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When stacked up, numbers lean left

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jim Salter
Associated Press / July 13, 2008

ST. LOUIS - David Peters was born lefthanded. It took a few raps on the hand by his teachers, but like many in his generation, he switched to being a righty.

Maybe that's why Peters, now 61, became a scholar instead of a first baseman.

Peters is an engineering professor at Washington University in St. Louis who happens to be a baseball nut. He looked at baseball from an engineer's perspective and determined that southpaws have a decided advantage.

"Ninety percent of the human population is righthanded, but in baseball 25 percent of the players, both pitchers and batters, are lefthanded," Peters said.

"Do lefties have an advantage? They definitely do. The statistics bear that out."

Peters's observations were for an article on the university website, not a scholarly journal. Still, they drew the interest of experts at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., who at the request of The Associated Press crunched the numbers of lefties and righties in the Hall, the first time they had done so.

Of the 61 enshrined pitchers, 13 are lefthanded, according to John Odell, curator of history and research at the Hall of Fame. At 21 percent, that's more than twice the percentage of lefties in the general population.

The numbers for batters were even more startling. Odell said 71 Hall of Fame position players batted righthanded, 59 lefthanded, and eight were switch-hitters.

"Almost parity there," Odell said. "That's way up over what you'd expect to see if people were playing the way their handedness would suggest."

Among the lefthanded batters are some of the game's greatest names: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, and George Brett.

Peters said lefthanded batters are simply taking advantage of a game set up to favor them, starting with the direction the batter runs to first base.

As a righthanded batter swings, his momentum carries him the wrong way - toward third base. A lefty, already standing roughly 5 feet closer to first base, swings and naturally spins in the correct direction.

"And that means the lefty travels the 90 feet to first roughly one-sixth of a second faster than the righty," Peters said. That translates to more hits and a higher batting average.

Because most pitchers are righthanded, the lefthanded batter also tends to have a matchup advantage.

"You see the ball better" as a lefthanded batter facing a righthanded pitcher, Peters said. "You get depth perception. A righthanded batter facing a righthanded pitcher actually has to pick up the ball visually as it comes from behind [the batter's] left shoulder. You've lost a lot of that split-second timing to pick up the ball."

According to retrosheet.org, lefthanders hit .272 against righthanded pitchers last season. Righties hit .261 vs. righties. Against lefthanded pitching, righties hit .281, lefties just .251. But there were 122,053 at-bats against righthanded pitchers last season, nearly three times as many as the 45,730 against lefties.

Peters even sees a bias toward lefties in the design of many ballparks that feature shorter distances to right field. Yankee Stadium is famous for its short porch. At Fenway Park, "Pesky's Pole" in right field is just 302 feet from home plate.

While many of the lefthanded oddities favor batters, Peters said southpaw pitchers have built-in advantages, too, especially at youth league levels where batters simply don't see them very often.

Not all advantages go to lefties. Catchers are nearly all righthanded - a lefty trying to cut down a base stealer would have to throw over or around the righthanded batter. Infielders, except for first basemen, are virtually all righthanded because a lefthander would have to make an awkward turn to get into throwing position.

Odell notes that it's not being lefthanded, but rather batting lefthanded, that appears to be the advantage, at least among Hall of Famers. Just 22 of the 138 position players were pure lefthanders - batting and throwing left. But 37 righthanded throwers hit lefthanded. Among lefthanded throwers, none hit righthanded.

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