Why Are There No Left-Handed Catchers?

UPDATE (02/02/09): This is an old post, which has several mistakes. My updated answer to this question is available in Chapter 3 of my book The Baseball Economist.

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Benny DiStefano is largely remembered as the answer to the trivia question “Who was the last left-handed catcher to play in the Major Leagues?” At least, I think that’s the answer. The point is that left-handed catchers are extremely rare. This puzzles me.

Because of the speed of play, infield position players other than the first-baseman must be right-handed. This means that lefties who want to play in the big-leagues must play outfield or first. Why not catcher? Unlike second, third, and short the catcher has no better angle making throws to first with either his right or left hand. If anything, the angle is improved for lefties for most fair balls that catchers can field.

I listen closely when I hear commentators discuss the phenomenon. The answer most commonly given is that left-handed catchers have a harder time throwing out runners at third on steal attempts. A lefty must pivot and possibly throw behind a right-handed batter. This allows runners at second a greater opportunity to reach third on a steal. While I am willing to grant this is the case, you must take the logic further to weigh the trade-off with right-handed catchers at first base. A difficult throw for a right-handed catcher increases lead for runners at first by limiting the effectiveness of catcher pick-offs. This increases the likelihood that the runner can reach second safely. So the question is, assuming my assumptions hold, what is the difference in probabilistic runs saved by keeping first-base runners off second versus keeping second-base runners off third.

To to this I am going to use Lindsey’s 1963 frequencies and scoring probabilities of changes in the game state. Though more updated numbers exist, I happen to have access to this table in Albert and Bennett’s Curve Ball. I doubt the results for what I am doing would differ much from newer estimates. The Lindsey table list the frequency of the 24 base/out game situations. It also lists the expected runs generated from each situation. What I want to do with this table is to estimate the change in probabilistic scoring from steals of second and third, which catchers try to prevent. A successful steal of second can change the game state in three ways: 1)going from a runner on first to a runner on second, 2) going from runners on first and third to runners on second and third, or 3) going from runners on first and second to runners on second and third. A successful steal of third also changes the game situation in three ways: 1) going from a runner on second to a runner on third, 2) going from runners on first and second to runners on first and third, or 3) going from runners on first and second to runners on second and third. Since the change in the third state is the same for both I can throw it out. Here is the change in expected runs from changes in the situations for all out configurations.

Stealing Second
Frequency Expecte Runs Expecte Runs Expected Runs Freq.* Diff. Total Change
1 1 2 Change
0 0.064 0.813 1.194 0.381 0.076 1 to 2
1 0.076 0.498 0.671 0.173 0.051 0.151
2 0.078 0.219 0.297 0.078 0.023
Outs 1,3 1,3 2,3 Change 1,3 to 2,3
0 0.004 1.94 1.96 0.02 0.008 0.036
1 0.011 1.115 1.56 0.445 0.017 TOTAL
2 0.016 0.532 0.687 0.155 0.011 0.187

Stealing Third
Frequency Expecte Runs Expecte Runs Expected Runs Freq.* Diff. Total Change
2 2 3 Change
0 0.11 1.194 1.39 0.196 0.153 2 to 3
1 0.024 0.671 0.98 0.309 0.024 0.187
2 0.029 0.297 0.355 0.058 0.010
Outs 1,2 1,2 1,3 Change 1,2 to 1,3
0 0.014 1.47 1.94 0.47 0.027 0.074
1 0.026 0.939 1.115 0.176 0.029 TOTAL
2 0.033 0.403 0.532 0.129 0.018 0.260

Assuming a handedness advantage at throwing out stealing runners, a right handed catcher saves, on average, .073 runs per game (0.26 saved by righties – 0.187 saved by lefties) over equally skilled left-handers, which translates to about 12 runs a season. So, maybe there is something to the conventional wisdom. But, this assumes that two equal quality catchers. Certainly, there have been exceptional left-handers who could more than make up for this deficiency. So,I would also like to offer another reason. If you have a left-hander with an arm good enough catch, why not pitch him? Left-handers are more scarce than right handers so left-handers who are good enough to be catchers are likely to end up as pitchers than right-handers of equal arm strength. I believe Bill James mentions this explanation in the NBJHA. Left-handed pitcher Chris Short did catch one game in 1961.

I am not totally convinced by my own work here so I welcome feedback. I was kind of surprised to find the right-hand advantage.

4 Responses “Why Are There No Left-Handed Catchers?”

  1. Lorie Whitmer says:

    I have no website but do have a 15 yr old left handed son. Throughout his summer baseball career all he did was catch, he is a great left handed catcher, quick and can pick a kid of third with little effort. For the last 2 years of high school baseball they refuse to let him catch, why, because he is left handed, this choice has been made without even letting him show them how well he can catch. The coach this year told him the only place for a lefty was first base, the outfield, and pitching. There is no place for a left handed catcher. Personally I find this absurd. To me it is discrimination. I to am left handed, granted we have to adjust certain things and learn to compensate for it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do the same things a righty can. More than anything I just wanted to let you know there are good lefthanded catchers out there.

  2. Matt Bertels says:

    The highest batting average in history for a single season by a full time catcher is held by John T. (Jack) Clement. He was the last full time left handed catcher. He retired in 1900 after stints with both Philadelphia teams. For those that feel there is no hope for a left handed catcher watch NCAA baseball, and every now and then one might appear.

  3. Dwight Ash says:

    I am not sure of JC’s logic but I feel the differences between individual catchers in ability is the most important factor. I agree with Lorie that there is prejudice towards left handed catchers. I am 70 years old and my father was a left handed catcher. I remember him playing fast pitch softball in his 40’s after WW-2 in Johnstown, PA. and he was one of the best players in the league. I was the batboy for the team. His claim to fame was that he once caught Satchel Paige for a game and Satchel did not want to pitch to him. My father told him, Satchel, I am a good catcher and you just throw them and I will catch them! He did and he pitched a one hitter and my Dad’s team won the game. My father was a hero to me but mostly because he enlisted in WW-2 at age 40 in 1943 and went thru OCS and became a 2nd Lt. at age 41. He was quite a man.
    Dwight Ash PT.

  4. Mr. Lloyd says:

    I am 15 and i am also left handed i also catch for my high school varsity baseball team my coach incuraged me to catch for a couple reasons

    1.all the pitcherd on the team can catchs
    2. it makes it easier on the line up

    but i still feel us as left handers that can get the job done should not be treated like we are not good enough to do something a right hander can. being told i cant do something for a stupit reason as i ‘m left handed hurts.