Where are the Left-Handed Shortstops?

1994 Conlon TSN #1102 - Arky Vaughan - Courtesy of COMC.com

 

No, I’m not lamenting the unwritten rule that’s deprived us of left-throwing shortstops ever since Ragtime was the rage and hot dogs came with gloves — not right now, anyway. This is for the left-only batter, a species that’s become almost as rare.

Left-swinging Arky Vaughan came to bat for the 5,000th time in 1939, and Cecil Travis followed in ’46. That made four LHBs out of 41 shortstops with 5,000 plate appearances to date. Now let’s play a game: Of the 78 shortstops to cross 5,000 PAs since then, think of one who hit left-handed only.

Got one? You’re sure? All right, then — I will now divine your answer:

 

It was Ozzie Guillen, who joined the club in 1995 — 49 years after Travis.

The 78 shortstops to cross 5,000 PAs since 1946 include 57 RHBs and 20 switch-hitters, but only Guillen from the left side alone. Just two other pure-LHB shortstops even reached 4,000 PAs since 1946, Tony Kubek and Craig Reynolds. That’s three 4,000-PA shortstops out of 94 total in the post-war era.

Of the others with 4,000 PAs in that span, pure lefty batters make up 16 of 98 second basemen, 13 of 91 third basemen and 18 of 74 catchers. That’s 18% for those other positions that “require” a righty thrower, but only 3% of shortstops.

In the last three years, shortstops logged 50 qualified seasons — 35 by righties, 14 by switch-hitters, and one by a lefty. Brandon Crawford, take your bow.

Now, there have always been fewer LHBs at shortstop than the other right-armed positions. But there’s still been a big change since WWII. Here’s the percentage of those with 5,000 PAs who hit left only, split in two periods:

  • Through 1946 — 2B/3B/C combined, 20% (19/95) … 10% for SS (4/41)
  • Since then — 2B/3B/C combined, 18% (32/181) … 1% for SS (1/78)

In the first period, shortstops with long careers had half the LHB rate of the other three positions. But while the other spots maintained their LHB rate, long-lasting LHB shortstops have virtually vanished.

Why So Few LHB Shortstops?

Is it a conspiracy? Is that why Stephen Drew still has no job? The only active LHB/SS within hailing distance of 5,000 PAs, he’s still two years away. The next two combined are less than halfway to 5,000 PAs.

Let’s try another tack. Here’s a breakdown by primary fielding position of all 182 bats left, throws right” players with 5,000 PAs (with the traditionally right-throwing positions in bold):

  • RF — 36
  • CF — 31
  • LF — 27
  • 2B — 27
  • 1B — 24
  • 3B — 17
  • C — 12
  • SS — 8*

* Five of these eight meet the standard of “at least half their career games at SS,” used in the initial measures. Three others played more SS than any other spot — Sam Wise (48%), Johnny Pesky (47%) and Monte Ward (45%).

Shortstops comprised 8% of this BL/TR brigade through 1946 (6/73), but just 2% since then (2/109).

Some have theorized that the particular throwing requirements of the SS position make it best suited for those with strong right-hand dominance, making them less able to learn lefty batting.

But look at the positional breakdown of switch-hitting right-throwers with 5,000 PAs (103 players):

  • SS — 27
  • 2B — 24
  • CF — 18
  • 1B — 10
  • C — 8
  • 3B — 7
  • LF — 5
  • RF — 5

And if we deepen the pool to 182 switch-hitters (same as the LHBs):

  • SS — 42
  • 2B — 42
  • CF — 27
  • 3B — 22
  • C — 15
  • 1B — 12
  • RF — 12
  • LF — 10

Switch-hitters bat more often left than right, and shortstops lead the switch-hit parade. Does that fit the dominant right hand theory? Or does a right-hander’s decision to switch-hit reflect more athletic versatility than batting left-only? Among long-career players, shortstops are least likely to hit left-only, but most likely to switch-hit.

Which puts them in the middle of all right-throwers with 5,000 PAs who hit either left or both (285 players):

  • 2B — 51
  • CF — 49
  • RF — 41
  • SS — 34
  • 1B — 34
  • LF — 32
  • 3B — 24
  • C — 20

The real question, then, is why nearly all good shortstops who choose to hit left at all, choose to switch-hit — and why that choice is more prevalent at short than at second, third or catcher.

For Further Study

A deeper study of these trends would look at success rates and types of hitters among left-, right- and switch-hitters. The predominance of switch-hitting shortstops over LHBs could stem from slap hitters choosing to forgo their natural strength (such as it is) when doing so gives both a platoon edge and more chance of infield hits, but not becoming good enough as lefties to justify going left-only. Or maybe shortstops are more right-hand-dominant, and those who switch-hit are more successful and last longer because they keep some ABs from their strong side. But we’ll have to leave those questions for another time.

Besides, a change just might be coming. Last season saw a record six LHBs among the 34 shortstops with 300 PAs, and 13 in all who batted left or both (tied for the most ever). Four of those LHBs — the veteran Drew, 3-year man Crawford, and the rookies Brad Miller and Didi Gregorius — show promise of someday bridging the 5,000-PA barrier. (No offense to you, Messrs. Quintanilla and DescalsoKawasaki & Gordon; but I’ve seen you hit, and … well, “no offense” just about sums it up.) The last two World Series champs started a lefty-hitting shortstop, raising that all-time total to seven (three by Kubek).

So, what do you think? Why have there been so few pure-LHB shortstops, but so many switch-hitters?

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oneblankspace
oneblankspace
8 years ago

One might think that someone named BeLTRe or BeLTRan would tend to B:L, T:R.

Pitchers do not bat as often as shortstops, so I looked at games played by BLTR pitchers. The 20th most GP by such a pitcher was 450 games.

oneblankspace
oneblankspace
8 years ago
Reply to  oneblankspace

By comparison, there were 507 total pitchers with 450 games played.

AlbaNate
AlbaNate
8 years ago
Reply to  oneblankspace

I remember that when Dwight Gooden came up, he wanted to bat lefty, but Davey Johnson wouldn’t let him expose his valuable right arm that way.

birtelcom
Editor
8 years ago
Reply to  AlbaNate

Perhaps it’s too bad the Mets weren’t so careful with Doc’s teenage arm when it came to his pitch counts.

AlbaNate
AlbaNate
8 years ago
Reply to  birtelcom

I’m not sure that I ever heard of “pitch counts” back in that era. When did we start paying attention to that?

mosc
mosc
8 years ago

The best players play short, bat switch, etc. The athletic positions are correlated with switch hitters. I would say the vast majority of MLB’ers start their career as a Starting Pitcher, Shortstop, Catcher, or Center Fielder.

Why the resurgence? I’d say Micky Mantle’s impact is fading more and more into the history books.

Brendan Bingham
Brendan Bingham
8 years ago

Dick McAuliffe began his career as a left-hitting shortstop and was an All-Star at that position in ’65 and ’66. Although he finished his career with more than 7000 PA, his mid-career switch to 2B meant that only about 40% of his PA came as a SS.

birtelcom
Editor
8 years ago

The Retrosheet/B-ref database for pitcher vs. hitter info goes back to 1938, though for some of the earlier years the data is incomplete for pitcher vs. hitter information. Over the period 1938 through 2013, P-ref’s Play Index shows only one walk-off homer by a left-handed hitting shortstop off of a lefty pitcher. That was by McAuliffe, in this game (not just a walk-off, but a come-from-behind walk-off, the clutchiest of all hits):

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/DET/DET196505200.shtml

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

In 1965 Donald was the 26th most popular baby name in the US. By 2012 it dropped to 400th. In 1965 the name Don was 157th, in 2001 it was 872nd.

Brendan Bingham
Brendan Bingham
8 years ago

There must be a reason for this rapid change… Donald Trump?

donburgh
donburgh
8 years ago

Since this is of personal interest to me… According to SSA.gov, Donald was the 10th most popular boys name of the 1920s, and climbed to 7th in the 1930s. Then began the slow, tragic descent. 12th in the 1940s, 14th in the 1950s, 25th in the 1960s, 42nd in the 1970s (my decade), 66th in the 1980s, and a ghastly 134th in the 1990s. There were at least three decades where Donald and Ronald were consecutively listed. And, to end this tangent on a baseball note, in the 1990s the 106th most popular name for boys was Brett. Slot #107… Read more »

birtelcom
Editor
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Great stuff — You’re making us itchy for some real, new box scores, JA. Just a few weeks to go!

The pitcher who surrendered McAuliffe’s lefty vs. lefty SS walk-off, Marshall Bridges (seems more a military name than a baseball one), was also the first AL pitcher, and one of only three AL pitchers to date, to allow a grand slam in the World Series. After Bridges, the other WS slam-surrendering AL hurlers have been Al Downing and that famous clutch pitcher Jack Morris. 15 NL pitchers have allowed grand slams in the World Series.

Lawrence Azrin
Lawrence Azrin
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

@8/RC,

Fun useless factoid – no players named Heinie in MLB since 1939/Heinie Manush (almost certainly the best of the bunch).

No ‘Babe’ or ‘Rube’ since 1958.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago
Reply to  Lawrence Azrin

I guess you;re referring to Babe Birrer and Rube Walker.

mosc
mosc
8 years ago

I mean it’s surprising Drew didn’t take a very generous qualifying offer and run but is it surprising he’s not worth a draft pick + money? He’s a league average shortstop pretty much through and through. Brendan Ryan is a year older and a little bit of a different player (maybe defense ages quicker than a bat?) but according to WAR you’re not going to see much difference. Ryan was had for 2y/$4m and no draft pick. Just sayin’.

mosc
mosc
8 years ago
Reply to  mosc

WAR/162 thinks Ryan’s defense makes him a more complete player than Drew. Ryan’s played 100+ games in each of the last 5 years. Drew fell below that mark in 2011 and 2012. Ryan also has more experience around the infield, Drew’s never touched anything but short.

At least from a Yankee perspective, they already signed a Stephen Drew-like player in Brendan Ryan for a lot less money.

Mike L
Mike L
8 years ago

Speaking of shortstops, there’s an obit of Eddie O’Brien in today’s NYT. OBrien was a two sport player (baseball and basketball) who, with his identical twin, Johnny O’Brien, played SS while Johnny played 2B for Pirates, including 89 for the 1953. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/03/sports/baseball/eddie-obrien-who-played-for-pirates-with-his-twin-dies-at-83.html?ref=obituaries

birtelcom
Editor
8 years ago
Reply to  Mike L

The O’Brien brothers were giving me a headache as I worked on Comment #7 in this recent thread: http://www.highheatstats.com/2014/02/big-apple-turnover/#comments. I was trying to track the positions where the mid-1950s Pirates were changing starters every year, and the O’Briens were popping up at various positions in different years, requiring double-checking on which O’Brien was which.

Doug
Editor
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

The youngest player with a CG in his only career start is also the youngest with a CG, period.

Rogers Hornsby McKee, 17 years, 17 days in this game (he got the win, the only decision of his career).

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PIT/PIT194310032.shtml

Doug
Doug
8 years ago

As to LH-throwing shortstops, this is the last time it happened, Nino Escalera on 5-22-54. Bottom of the 8th, Cardinals Batting, Behind 2-4, Reds' Art Fowler facing 1-2-3 STL W. Moon A. Fowler Flyball: C STL S. Hemus A. Fowler Fyball: RF STL R. Schoendienst A. Fowler Single Nino Escalera replaces Roy McMillan playing SS batting 2nd STL S. Musial A. Fowler Strikeout 0 runs, 1 hit, 0 errors, 1 LOB. Reds 4, Cardinals 2. Top of the 9th, Reds Batting, Ahead 4-2, Cardinals' Carl Scheib facing 8-9-1 CIN E. Bailey C. Scheib Strikeout CIN A. Fowler C. Scheib Strikeout… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago
Reply to  Doug

From the Charlton Chronology:

May 22, 1954 In a unique Birdie Tebbetts’ shift against the Cards Stan Musial‚ the Redlegs enlist a “4th” OF in place of regular SS Roy McMillan. This causes a box score irregularity because left-handed Nino Escalera is officially listed as a left-handed SS. After all that‚ Art Fowler strikes out Musial to end the game as the Reds win 4-2.

And Gehrig had lumbago.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago

The Charlton Chronology is in error. Musial’s K ended the inning, not the game.

Doug
Editor
8 years ago

Thanks, Richard (I like the little erratum about the game ending).

Presumably, this shift would have been employed numerous times for Musial. Yet, on this one occasion only, Tebbetts decides he needs to remove McMillan for that purpose? Seems odd.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
8 years ago
Reply to  Doug

There is a liberal sprinkling of errata in the Chronology.

Voomo Zanzibar
Voomo Zanzibar
8 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Gehrig had Lumbago that day,
which is a fancy way of saying that his back hurt.

AlbaNate
AlbaNate
8 years ago
Reply to  Voomo Zanzibar

I always wondered what lumbago was. I knew I’d eventually learn about something other than baseball if I followed this site closely enough.

RJ
RJ
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

I used to work for a Nino, although in his case it was short for Benigno. The only Benigno in MLB history: Benny Ayala.

Ayala was pretty handy in World Series Game 3s. In 1979 he hit a two-run homer to bring the Orioles back to within a run in a game they would win. In 1983 he had a game-tying pinch-hit RBI off Steve Carlton and scored the go-ahead run in the same inning.

AlbaNate
AlbaNate
8 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Another Nino was Nino Espinosa, who pitched for the Mets and Phillies in the 70’s, and died in his 30s. His given name was Arnulfo.

Doug
Editor
8 years ago

The proportion of SS among all switch-hitters (3000 PA) has, with the exception of one period, been pretty constant over the past 60 years.

1994-2013 – 69/14 (20%)
1984-2003 – 71/13 (18%)
1974-1993 – 56/10 (18%)
1964-1983 – 35/10 (29%)
1954-1973 – 18/3 (17%)

PaulE
PaulE
8 years ago

Perhaps young good-field/no-hit shortstops learn to bat both to play every day. Guys like Larry Bowa would definitely be sitting/platooning if it weren’t for their ability to bat (not necessarily “hit”) left-handed. Subsequently, if it weren’t for all the BB shortstops, we would see more platooning and, thusly, more LH hitting shortstops.
I recall Garry Templeton (oneof the few of his era who really hit theball hard) actually batting only from one sI

PaulE
PaulE
8 years ago

Sorry……batting from only one side late in the season to get 100 hits from each side. Maybe the 1st SS to do it?

oneblankspace
oneblankspace
8 years ago

In his (regular season) career, Ozzie Smith hit 5 HR batting lefthanded (1 per 1408 PA) and 23 batting right handed (1 per 153 PA).

In the postseason, his only homerun was batting lefthanded. Go crazy, folks, go crazy!

Paul E
Paul E
8 years ago
Reply to  oneblankspace

OBS # 39 :
Yeah, Bowa barely could hit the ball out of the infield left-handed. That being said, he could run, throw, field, and definitely break balls 🙁

Kenneth Matinale
8 years ago

5,000 PA since 1901:
SS: 109
2B: 101

5,000 PA since 1946:
SS: 73
2B: 70

5,000 PA since 1946, bats left:
SS: 1 Ozzie
2B: 13

5,000 PA since 1946, bats both:
SS: 20
2B: 17

Of three lefty batting Hall of Fame catchers since 1901, two played for the Yankees: Berra and Dickey. Cochrane was the other.