Deep Southpaw: Most Starts by a Lefty


The 1983 Yankees (the “Pine Tar Game” Yankees) started a left-handed pitcher in 127 of their regular season games. That’s the most lefty-starter games by any team in one season in the b-ref Play Index searchable era (1918-current).  Ron Guidry, Dave Righetti and Shane Rawley, all lefties, were the three primary starters for the Bombers all season long (this was the season Righetti pitched his no-hitter).  The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation were covered by a number of guys, but more than anyone else by two other lefties, Bob Shirley and, after he was called up from the minors in late June, Ray Fontenot.  The 1983 Yankees won 91 games, but in the pre-wild card era that wasn’t enough to get them to the post-season.   More lefty-heavy starting staffs after the jump.

The 1975 White Sox started almost as many lefties as the ’83 Yanks — 124 games started by southpaws.  That staff hardly needed fourth and fifth starters; three veteran lefties started a huge number of games for the Pale Hose.    Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood  started 43 games, Jim Kaat (a prominent figure in baseball seemingly since John Quincy Adams was president) started 41 games and Claude Osteen (who had previously served as #3 in a rotation behind Koufax and Drysdale) started 37 games.  Picking up for these guys as needed in the late innings was a right-handed kid named Rich Gossage, who Baseball-reference’s version of WAR suggests may have been the AL’s most valuable player that season.   It couldn’t have been easy for AL hitters that year up against Wilbur Wood for seven or eight innings and then suddenly facing the young Gossage.

Two teams had lefties start 116 games: The 1974 Orioles and the 1979 White Sox.  The ’74 O’s had a big three of left-handers Ross Grimsley, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally, who led Baltimore to an AL East championship but couldn’t get the team past Oakland’s mid-1970’s dynasty in the ALCS (Baltimore hitters had an OPS of .467 in the 1974 playoffs). The 1979 White Sox had a whole different set of lefty starters than the 1974 version, and it was a whole lot less distinguished group.  Ken Kravec, Rich Wortham and Ross Baumgarten, the White Sox three main lefty starters in 1979, had solid seasons, but do not conjure images of Cooperstown.  Their #4 guy, lefty Steve Trout, was the one lefty starter on that team who went on to a substantial career.

The Kansas City Royals of 1982 had 113 lefty starts, with Larry Gura, Vida Blue, Paul Splittorff and Bud Black.  The 1965 Dodgers started a lefty 112 times, despite Drysdale starting 42 games. Starts from Koufax, Osteen and Podres, plus a spot starts from others, added up.

Here’s a list of the eight team-seasons with the most lefty starts:
1. 1983 Yankees, 127lefty  starts
2. 1975 White Sox, 124
T3. 1979 White Sox and 1974 Orioles, 116
5. 1982 Royals 113
6. 1965 Dodgers 112
7. 1980 White Sox 111
8. 1980 Yankees 110

In the 154-game schedule era, the 1951 Red Sox, with 106 starts by southpaws, show up as the lefty-heaviest of starting rotations. Those Red Sox had five different lefties start at least 16 games, led by Mel Parnell.

24 thoughts on “Deep Southpaw: Most Starts by a Lefty

  1. 1
    Luis Gomez says:

    Does anyone care to share why lefthanders are called “southpaws”? (and please, no Larry Andersen´s references)

    • 3
      John Nacca says:

      The term southpaw developed from the fact that left-handed pitchers face south because baseball diamonds are laid out with home plate to the west. The term has been traced back to 1885.

      • 9
        kds says:

        The term “southpaw” was used to refer to left handed boxers at least as early as the 1840’s, so it could not be based on the orientation of ball fields before there were such.

    • 19
      Jim says:

      The OED says it’s unclear, but their earliest reference is from 1813.

      Etymology: < south n.+ paw n.1Apparently so called on account of the left hand being perceived to have a lesser or lower role relative to the right hand, but if so the reason for the use of south n. with such connotation is unclear.

      1813 Tickler 30 June 1/4 ‘Luk here mon, and convince yourself,’ said he, holding up the Tickler, in the right paw, between the ceiling and the floor, and with the south paw pointing to the ‘bow, vow, vow.’

  2. 2
    John Nacca says:

    From the practice in baseball of arranging the diamond with the batter facing east to avoid the afternoon sun. A left-handed pitcher facing west would therefore have his pitching arm toward the south of the diamond.

    • 4
      birtelcom says:

      That is indeed the widely accepted theory, although it doesn’t seem like anybody really knows for sure.

      • 20
        nightfly says:

        Besides “southpaw,” the term I’ve heard most – and only in reference to baseballers – is “portsider.”

        • 21
          Richard Chester says:

          Former Yankee announcer Mel Allen frequently used the expression “portsider”. That’s how I learned the difference between port and starboard.

          • 22
            John Autin says:

            For me as a kid, it was Ernie Harwell calling Mickey Lolich “the portly portsider”.

  3. 5
    Hartvig says:

    I thought that I remembered reading in the BJHBA that one of the Senator’s teams in the 1940’s sported an entirely left handed starting rotation but a quick check on B-R shows a different story. Does anyone else remember that or do I maybe have the wrong team or decade? I know that it was not in the post expansion era for certain so it wasn’t any of the teams that birtelcom listed. I’ll have to think on this for a spell.

    • 6
      Richard Chester says:

      The 1954 Senators had 4 LH pitchers who accounted for 98 of the team’s starts, Mickey McDermott, Johnny Schmitz, Chuck Stobbs and Dean Stone. There have been 27 occasions of a team having more than 98 LH starts.

      The 1944 Senators did have 4 or 5 knuckle-ballers who made something like 108 of their starts.

      • 7
        Hartvig says:

        I just found it. It was the 1954 team and under Ed Yost in the player rankings section.

        Without looking, I’m guessing that 1944 team lead the league in at least 1 category- passed balls.

  4. 8
    MikeD says:

    The 2013 Yankee rotation of Sabathia, Pettitte and Hamels, with some starts by Manny Banuelos, could challenge the 1983 staff for most lefty starts 30 years on.

    Just trollin’, Philly fans.

    I can’t imagine a team today taking a 24-year-old lefty like Dave Righetti, a former ROY winner, coming off a 14-8 season and a no-hitter, and putting him in the pen.

    • 11
      Hartvig says:

      I think that in the 80’s baseball went thru a period of gottahavacloser psychosis. Kansas City made a journeyman pitcher the highest paid player in the game (at least briefly) on the basis of a couple of good years as a closer. That’s also about the time that LaRussa started to popularize the notion that closers should be used for 1 inning only as well. Even colleges were taken in by the hoopla- Gregg Olsen was the #4 pick in the 1988 draft and was used exclusively as a closer while in college (I think).

      • 12
        MikeD says:

        I think the gottahavacloser psychosis hit its stride in the 80s and continued into the turn of this century. It seems that it’s only been in the last five to ten years that teams are more comfortable creating closers on the fly. The Yankees were also coming off a decade plus where they had Sparkly Lyle and then Rich Gossage, so the idea of giving the ball late in the game to some Johnny Come Lately just wasn’t going to fly.

        Converting a young, quality starter to the pen wasn’t quite as bad back then as it would be today. The LaRussa/Eckersely model hadn’t taken over yet, meaning Righetti was used for three or four years as a multi-inning closer. Still, not a good idea, but back then it was believed to be the right thing to do.

    • 15

      That kind of move is, indeed, unlikely.
      What is also unlikely is that we will ever see an Owner whose ego is so utterly, self-destructively out-of-control as Steinbrenner in the 80’s.

      The Goose jumped ship as a free agent, “embarrassing” (bare-assing) George.

      Somebody had to fill the gap.
      Rags was the best arm in the organization.
      The reason given to the public in spring training ’84 was that the Yanx “had too many starters.”

      There is a mathematical truth to that statement, as the ’84 Bombers paraded THIRTEEN different hurlers out to the mound in the 1st inning that year.

    • 23
      John Autin says:

      I might be wrong about this, as I wasn’t in NYC yet — but I think Righetti’s 1982-83 results (combined 25-18, 3.60) were viewed as mildly disappointing on the heels of his ROY campaign. And as shown, the team did have a glut of lefty starters.

      I’m not saying it was a smart move, but neither was it the same as making a SP into a closer in today’s game. In his first 3 years of relief, Rags averaged 103 IP and was real good, averaging a 158 ERA+ and the same 3.1 WAR as he’d posted in 1982-83. He had the highest relief WAR in the game over those 3 seasons.

  5. 10
    kds says:

    That a Red Sox team is so high on this list is interesting, given that Fenway is much more favorable for RHB. The rotation in the modern sense did not really exist until the late 50’s/early 60’s. Part of this was because of all the doubleheaders, but part was also because managers would save their lefty’s for Sportsman Park and try to pitch righty’s at Fenway. They also picked their starters based on the quality of the opponents. Stengel did this with his Yankee teams.

    • 24
      John Autin says:

      “Fenway is much more favorable for RHB.”

      kds, if that’s so, why have they had so many lefty batting champions? Williams had 6, Boggs 5, Yaz 3, Runnels 2, Lynn and Goodman 1 each. Bill Mueller was a switch-hitter (thus hit more as a lefty). From the right side — which covers more than half of all hitters — there’s only Nomar with 2, and Foxx, Manny and Lansford with 1 each.

      Fenway is not more favorable to RHB. When Manny won the batting crown in 2002, he hit .336 in Fenway, but .360 on the road. For his career, he hit .316 in Fenway, .312 in Jacobs Field, .321 in Yankee (the 3 parks where he played the most). Of those 3, his best OPS was in Jacobs, his worst in Fenway.

      The Monster isn’t the only feature of Fenway. And it doesn’t only help righties.

  6. 13
    Nash Bruce says:

    I’m sorry, I have made many mistakes, posting on here, and B-Ref, thankfully you guys haven’t slammed me or anything……I do get my ‘facts’ mixed up, and I appreciate your grace.
    I was wondering, though, I looked on B-Ref, and wasn’t Gossage’s monster year ’75, and not ’74?
    Interestingly, the Sox apparently attempted to thumb their nose at “gottahavacloser pshycosis”, converting Gossage to a starter in ’76. He threw 82 more innings that year……and struck out 5 more batters. Pittsburgh said “thank you very much”, trading for Gossage after the ’76 season, and converted him back to the pen- where he promptly posted a 5.9 WAR.

    Maybe this would be a sliver of circumstantial evidence, that could be applied towards the old B-Ref thread, “what if Mariano Rivera was a starter?” Although, Righetti, Eckersley, and Smoltz, among others, performed well as both starters and closers….so one could say that the better pitchers perform better in either role, closing stats being flashier, due to the nature of the job.

    But, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the statement, “Gossage wasn’t as good a pitcher as Dave Righetti”, for example.
    Maybe some guys just have roles that fit them perfectly.
    Only one beer into the evening……hope that this is somewhat coherent :-p

    • 14
      birtelcom says:

      Nash: Yes, Gossage’s monster year was 1975, which was also the year the White Sox had the huge number of lefty starts. The reference in the text to 1974 was a typo — thanks for catching it. I had the year identified correctly in the full list at the end of the post, but somehow typed “1974” in the text up above. In any event, it’s now corrected, thanks to you. Please never feel reluctant at all to correct anything in a post — one of the great things about blogging at a site like this is that one has multiple commenters keeping an eye out for needed corrections, improvements and amplifications.

    • 16
      Hartvig says:

      I think that almost all successful starters could be successful closers but of course, the opposite is fairly seldom the case. The exceptions almost exclusively seem to be where teams sort of follow the old Earl Weaver/Ray Miller rule and bring up guys who were primarily starters in the minors and start them out in the bullpen, like David Price and Neftali Feliz. I still think that most young pitchers would benefit from starting out in the majors with at least a few appearances in a mop up role before moving into the starting rotation,

      • 17
        Mike L says:

        Hartvig, I think the idea of young pitchers starting in the bullpen is a good one, but the economics probably don’t work out. Arbitration eligibility and free agency is tied to service time, so you don’t want real prospects (as opposed to fill-ins) sitting on the bench. That’s exacerbated with pitchers, who may only perform once or twice a week at most, but get credit for each day on a major league roster. Among the pitchers who just missed super-two for this year were Derek Holland, Ian Kennedy, and Tommy Hanson. None of their teams is too upset with that outcome.

  7. 18
    Doug says:

    Those ’83 Yankees are one of three teams with 5 left-handers starting 15+ games in a season. The others – 1989 Phils (Don Carman, Dennis Cook, Larry McWilliams, Terry Mulholland, Bruce Ruffin) and 1951 Red Sox (Leo Kiely, Mickey McDermott, Mel Parnell, Chuck Stobbs, Bill Wight).

    Despite Fenway being seen (and rightly so) as the last place a left-hander would want to pitch, the Red Sox also had 4 LHers with 15+ starts in 1991, and 3 in each of 1950, 1973 and 1983. Interestingly, the Red Sox started a lefty against the Yanks 11 times in 1983, versus only 7 times by the Yanks against the Red Sox.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *