Innovating with Left-Handed Throwers

When the Arizona Diamondbacks made Trevor Bauer, who pitched only once a week throughout much of his college career, the third overall pick in the MLB draft earlier this week, some discussion of the possibility of applying this strategy at the Major League level occurred. It is unlikely that any team will adapt this strategy soon, but it reflects a healthy desire to explore possible ways for teams to innovate and gain strategic advantages. In the past, teams that were early adapters to on base percentage based offenses or new and different bullpen structures benefited by being ahead of the strategic curve, so it is wise for teams to continue to seek out similar advantages.

One possible area worth exploring is different ways of using left-handed throwing players. For most of the history of modern baseball, left-handed throwing big leaguers have only been pitchers, outfielders, first baseman and designated hitters. Obviously, many left-handed throwers rank among the greatest ball players ever including hitters like Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial and pitchers like Lefty Grove, Randy Johnson and Warren Spahn. However, it is still possible that by restricting the use of left-handed players, teams are missing a possible strategic advantage.

Left-handed pitchers have the same opportunities and challenges as right-handed pitchers. They both need to get batters out to stay on major league rosters and contribute to their teams, but for non-pitchers it is different. Left-handed throwers are restricted to positions from which very strong offense is expected. There are extremely few first baseman or outfielders who build careers around being good defensively or who become stars, even Hall of Famers by combining solid but unspectacular offense, with great defense. For other positions such as second base, third base, shortstop or catcher, this is fairly common.

Thus, left-handed throwers who are not pitchers that have to hit very well to play in the big leagues, but more pertinently for teams thinking strategically, slick fielding left-handed throwers who are good, but not great, hitters face limited opportunities. One way to think of this is to look at six relatively recent players Will Clark (.303/.384/.497 OPS+ 137), John Olerud .295/.398/.465 OPS+ 128), Keith Hernandez (.296/.384/.436 OPS+ 128), Don Mattingly (.307/.358/.471 OPS+ 127), Cecil Cooper (.298/.337/.466 OPS+ 121), and Mark Grace (.303/.383/.442 OPS+ 119). They were all very good players who had long careers, but who fall just short of being Hall of Famers. The reason none of these players are likely to make the Hall of Fame is that their numbers do not match up to the best slugging first baseman of their eras. For example, Willie McCovey, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome and Mark McGwire were all more valuable hitters than these five.

Clark, Olerud, Hernandez, Mattingly, Cooper and Grace were all left-handed throwers who were very strong defensively and, had they been right-handed, could probably have played second or third base, perhaps even catcher, at the major league level. Had they put up similar numbers while playing positions reserved for right-handed throwers, they would have had much more impressive careers and probably made it to the Hall of Fame. Players one cut down from these six are often unable to have long major league careers if they throw left-handed because they do not hit well enough to hold down a starting job at a big offensive position. A slick fielding league average hitter who throws right-handed is a valuable middle infielder or catcher, but if he throws left-handed he will have a hard time staying on a major league roster.

Since 1970, the year before the first of these first basemen made his debut, there have been 11 players who primarily played second base, third base, shortstop or catcher who posted OPS+ between 119 and 137, the range for the six first baseman, and played in 1,700 or more games-all of the first baseman played in at least that many games. Of these 11 players, four, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, George Brett and Wade Boggs are in the Hall of Fame. Three more, Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen and Jorge Posada are either still active or not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame, but will be strong Hall of Fame candidates. The remaining four, are Bill Madlock, Darrell Evans, Ron Cey and Bobby Grich

The six left-handed throwing first-baseman identified above have offensive numbers that are very similar to this group, but because they were restricted to playing first base, they were unable to have Hall of Fame careers and contribute to their teams at that level. For much of the 1980s, for example, the New York Yankees had weak players at third base and a surplus of first base options. If Mattingly had been able to play third as well as first base, the Yankee offense would have been much stronger.

There are a range of reasons why left-handed throwers do not play various positions, but not all these reasons are equivalent. The inability of a left-handed thrower to pivot on a double play while playing second base makes it extremely difficult for a left-hander to play that position. Putting, even an extremely strong fielder, like Keith Hernandez, at that position would severely reduce the double plays a team could turn. At other positions the situation is different. The tag play at the plate is harder for a lefty, but it might force left-handed catchers to innovate and find ways to make that play while reducing the chance of injury. At third base, some tag plays and pivots are tougher for a lefty, but these barriers may not be insurmountable. Additionally, a left-handed third baseman would have an easier time guarding the line against doubles.

It remains true that at these positions right-handed throwers have an advantage, but it is far less apparent that the advantage, other than at second base, is big enough for it to still make sense for left-handers never to play those positions even if he is a solid hitter and better fielder than any available right-handed thrower. The first team to work with their solid hitting slick fielding left-handed first baseman so that he could play a little bit at third base, or serve as a backup catcher would gain a big strategic edge by finding a way to make their bench more flexible and get more at bats for their stronger hitters. Doing this would be very controversial and probably draw ridicule, but that is always the risk involved with innovation in baseball or anywhere else.