Sports

Karl Lindholm: Bat lefty — it’s a big deal!

TED WILLIAMS, PERHAPS baseball’s greatest batter in the game’s century and a half history, batted left-handed and threw right-handed. Many of baseball’s greatest players demonstrated this mix-handedness (including Red Sox Yaz, Wade Boggs, Rafeal Devers). A medical study noted that 32% of the game’s greatest players, batted left and threw right.

You want your kid to be a major leaguer, and make a ton of money, so you can retire and live on Easy Street?

Well, turn him around!

Make sure he bats left-handed, from day one, from the day he first picks up that fat red plastic kid bat, or some other kiddie cudgel and attempts to bash something with it.

It doesn’t matter if he appears to favor his right hand, eating, say, or scrawling primitive scribbles: just gently instruct him to put his left-hand on top of the right when he first picks up a cylindrical object and goes about smiting.

The next thing you know he’ll be whacking the ball around Fenway Park, like Ted Williams before him (maybe the greatest hitter ever) or Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, he of the lifetime .328 batting average, or today’s masher Rafael Devers, as of Tuesday afternoon leading the Sox with 29 homers and the American League with 90 RBIs.

What did these generational stalwarts, Teddy Ballgame, Boggs, and Devers, have in common? That’s right, they all bat left-handed.

What else?

Right again: they all throw right-handed … along with Yaz, another Red Sox great. And Ty Cobb and Yogi Berra and Rod Carew and many other great players.

This year’s astonishing Shohei Ohtani hits his towering homers lefthanded (he leads the Majors with 40) and throws his blazing fastball over 100 mph righthanded (he’s 8-1 with a 2.79 ERA).

Ichiro Suzuki is another great player who threw right and batted left and he had over 4,000 hits (4,367 to be exact) if you combine his nine years playing at Japan’s highest level and his 19 in the Major Leagues.

Batting left-handed conveys an obvious advantage to a ballplayer: Because the bases are run counterclockwise, a left-handed batter is a step and a half closer to first base before he even hits the ball — and his momentum is carrying him in the right direction after he hits it.

On the other hand, throwing right-handed confers an advantage in and of itself. It allows you to play any position on the field. Generally, lefties are discouraged from playing catcher or the infield positions other than first base. (This prohibition makes sense at the highest levels of the game but amounts to a prejudice, tradition, at lower levels. But there it is.)

Pitching right-handed is effective simply because most batters are also right-handed — and it’s harder for a right-handed hitter to hit successfully against a right-handed pitcher. (It’s likewise true that a lefty hitter has less success against a lefty pitcher. But there are many more right-handed pitchers than lefties.)

Right now, in the American League, four of the 10 leaders in offensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement, generally regarded as the definitive measure of a player’s value), bat lefty and throw righty, another is a switch-hitter who throws righty, and two are lefty/lefty.

A key reason why the Yankees are so much better now than in the first half of the season is that they corrected the right-handed imbalance of their line-up by trading for two left-handed batters, Joey Gallo (29 homers, a lefty hitter and righty-thrower) and Anthony Rizzo (lefty both ways).

So how is it that a right-handed person can bat left-handed with such a high level of success?

Simple. There’s no physical reason for a right-handed person to bat from the third base side of the plate. It’s just tradition, convention. 

In October 2017 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that documented the startling success of MLB players who batted left and threw right. The study analyzed data from every major league player from 1871 to 2016.

90% of people are right-handed in the world, but 12% of major league players throw right-handed and bat left-handed — and 32% of baseball’s greatest players batted lefty and threw righty!

The study calls into question “the standard convention that people who are right-hand dominant should bat in a right-handed stance and those who are left-hand dominant should necessarily bat left-handed.”

Lead researcher David Mann reported that he doesn’t believe that “certain kids are born better able to throw right-handed but bat left-handed. We certainly don’t believe this is innate. We believe that this can be taught, though it should be done early in development.”

Fear and intimidation are the essence of the pitcher-batter relationship, which itself is the essence of baseball. Mound immortal Sandy Koufax asserted that “Pitching is the art of instilling fear.”

Everyone is afraid of the ball in baseball, naturally. Hitting is overcoming that fear. For a right-handed batter, the illusion (or reality!) of being hit by a pitch is greater if that pitch is being delivered by a right-handed pitcher, simply because of the arm angle from the right side.

The same is true on the other side: Lefties get out lefty hitters at a significantly higher rate than righties. But remember that 90% — there are many more right-handed pitchers than lefties, so the advantage goes to left-handed hitters.

You do know, I trust, that a batter has two-fifths of a second to decide whether to swing at a pitch, an average fastball — and then also to calculate on what plane he should swing to connect with the ball.

Now here’s the rub: Pitchers curve the ball! They don’t throw it straight all the time.

The breaking ball from a pitcher to a like-sided batter (curve, sinker, slider, cutter) comes right at the hitter, buckling the knees of the bravest batter, before breaking down into the strike zone.

As busher Jack Keefe, the protagonist in Ring Lardner’s baseball novel (1916), “You Know Me, Al,” writes, “Be home soon, Mom. They’re beginning to throw the curve.”

It’s not fair: two-fifths of a second — and they curve it!

Bat lefty, turn ’em around.

Thus ends today’s lesson on mix-handedness in baseball.

 Karl Lindholm has a Ph.D. in American Studies, so his claim to be a Doctor of Baseball is not entirely without merit.

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