Handedness in Sports. Part 1: Major League Baseball

by Ben Fairchild

Training, Fitness, Sports
For Athletes and Coaches

Handedness (n) : the property of using one hand more than the other. 2. The dominance of one hand over the other, especially in fine motor skill development.

In attending last week’s MLB All-Star game, I got to thinking about the dispersement of right-handed to left-handed hitters, then throwers, then how those combinations presented on a larger scale.

All athletes, theoretically, are born with two hands.  Handedness is clear with most sports, because you may have only one skill set that requires you to choose a dominant side.  For example: swinging a golf club, throwing a football, throwing a cross in boxing, hitting a forehand in tennis.  Baseball, conversely, has most every player having to be decidedly “handed” for two different skills: hitting and throwing.  This calls into question an interesting thought: What is the best combination of handedness for baseball success: is it right/right (bat/throw)? Is it left/left?  Is it left/right?  Is it switch hitting and throwing right?…so on and so forth.  With the recent emergence of ambidextrous big league pitcher Pat Vendette, maybe we should also ask, is it “switch-throwing”?

It’s not as simple as choosing which hand you are going to throw with, though.  God does most of that choosing for you.  If you watch a toddler pick things up and throw things, you will often see a dominant side from the very start, before their observational or mimicry ability is developed. Parents try to override nature sometimes by putting the ball or bat in the hand opposite what the kid is neurally wired for.  This in most cases is to improve chances, statistically speaking, of their child succeeding.

According to some researchers, less than 10% of American males are  left-handed. Left-handedness is so sought after in baseball that as of the 2015 ALL-Star Break, our research team found that 32% of position players on active MLB rosters hit left handed and 44% of them did if you count switch hitters.  To take it a step further, over 29% of Major League pitchers are southpaws.

My favorite player growing up was Rickey Henderson of the Oakland A’s.  The all-time stolen base champion hit right-handed and threw left-handed.  I never thought much about it.  He was, and is in my mind still, one of the greatest position players ever.  So surely this was how things should be done, right?  As my analytical view of baseball sharpened, I came to realize that this was not the norm.  It was quite rare, in fact, particularly in the modern day.

Not only is Henderson the ONLY Hall of Famer with this distinction, as of midseason 2015, we count a total of ZERO, that’s correct, NOT ONE position player(s) on active rosters with this un-sought-after combo.  In fairness, Collin Cowgill of the LA Angels, bats right and throws left, but he is currently on the DL (so he does not show on an active roster).

So, what gives?  I asked Lance Berkman, one of the greatest switch hitters (who threw left handed) of all time.  “Left handers are limited to outfield and first base, defensively. Right handed hitters are a dime a dozen.  In other words, they don’t bring much in the way of versatility. So the combination is just an odd one, making the talent pool small, partly why you just don’t see it at the highest levels.  Additionally, if a kid is good enough, (with that throw left/hit right combination), they will try to make him into a switch hitter.  Rarely do they remain right handed hitters.”




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