Left-handed Baseball Players Have Advantage

Norichika Aoki throws with his right hand but hits lefty.

A brief article on the Washington University in Saint Louis website discusses how left-handed pitchers and hitters have a distinct advantage in the game of baseball.

This is probably not surprising news to most readers of this site, but the math has been done, and despite roughly 90% of the adult population being right-handed, about 25% of professional baseball players are left-handed. Two and a half times the national average is no joke.

Statistics brought out in the article to support the thesis that baseball favors lefties include the fact that 59 of the 138 hitters enshrined at the baseball hall of fame are lefties. That’s nearly 43%.

When the eight switch-hitters are added to the tally, the percentage rises to 49.

The number of lefty pitchers in the hall of fame was 21% of the total, which isn’t nearly as impressive as the hitters, but still twice the left-handedness rate of the general population.

The reasons given for the disadvantages experienced by righties are many. From a right-handed hitter’s perspective, first of all, southpaw pitchers are few and far between, so the unfamiliarity of the pitching motion probably hurts the hitters in that situation. The advantage is probably greatest in little league and pre-university baseball.

That said, the southpaw’s advantage is assumed to dissipate at higher levels due to the fact that right-handed batters have more experience against them and are able to see the ball slightly better against a lefty because the batter is not required to turn his head so much to see the pitcher’s release.

Right-handed hitters, at the professional level at least, hit better against left-handed pitchers than against the more predominant right-handed pitchers. Left-handed batters, due to being able to pick up the ball more easily, have a relative advantage when facing right-handed pitchers. Because 75% of pitchers at the pro level are right-handed, left-handed batters have a natural match-up advantage most of the time.

Left-handed batters also have a roughly 5.5 foot advantage in terms of their proximity to first base. Additionally, a lefty’s swing-generated momentum will carry them towards first base while a righty’s will pull them towards third. This means that lefties reach first base about a sixth of a second faster than right-handed batters. In other words, it’s easier for them to beat the throw to first base.

All of the numbers crunched in this study were for MLB, but it’s easy to see how they can be validated by a casual look at the success stories here in NPB.

As of games played July 12th, 2008 in the Central League, five of the top ten batters (statistical rankings) are left-handed hitters. The same is true for the Pacific League standings (Chiba’s Nishioka is a switch-hitter).

Furthermore, when looking at the Japanese players that have gone on to play professional baseball in North America, big names like Ichiro (lefty), Hideki Matsui (lefty), Kaz Matsui (switch hitter), Akinori Iwamura (lefty) and Kousuke Fukudome (lefty) all come to mind.

This is, of course, not to say that right-handed pitchers and hitters can not also be outstanding baseball players. Yomiuri’s Alex Ramirez, Yokohama’s Seiichi Uchikawa, Seibu’s Hiroyuki Nakajima and Rakuten’s Rick Short are all righties.

As for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, several members of the first team that play regularly are left-handed hitters. Norichika Aoki, Aaron Guiel, Shinichi Takeuchi, Yuuichi and Kazuki Fukuchi (switch-hitter) all bat left-handed. Interestingly enough, they are also all outfielders.

About Christopher Pellegrini

Christopher is a budding sabermetrician and long-time supporter of Tokyo’s more lovable team, the Swallows. He has publicly volunteered, several times, that he plans to buy the team at some point in the future. When he finally runs the joint, it is likely that he will fine any player who swings at the first pitch or sac bunts (unless it’s a pitcher, of course). Follow him on Twitter: @chrispellegrini

  • I haven’t found the actual quote, but I recall an interview with Ichiro a couple years back in which he was asked how he’d have fared if the order in which the bases were run were reversed and he said he wouldn’t be a pro. Considering how many plays at first appear to be decided by a step, it would seem obvious that lefties would be far more likely to succeed as hitters for average.

    Any idea what the breakdown is like? Players with high averages vs. power hitters, etc. I would assume the difference for power hitters would be less pronounced – they still have a disadvantage in terms of picking up the ball when facing a right-handed pitcher, but speed would be less of a factor.

    On the fielding side, the article brings up the disadvantages lefties have in the infield, which has me wondering: has there ever been a great lefty 3rd baseman or middle infielder?

    Are left-handed catchers better at stopping steals when the batter is a lefty or does the batter interrupt their line of sight too much? Or are there just too few lefty catchers for that to be ascertained?

  • Actually, the question was more along the lines of,

    ‘What if, starting tomorrow, they switched first and third?’

    to which he replied,

    I’d retire.

  • Yes, that’s it. Thanks.

  • Mike Sweeney

    I have set out to write a paper on “left-handed” batsmen in the game of cricket and found your article on “left-handed” baseball batters to be very instructive. I have come to the conclusion that the terms “left (or right) handed” are misleading when applied to 2 such handed activities. Who made the decision in baseball that a batter standing on the first base side of the plate (and with the the right hand above the left gripping the bat) should be called “left-handed”? I have recently completed the first draft of my paper and would be happy to send it to you via e.mail if you provide your e.mail address.
    Regards
    Mike Sweeney
    Canberra, Australia

  • Mike,
    We’d love to see what you’re working on, so please send it to:

    admin{at}tokyoswallows.com

    (of course, please replace the brackets and ‘at’ with the real deal)

    Thanks,
    Tsubamegun