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Aside from a few catchers who caught an inning here and there, there has only been one left-handed catcher throughout the entire storied history of Major League Baseball. Jack Clements was the first player to catch 1,000 games and was a dependable player and a good hitter to boot. He was so solid, that Bill James rated him as the 58th best catcher of all time in his historical rankings. However, Clements played his last game way back in 1900, for the wonderfully named Boston Beaneaters (today the Atlanta Braves).
Third Base Steals
So why hasn’t there been a single career left-handed catcher in the Majors for 120 years? The answer you hear most often is that it is significantly harder for a leftie to execute the throw to third base. This is said to be a particular problem when the batter is right-handed, and therefore positioned to block the throw.
This is a reasonable explanation as far as it goes. If a runner is stealing third, all things being equal, you would prefer a righty to make the throw. However, is the difference in this one play all that decisive? Should it be enough to outright disqualify any left-hander from the position, no matter how talented? There has been a rise in attempted third base steals in recent years. This is probably fed by statistical analysis, which shows that it is easier to steal than second. However, we are still seeing an attempt only every nine games or so. It is an important but not crucial part of the game.
Another issue is that right-handed catchers are not particularly successful at this either. Since 2015, 77.3% of 3rd base steal attempts have been successful. It is not clear if a left-handed catcher would be significantly worse than that. Right-handed catchers do not seem to have any significant issues picking off left-handed batters going to first, which is equivalent to the supposed impossibility of leftie catchers going to third. Besides, a runner on second base is already in scoring position, so the utility of the steal is limited, to begin with.
Bunts and Collisions
A leftie-catcher would likely have a more difficult time fielding bunts towards third base. After all, this would involve transferring the ball from hand to hand, while losing precious time. Former Pirates player Benny Distefano played a few games as a left-handed catcher in 1989. He said bunts to his left were a serious problem and that is why he pursued his career primarily as an outfielder and first baseman.
However, this may have been more of a problem in the past. Statistical analysis has shown repeatedly that bunts are generally inefficient. Therefore, the number of bunts plummet every year. This may offend traditionalists, but in most cases, bunts are irrational and will likely disappear from the game. If so, this is an increasingly minor problem for a left-handed catcher.
Another reason there are no leftie catchers is the belief that they will be unable to manage head-on collisions at the plate. The catcher would presumably be left blocking the plate with his left leg and thus holding the ball in his weaker right-hand, making both an injury and a drop of the ball more likely. We don’t know if this is true since there is no statistical evidence.
There is also a clear advantage that only a leftie catcher would possess. When catching for a right-handed pitcher, catchers of a difficult time managing breaking balls since they have to catch them across the body. This leads to balls in the dirt and wild pitches. Meanwhile, for a left-handed catcher, it would be a natural and easy process to pick the breaking ball up. They also have a clear advantage in fielding bunts and throwing to first.
A Harmful Tradition?
Baseball is a game of tradition first and foremost. It seems that the main reason left-handed catchers have been excluded is that that is how things have always been. This means that coaches from little league on have told potential left-handed catchers to find another position. As a result, it is almost impossible to get a mass-marketed catcher’s glove that is not designed for righties. Scouts will discount the left-handed catchers that do somehow develop. This antiquated view continues to dominate, though there is little evidence to support it.
It is easy to see why this a non-sensical tradition just by conducting a thought experiment. Think of the greatest catchers of all time. Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella, Parker Posey, or anyone of that caliber. They combined an incredible array of skills. Managing pitchers. Blocking wild pitches. Strength and poise under pressure. A strong arm. Solid hitting, usually with some power. Are those skills less likely to occur in a left-handed individual? Now imagine how many players with those skills were missed, because of that structural prejudice against left-handed catchers. Is it worth throwing away a potential Hall of Famer over a marginal advantage in throwing out would-be third base stealers?
The advent of sabermetrics in the 1980s has led to a generally more rational approach to the game ever since. But some barriers are more difficult to break than others. One of the reasons the statistical revolution has not benefited left-handed catchers is a lack of raw data. Statisticians can’t show general managers reliable stats showing that left-handed catchers can do the job, because the sample pool is simply too small. It is time to challenge this notion and give lefties a chance.