The Disappearance of the Left-Handed Catcher

The men behind the masks who call the games often do not receive the notoriety or praise they deserve for the abuse they receive in playing their position. These masked men take foul tips off their mask, hand, or occasionally the unmentionable. They do not leave the game unscathed due to the abuse on their knees from squatting, their arms from throwing, and their hands from catching. The tools of ignorance are what band them together; however there is a select group who stand apart from the rest. Led by Jack Clements, the first catcher to use a chest protector, this group is among the most selective in baseball. The left-handed catcher. How rare is a left-handed catcher? Since 1901, the year after Clements retired; there have been 7 left-handed catchers in the Major Leagues. They have caught a collective 62 games. Since 1908, there have only been 7 games caught total and this was achieved through three players. Left-handed catchers are a rarity; their history should be celebrated, not forgotten.

Jack Clements is, and most likely will remain, the gold standard for left-handed catchers. He is the only member of this select group to have caught more than 400 games in the Major Leagues. Over the course of his 17 year career, Clements caught 1,076 games. He began his career with the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association in 1884, the same year Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn set the unbreakable record for most wins in a single season by a pitcher with 59. By the end of the 1884 season, Clements was playing for the Philadelphia Quakers, who would later become the Phillies in 1890. He stayed with the Quakers through the 1897 season. In 1895, Clements set the Major League record for highest batting for a single season for a catcher with a .394 mark. He then bounced around to three different teams at the end of his career. In 1898 he played for the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Spiders in 1899, and finished his career in 1900 with the Boston Beaneaters.

Jack Clements

Jack Clements

Jack Clements enjoyed the best all-around year of his career in 1891. He played in 107 games, he hit .310, .380 OBP, 29 doubles, 75 RBI, and walked 43 times against 19 strikeouts. Defensively he was an above average backstop, throwing out 32% of base stealers. He has 415 putouts, good for third in the Major Leagues, and 108 assists, which was good for 2nd in the Major Leagues. Clements is the only 19th century player with more home runs than triples (minimum of 1,000 games played).

The successful career of Jack Clements makes the scarcity of left-handed catchers all the more surprising. Why have there been so few left-handed catchers? There are three technical concerns which arise from using a left-handed catcher and one logistical issue.

Ricky Henderson never needed any extra advantage on the base paths.

Ricky Henderson never needed any extra advantage on the base paths.

Among the many duties of a catcher is to throw out base stealers. Preventing a runner from going from first to second would be a little more difficult for a left-handed catcher. There are more right-handed batters than left-handed batters. This means that a left-handed catcher would be more likely to be throwing to second with the batters’ box occupied on the side of their throwing arm. While right-handed catchers do face this challenge, left-handed catchers would face this challenge more often. This requires the catcher to throw more over the top than if the batters’ box on their throwing arm side is empty. This minor adjustment can cause a slight delay in the delivery of the ball to the middle infielder. Interference can be called by the umpire, but the hindrance would be more likely to cause a runner to safe, than the likelihood of interference to be called. The other issue presented to left-handed catchers when throwing to second base is the tendency of the baseball to fade. Right-handed catchers benefit from the fade going towards the second baseman’s side, whereas left-handed catchers would be faced with a baseball which tended to fade towards the shortstop side of second. The necessity of the middle infielder to catch the ball and then bring it back to the proper side of the base would cost even more time. Base stealers already possess an advantage over the defense in stealing bases, unfortunately the nature of the game would shift the advantage a little further to the runner should a catcher be left-handed.

The second issue with having a left-handed catcher shows itself once the base stealer has reached second base. Stealing third base is much more difficult than stealing second. A runner can gain a few steps before the catcher sees him going if a left-handed batter is up, by shielding his view; whereas a runner on second is in full view of the catcher. The distance from home to third is much shorter than home to third. When throwing to third base, a right-handed catcher can receive the pitch and then step into his throw. The same is not true for a left-handed catcher. He would have to receive the pitch, pivot, and then throw. This takes additional time and baseball is a game of inches. Giving the opponent additional time means giving them additional distance when they are running the bases. The inability to make snap throws to third base would have a detrimental impact upon a team as the opposing team would be more likely to steal third base; thus shortening the necessary distance to score a run from 180 feet to 90 feet. A runner on second requires a base hit to score, but a runner on third only requires a ball to be hit deep enough into the outfield for the runner to tag up and race home.

Young or old, left-handed catcher fast unique problems.

Young or old, left-handed catcher fast unique problems.

The third issue with having a left-handed catcher rears its ugly head once a runner is on third base. The new rule regarding home plate collisions will prevent more of the hard hits which catchers have long endured from runners racing home. Hitting a sacrifice fly and the runner tagging up lends itself to a play at the plate. The new rule means catchers will have to perfect the sweep tag. This puts left-handed catchers at a disadvantage as they will have to sweep across their body. Again this can add additional time to applying the tag to the runner, but it could also put the catcher out of position and result in their blocking the plate. Even an inadvertent blocking of the plate will result in the umpire calling the runner safe and awarding the opposing team the run. A right-handed catcher has the ability to stay a bit further away from any resemblance of blocking the plate and can more easily sweep across the plate. This prevents any accidental blocking of the plate and having the runner called safe according to the new rules, while also giving the catcher a greater ability to apply the sweep tag. This issue with protecting home plate is due to the simple logistics of the game, and cannot be overcome. Unfortunately for left-handed catchers, teams are unlikely to utilize a left-handed catcher due to the advantages they give to the opposing team, however small they might be.

Benny Distefano, the last left-handed catcher?

Benny Distefano, the last left-handed catcher?

I have shown just a sample of the disadvantages which a left-handed catcher would have in preventing the runner from moving from base to base and scoring. However, there is a more fundamental issue as to why there are currently no left-handed catchers in Major League Baseball, and why this is unlikely to change. It is nearly impossible to find a catcher’s mitt for someone who throws left handed. Even when you can find a left-handed catcher’s mitt, the cost can be prohibitive for many people. The inaccessibility of the equipment prevents many Little Leaguers who do not live in a community which has the financial means with which to purchase this specialized equipment from ever catching. Every Major Leaguer began as a Little Leaguer. The fundamentals and development begin there and the lack of a pool of left-handed catchers means the few left-handed catchers there are face even greater odds of making it to the Majors.

Almost as rare of a sighting as a left-handed catcher.

Almost as rare of a sighting as a left-handed catcher.

The sighting of a left-handed catcher is nearly as rare as a sighting of Big Foot. Unlike Big Foot though, a left-handed catcher could go unnoticed unless an astute observer recognized the importance of the moment. Only 30 men have ever caught a professional baseball game at the highest level, and of these 30, only six have caught at least 100 games. Since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, only three left-handed catchers have appeared in a game. Dale Long appeared in 2 games for the 1958 Chicago Cubs. Mike Squires appeared in 2 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1980. The last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game was Benny Distefano, who appeared in 3 games for the 1989 Pittsburgh Pirates.

We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the last left-handed catcher to appear in a Major League game. Such a long stretch between appearances raises the question: have we seen the last of this rare breed? I certainly hope not, but I hold out little hope that this endangers species can survive for much longer, if it is not already gone.

D

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2 comments

  1. Emmett McAuliffe

    serious comment: the more I look at 19th century baseball photos the more it appears that men seemed to to be shaped differently 120 years ago. Jack Clements looks like a fat hen.

  2. binckesblog

    There are a few points, as a lefty, former catcher and umpire, that should also be made.

    1) You’re not likely to get more interference calls. Interference is only called if the batter is out of the batter’s box.

    2) For a lefty to throw to third, he’ll have to turn nearly 100 degrees to the left to get any velocity on the throw.

    3) Much of what umpires call is based on how catchers move their glove. A lefty catcher provides a different view that takes some getting used to.

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