Last week in the Times, Alan Schwarz wrote on a subject that's near and dear to me: lefty-throwing catchers; or rather, the lack thereof in professional baseball. There hasn't been a lefty-throwing catcher of note in the major leagues since the 19th century, when Jack Clements starred for the Phillies.
And since then? Almost nothing. John Augustus "Jiggs" Donahue caught 43 games for the Brewers and the Browns in 1901 and '02, but permanently moved to first base and we haven't seen even more than few hints of a lefty catcher since. In 1980, Mike Squires caught a couple of innings for Tony La Russa's White Sox. And in 1989, Benny Distefano got into three games, for a grand total of six innings, with the Pirates.
Twenty years later, Distefano's still the last left-handed thrower to catch in the majors. Which is why he's the go-to guy on this subject. Just as I did a dozen years ago, Schwarz turned to Distefano to explain why it's been so, so long:
- Distefano offered two explanations. Bunts toward third base, he said, cause problems for left-handed catchers. In scampering to grab the ball, transferring it to their left hand and throwing to either first or second base, their bodies get closed and clumsy. Throws for right-handers are far more open and natural.
But the primary problem Distefano encountered was with plays at home. Because his glove was on his right hand, every accurate throw to the runner's side of the plate would have to be reached for backhanded, impeding a quick tag. And on outfielder throws up the first-base line, reaching out with his right hand would leave his throwing shoulder wide open to the runner.
"If there's going to be a bang-bang play, the left-handed catcher's going to get hurt,” he said.
A few years ago in The Hardball Times, John Walsh looked at a number of explanations, applied objective analysis and found ... nothing. Among the explanations he could actually check, none really checked out.
I do think Distefano's point about plays at home is a good one. Those plays would, I suspect, cost a lefty catcher's team a few runs per season. Maybe as few as two or three, but maybe as many as a dozen. If the right answer is at the higher end of that range, you can see the problem: no manager wants to play a catcher who's obviously costing his team that many runs just with his defense. Not unless he hits like Mike Piazza.
But I don't think the utter lack of a lefty catcher in professional baseball -- and are there any playing with a good college program? -- has anything to do with specific concerns. I think it's become a matter of rote tradition. If you have a kid with a strong arm, you don't even think about letting him catch. You ask him to pitch. If he can't pitch, you put him in right field.
To get to the bottom of this mystery -- and it's one of baseball's best mysteries -- you'll have to return to the source. You'll have to return to the 19th century, and find out what baseball men were saying then about throwing left-handed and catching. Because today's managers and coaches aren't even thinking about this. They're merely doing what everyone else has done for more than a century.