm,” he said, buying time. “The right-hander’s still in a better position to make the throw to, um, maybe first, not sure about second, but third for sure, I think.” He checked his watch. “Hey, the game’s started!” he exclaimed, and turned on the television.