August 16, 2009
Left-Handed Catchers Left Out
by Alan Schwarz
The letters keep coming. Every few weeks, Benny Distefano will open his mail and find a letter from a Little Leaguer, or a parent of one, asking for advice. He is the only person they know who understands.
Twenty years ago this Tuesday, Distefano, then a hanging-on major leaguer, served as a left-handed catcher in a major league baseball game. No one has done so since. Like Ladies Night and pitchers named Wilbur, left-handed catchers are effectively extinct — for reasons on which there is bizarrely little consensus.
“I have no idea,” said Joe Mauer, the Minnesota Twins’ All-Star catcher (right-handed, naturally).
“Is it because there are more right-handed hitters?” offered Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann.
“There’s been nobody come into a game for 20 years? Really?” said a nonplussed Joe Torre, an All-Star catcher throughout the 1960s. “Well, first off, left-handed pitchers don’t throw the ball straight.”
Pittsburgh Pirates - Benny Distefano, in 1989, extended his career by catching.
Major league teams have been panting for more catchers since shinguards, begging for mothers to allow their sons to play there, and yet they cut off an entire stream of talent that happens to throw left-handed. In the last 100 years, Dale Long caught two innings for the Chicago Cubs in 1958, Mike Squires the same for the 1980 White Sox.
And since Aug. 18, 1989, when Distefano caught for the last time, baseball has embraced retro uniforms and even revenue sharing — but not the likes of Distefano. The minor leagues do not have one left-handed catcher right now.
“It’s a slow-changing game,” said Distefano, now the hitting coach of the West Michigan Whitecaps, a Detroit Tigers Class A affiliate. “It takes a creative manager that’s willing to go with something that might be a little outside the box.”
Distefano had that in late 1988, when he asked his Pittsburgh Pirates manager, Jim Leyland, if he could become the team’s emergency catcher. Distefano had adored catching as a boy on Brooklyn ball fields but was moved to the outfield. Leyland recalled how the world did not spin off its axis when his old boss Tony La Russa used Squires that way, so he allowed Distefano to attend instructional league that fall to relearn the position.
The next spring, when an experiment with 24-man rosters cost teams flexibility, Distefano stuck as a backup outfielder, first baseman and, yes, catcher. He was brought into three games for six innings. The only runner to attempt to steal on him was the Braves’ Oddibe McDowell on Aug. 18.
“Curveball in the dirt,” Distefano said. “Fairly close. I had as good a chance of getting him as anybody else.”
No lefty has strapped on the gear since. Few people know why. Youth leagues see the occasional left-handed catcher — gloves for them are readily available in local sporting-goods stores — but never in pro ball. Distefano understands better than anyone which theories make sense and which do not.
None is more specious than the Right-Handed Hitter Conjecture, which holds that on steal attempts left-handers have to throw around righties, who outnumber hitters from the other side. But right-handed catchers do not seem to struggle throwing past lefties; besides, while right-handed hitters made 62 percent of major league plate appearances 50 years ago, it is now almost even, 56 percent to 44.
Torre’s Wayward Southpaw Thesis was immediately dismissed by his fellow catcher turned manager Don Wakamatsu of the Seattle Mariners.
“There’s a lot of left-handed pitchers who don’t reach the major leagues because their ball is too straight,” Wakamatsu said.
To the extent that a left-hander’s throw to second would generally tail away from the runner rather than into him, Distefano countered, “You can still fade it back into the base with more experience.”
Snap pickoff throws to first are less important than throws to third — as Torre put it, “The runners only go in one direction” — and on the latter, right-handed hitters would impede a left-handed-throwing catcher. But Distefano brushed that back, too.
“When I had to throw to third, I cheated a little bit — I sat a couple of inches farther back and my left foot was a little open,” he said. “I didn’t have to shuffle my feet because I had good arm strength. And when guys steal third, 9 of 10 times it’s on the pitcher anyway.”
Distefano offered two explanations. Bunts toward third base, he said, cause problems for left-handed catchers. In scampering to grab the ball, transferring it to their left hand and throwing to either first or second base, their bodies get closed and clumsy. Throws for right-handers are far more open and natural.
But the primary problem Distefano encountered was with plays at home. Because his glove was on his right hand, every accurate throw to the runner’s side of the plate would have to be reached for backhanded, impeding a quick tag. And on outfielder throws up the first-base line, reaching out with his right hand would leave his throwing shoulder wide open to the runner.
“If there’s going to be a bang-bang play, the left-handed catcher’s going to get hurt,” he said.
Distefano did manage to parlay his newfound versatility into a better-paying job in Japan in 1990. He attended the Houston Astros’ spring camp in 1992 — with the pitchers and catchers — and made the team in part because he could serve as emergency catcher. He never got into a game behind the plate, but they needed an extra body with Craig Biggio moving to second base.
Come to think of it, speaking of second base, why don’t any lefties get to play there, either? And not at shortstop, nor at third?
“I guess all the lefties end up as pitchers,” Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada said.
Apparently so. About 15 years ago, a left-handed teenager for the Lumps Gas Station summer-league team in Clifton, Tex., played one game at short before, he recalled, “They said left-handers aren’t supposed to play there” and was moved. That teenager was Zach Duke, now an All-Star left-handed pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Not one left-handed thrower has played an inning at shortstop in the majors in 100 years. As for second base, there have been only three since World War II: George Crowe for the 1958 Cubs (for two outs), Sam McDowell for the 1970 Cleveland Indians (for two right-handed batters before returning to the mound) and Don Mattingly (by an incensed Billy Martin for the last out of the infamous 1983 pine tar game).
“Second basemen can’t do it left-handed — you can’t turn a double play like that, because you’d accept the ball and have to turn all the way around,” said Texas Rangers third baseman Michael Young, who before this season played exclusively in the middle infield. “Shortstops, you’d still have trouble throwing the ball on a D.P. I’ve never seen it. And I don’t expect to, either.”
Which brings us to third base and the versatile Squires, who was one of the aforementioned southpaw catchers. A few lefties have briefly filled in at third (including Mattingly in 1986) but Squires played there in 13 games for the 1984 White Sox.
Left-handed third basemen have to backhand all plays in the shortstop hole to their left, which restricts their range — unless their coordination is so spectacular that they would be playing shortstop in the first place.
Squires, now a scout for the Reds, said that left-handed third basemen get eaten up on bunts, because flinging the ball quickly to their left while charging is virtually impossible.
But left-handed catchers? Squires doesn’t see why not.
“You’re talking about old-timers who don’t want to change,” he said. “I always wanted to be a catcher growing up. But I was not allowed to.”
Distefano became a catcher solely to extend his career. Instead, he lengthened his legacy, not only among baseball trivia buffs but within the left-handed catching community, for whom he remains a hero.
“I didn’t know the 20th anniversary of my last time out there was coming up,” Distefano said. “I definitely will celebrate now. It’s nice. It’s really rewarding to be remembered in a positive way.”