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There Are No Left-Handed Catchers, Pitchers Are Tall: Baseball Biometrics

No Major League team employs, on its active 25-man roster, a left-handed throwing catcher. About 9 percent of people are lefties, and 63 men in baseball are listed as catchers, so you might expect that we’d find about 5 to 6 southpaw catchers.

But the absence of lefty catchers—that “discrepancy” of 5 men—doesn’t seem unusual. That is, it’s not hard to imagine that baseball clubs aren’t discriminating against left-handed catchers. But those same clubs surely discriminate against right-handed pitchers. More on that below.

Major League baseball’s website lists the active rosters of each team.1 They categorize players as Pitchers, Catchers, Infielders, or Outfielders.2 Players’ batting and throwing hands are listed, as are their heights and weights. From the later two, I was able to calculate Body Mass Index, a measure of fatness (higher numbers are fatter).

Differences between Leagues

The National League has 16 teams and the American League has 14. Is one League taller or fatter than another? No. American League players are on average 73.8 inches (just under 6 foot 2 inches), while National Leaguers are 73.7. The average weight is 211 pounds for both Leagues.

81% of National Leaguers are right-handed throwers, while 79% of American Leaguers are. Batting is about the same: 29% are left-handed, 62% are right-handed, and 9% are switch hitters.

The one big difference between the American and National League is the Designated Hitter rule. Whatever other effects this rule has, it doesn’t appear to show up in body types. Both Leagues have nearly the same distribution of biometric characteristics. Thus, below all League data is shown together.

Differences between Teams

There are some differences in height between teams. For example, the Dodgers have the shortest team at an average 72.2 inches, and the Rangers have the tallest at an average 74.5. The five shortest are: Dodgers 72.2; Royals 72.9; Astros 73.1; Giants 73.2; Pirates 73.2. The five tallest: Rangers 74.5; Cardinals 74.4; White Sox 74.3; Padres 74.3; Damn Yankees 74.2.

There are larger differences between weight. The Braves are the lightest at an average 205 pounds. The Rangers are the heaviest at 221 pounds. But don’t forget that the Rangers are also the tallest, so we’d expect them to be in the upper range of weight.

BMI controls for height in calculating fat. The Braves are still the skinniest with an average BMI of 26.5. And the Rangers are still the fattest with an average BMI of 28.0. The five skinniest teams: Braves 26.5; Diamondbacks 26.6; America’s Tigers 26.6; Rays 26.7; Athletics 26.8. The five fattest: Rangers 28.0; Nationals 27.9; Blue Jays 27.9; Astros 27.9; Marlins 27.9.

“Obesity” is typically defined as having a BMI of 30 or greater. “Overweight” is 25 to 30. With these definitions, 9.7% of Major League players are obese, and 77.3% are overweight! That is, 87% are overweight or obese. Since these men are all highly paid athletes, these results shows the severe limitations of BMI as a measure of “ideal” weight. Yes, this is the same measure your government will be using to justify new taxes on soda pop and so forth.

Differences between Positions

The largest differences in physical characteristics are between field Positions. We started by learning that there are no left-handed throwing Catchers in Major League Baseball. 94% of Infielders are righties, but only 69% of outfielders and 73% of Pitchers are.

Finding a higher proportion of left-handed Pitchers than there are left-handed people in the general population is not surprising to anybody that follows baseball. But learning of the high proportion of lefties among outfielders might be. Part of this discrepancy is because of the preference for left-handed batters and because most people bat with the same hand as they throw.

But that means that Infielders have the highest proportion of men who throw right but bat left. A breakdown of who bats left: 13% of Catchers, 24% of Infielders, 46% of Outfielders, and 28% of Pitchers. Of course, the pitching statistic is thrown off because pitchers don’t bat in the American League. About 1 out 5 Catchers and Infielders are switch hitters, but only 9% of Outfielders and 1% of Pitchers are.

Differences between Height & Weight for Positions

There were no differences, on average, between height and weight for handedness, but there were differences in height and weight for Position.

Catchers and Pitchers are the heaviest members of any team, with an average 215 pounds. Outfielders come in at 209 pounds, and Infielders are the lightest at 204 pounds. BMI still puts Catchers on top with 28.7; followed now by Infielders and Outfielders at 27.2. Pitchers are the skinniest at an average 27.0. The differences between weight and BMI must mean there are large differences in height.

There are. This picture shows the frequency of heights for each position. Infielders have the broadest distribution; meaning, their heights are all over the place except among the tallest. Catchers are 72.6 inches on average, with only narrow departures from the mean figure. Outfielders are a full inch taller at 73.5 inches on average.

Baseball Height Distribution by Position

As expected, Pitchers are the tallest men on the team: an average 74.7 inches. No other Position fields a man taller than 79 inches except Pitchers, which see quite a few men over this 6 foot 7 inch mark. But Pitchers are also among the shortest men on the team. Thus, this picture proves that details can be lost when examining only the averages.

Happy Opening Day everybody.

Please email this article to a friend who is a baseball fan.

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1 I accessed the data on 4 April 2010. At that time, there was some incompleteness on MLB.com, in the sense that several teams still listed more than 25 men, and one (Phillies) listed only 24. I supplemented MLB.com’s data with that from the site Altius Directory. When the MLB site had too many men, I used the Altius data to see which players’ salaries were listed as either “$0” or “N/A”. I marked those men as “Deletes” and removed them from the analysis. For the missing Phillies man, I used Altius to discover which pitcher had a non-zero salary who was not listed on MLB.com. The data file I used can be downloaded here.

2 Some, but not all, American League teams listed “Designated Hitter” as a separate position. I categorized all these men as “Outfielders” as that is the most likely field position they would be called upon to play.

14 thoughts on “There Are No Left-Handed Catchers, Pitchers Are Tall: Baseball Biometrics Leave a comment

  1. The 6% of infielders that are left handed are all 1st basemen.

    It would be nice to be able to split the infield positions. Players move around the infield, which muddies the data, but most have a listed primary position. Some move between infield and outfield, but they are usually considered infielders.

  2. Right handed infielders — the mechanics of fielding a ball and throwing to first favors a right handed throw. More so for a second baseman in a double play.

    Right handed catchers — if most players bat right handed, the right handed catcher will have an advantage throwing to second by not having to throw over the batter.

  3. What is the probability that a catcher would need to throw to First Base from a crouch, compared to the probability that would need to throw to either Second or Third Base from a crouch?

    The need for a catcher to throw to First would be as a result of either a bunt or a third strike swing. Given the relative speed of a thrown baseball compared to the speed of a base runner, the catcher would not need to make his throw to First in a crouched position. There is a clear, comparative advantage to being Righty in the catcher’s world.
    .

  4. Also, Little Leagues almost never supply left handed catcher’s mitts or chest protectors, which is almost certainly a bigger factor than the mechanics of throwing from behind the plate.

  5. I had forgotten just how much has been written about baseball. More now that everyone with a WordPress or Blogger account is a sportswriter and publisher. The first page of Bing results included these three detailed and entertaining analyses of left handed catchers, why/why not. Statistics included.

    Left Handed Catchers
    “Why left-handed throwers are effectively banned from catching is less obvious than why they can’t play shortstop or third base. And perhaps completely wrong.”
    http://members.tripod.com/bb_catchers/catchers/catchleft.htm

    Top 10 Left-Handed Catchers for 2006
    “Of course, there are no left-handed catchers to rank, and if you’re like me, you probably on occasion put down what you’re doing and begin wondering why the heck not?”
    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/top-10-left-handed-catchers-for-2006/

    Why Are There No Left Handed Catchers?
    “To [do] this I am going to use Lindsey’s 1963 frequencies and scoring probabilities of changes in the game state.”
    http://www.sabernomics.com/sabernomics/index.php/2004/05/why-are-there-no-left-handed-catchers/

    The second and third references use tables, the word “frequencies” and mention Bill James so I’d start with those.

    Play Ball!

  6. I would think that a lefty catcher would be in a better postion to block the plate and receive a thow.

    But that is about 1% of catching.

  7. Speed,

    Your second link actually addresses my point about Little League. Supposedly, the President of the Little League in Palo Alto is able to supply left handed catcher’s mitts, though he doesn’t offer any numbers. I have a difficult time believing that the Palo Alto Little League is terribly representative, especially compared to places like the Dominican Republic.

    As a former catcher with the knees to prove it, catcher’s not generally a position that a player takes to later in his career (though Mike Piazza is an interesting counter example). And even if the mitts are available, would the coaches know that? Maybe, but as the second link says, if you have a lefty with a good arm, you put him at the other end of the battery.

  8. As mentioned by the lack of lefty equipment in youth sports, much-too-much “handedness” is force-taught by parents, coaches, et al, instead of allowing natural development. I taught my adolescent daughter and two of her friends to bat properly [as opposed to hitting like girls][sorry, but they agreed] – first from their natural sides and then from their weak sides – and in later years, though separated by relocations, they each went on to be the only “switch hitters” on their high school and collegiate teams. Because they each hit well and from both sides of the plate they received much more playing time than other team members, and always thanked me.

    Also, their coaches would not allow them to teach other team members how they did it for fear of “ruining” what skill the others might have. It’s like a superstition with lot of coaches.

  9. The discussion so far indicates why, at the professional level, the first baseman is left handed and the rest of the infield is right handed. Understanding the precision that is required at this level, the physics make perfect sense.

    The more interesting question is how did so many lefties make it to outfielder, considering the general offensive ability of this position at the pro level plus the necessary defensive skills. At the little league level, the skill players invariably made it to the infield. Where were all the outfielders playing during their formative years?

    Perhaps a look, if it’s even possible, at the distribution by position at the little league level would provide some insight. Even given the smaller playing surface, a lefty infielder with good skills probably makes the stop and the throw to first. Maybe this 1/2 step behind due to left handedness led to the arm skills necessary to play outfield on the big field.

    Matt’s point about a strong lefty being put on the hill is well take especially at the little league level. So it’s easier to understand why with all the other reasons given lefties don’t get the opportunity behind the plate.

    I think catchers, like drummers and goalies have to be a little crazy and maybe that’s a left brain thing. 😉

  10. I love the comments on BMI. One thing often overlooked about BMI is that taller people are almost always going to have higher BMIs than shorter people. With the rare exception of bean poles, most people that get taller also get thicker and wider. This means that our mass is increasing at something greater than the square of our height.

    e is used as a magic number in other parts of the world. One wonders why it wasn’t used for BMI.

    weight / height^e

  11. Briggs said,
    “2 Some, but not all, American League teams listed “Designated Hitter” as a separate position. I categorized all these men as “Outfielders” as that is the most likely field position they would be called upon to play.”

    A significant number of DHs have also platooned at first base when forced into the field. But since first base is predominantly a left handed position it shouldn’t change your basic assumptions.

  12. As a lefty and a baseball fan, this piqued my curiosity. At first, it got my Irish up, because I’m sensitive to examples of prejudicial treatment of lefties. But the more I thought about it, the less I perceived the lack of lefty catchers as being a negative reflection on lefties and more a simple case of game mechanics.

    As for the preponderance of left-handed outfielders, I suspect they are a result of a thought process that goes something like this:

    “He’s a decent fielder — not great, but serviceable — and he can hit the ball a country mile, so I want him on our roster. We already have enough pitchers and first basemen, and I’m not going to put him behind the plate or anywhere else in the infield, so let’s stick him in the outfield.”

  13. Steve E,

    So many lefties are in the outfield in MLB for the simple reason that they get shunned from the infield at higher levels. Most players who bat left throw left, and having lefty hitters in the lineup vs right handed pitching makes them a hot commodity. If they aren’t playing 2B, SS, 3B, or C, then it’s 1B, RF, LF, or CF.

    It is true that the outfielders don’t get a lot of action early in their youth in the field. A lot of talented lefties end up at 1st base and shift to the outfield over time as more and more balls make it to the outfield. Plus, at the lowest levels, the best lefty players can play other infield positions without being shunned. As the talent-gap narrows with age, the handedness starts to make more of a difference with regard to position on the field. I played shortstop in my youngest days as a lefty because of my arm, then moved to 1st base (where my arm was mostly wasted, but I was good with the glove and had a good reach), and eventually to the outfield where my arm was put to use.

  14. i thought most switch hitters were OF, he says only 9%

    he included 1B as IF, which would throw off a bunch of his IF stats

    Lefty throwing RF , and right throw, LF, i thought were advantages like IF

    wouldn’t a Lefty 2B be better at turning the DP?

    there have been Lefty Catchers, only disadvantege i see is Steal of 3B
    ….and throwing to 2B since most batters are R

    ***wouldn’t a RHP have an advantage since most batters are RH ? ***
    he says ‘ LHP are sought after’ but doesn’t expand
    what is % of RHB/LHB and SB ???

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