Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Alluring Mystique of the Left-Handed Catcher: Why?

NOTE: I’ll get to Nate Robertson stuff later, because I was two-thirds of the way through writing this post when that news broke, and now that I put the effort into writing it, I want to post it.

We’ve entered the home stretch of spring training and the roster has thinned out significantly. Today we learned that Alex Avila will indeed begin the year as the backup catcher. Avila’s somewhat of an enigma to me. When he first got called up, there were all sorts of concerns throughout the Tigers fan community. After all, he’d only been catching for about two years and was only in his first professional year, plus prior to his callup, he’d been in somewhat of a slump (if I remember correctly). Then he has a good five weeks or so in the big leagues and all of a sudden, these same fans are treating him like he’s the next Johnny Bench. Did I miss something? Where’s the hesitation? Dusty Ryan put up good numbers in slightly fewer plate appearances in 2008 and he’s no longer with the Tigers. Avila probably will be a good player, but I don’t think there’s enough information to treat him like a known commodity yet. At any rate, in light of Avila making the team, I want to discuss something I have not understood and I have not received a satisfactory answer for: The left-handed catcher.

Baseball people talk about left-handed catchers like they are a rare and precious commodity. Without looking up rosters, I can name five left-handed starting catchers off the top of my head (Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, AJ Pierzynski, John Baker, and Miguel Montero). I can think of another four (Jorge Posada, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Victor Martinez, and Dioner Navarro) who are switch-hitters. And that’s not counting backup catchers and guys I’ve forgotten about (I know I have). That accounts for about a third of teams (I rounded up to make up for the guy I know I’ve missed). Every team needs to have a couple of good left-handed bats, obviously, but for some reason, the impression I get from baseball people is that the left-handed catcher is a more valuable hitter than any other lefty, and I have no idea why that is. I asked my Baseball Guru about it, and his answer was that since catcher is a position where you have to throw right-handed, most of the people who catch are going to be natural righties, and therefore not that many catchers will bat left-handed (essentially, “because they’re rare”). I’m still not satisfied with that answer because there are other positions that require you to throw right-handed, and yet, you almost never hear of people drooling over a left-handed third baseman or a left-handed shortstop (and when it comes to left-handed second basemen, I can only think of Chase Utley and a few switch-hitters, which would make them even more rare). Also, there are plenty of outfielders and first basemen who throw right-handed but bat left-handed. It also seems to me like a left-handed catcher would be an offensive liability, especially in the late innings (since generally, righties hit righties better than lefties hit lefties). Basically, in my world, if I’m the GM or manager, I just want a decent number of lefty bats in the lineup. I don’t care if they’re catchers, outfielders, shortstops, or whatever.

Another thing I don’t understand is that switch-hitting catchers get a little bit of love, but not nearly as much as the lefties. You’d think they’d get more love. After all, being able to hit from both sides of the plate would take care of that offensive liability I pointed out previously, at least in theory (in practice, switch-hitters tend to be better from the left side because that’s where they get more ABs from, but there are exceptions). I know Avila used to be a switch-hitter. I wonder why he stopped doing that.

And then there’s the question of defense. I have no idea if there is any marked difference in defensive ability between right-handed catchers and left-handed catchers, and I’m not going to look it up. But it seems like the current crop of left-handed catchers are more known for their bats than their gloves. Pierzynski, McCann, and Baker all generally have caught stealing percentages in the low twenties. Joe Mauer is slightly above average defensively, but wins Gold Gloves because with the offensive numbers he puts up, he’d have to be a complete butcher not to. My Baseball Guru has the old-school philosophy that the catcher’s priorities are to work well with the pitchers, block balls in the dirt, and throw out runners. Anything you get offensively from him is gravy. I tend to share that belief. Now, if you get offense from a catcher who is a good defender, that’s awesome, and I think Avila has the chance to do that. His arm is plenty strong enough by the looks of things, and now it’s down to footwork and other mechanics, as well as blocking balls. Personally, I think he’d be better served in the long-term honing his defensive skills by being an everyday catcher at Toledo. After all, the Tigers have a long and proud history of excellent defensive catchers (Freehan, Parrish, and Pudge all won multiple Gold Gloves and could throw out runners with the best of ‘em, and Laird should have won the Gold Glove last year). I want Avila to live up to that legacy, but he still needs work in order to get there.


  1. I think you make some good points. I like the looks of Avila, but we just don't know. Remember Matt Nokes? He hit 32 home runs for the Tigers in 1987 at age 23 then kind of fell off the face of the earth.

  2. Left-handed catchers have issues throwing to third base on a steal attempt when there is a right handed batter blocking his throw and view. They also have to make a pivot on that throw that a right handed catcher does not have to make. This also applies to a lesser degree on throws to second base on steal attempts where there is a right-handed batter.

  3. I guess I should clarify that I only meant left-handed hitting catchers. I just didn't feel like typing "hitting" over and over.