Baseball is so steeped in tradition that most changes spark outcry from die-hards and purists. Rarely does a marked shift occur without anyone noticing. Yet one trend has eroded conventional wisdom — gradually over the last 60 years and drastically over the last decade — with nary a comment: lefties are disappearing from first base.
Left-handers, who make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the male population, have a huge hitting advantage. But if they are not pitchers, they are limited to the outfield and first base. At first base, they are better suited to fielding balls hit in the hole between first and second, making throws to second or third, and holding runners on base.
“Defensively, it does matter, and all things being equal, you’d rather have a lefty at first base,” the Fox baseball analyst Tim McCarver said.
For generations, teams played the odds. Seventy-five years ago, the majority of regular first basemen were left-handers. In 1928, 92 percent of everyday first basemen were, including Lou Gehrig, George Sisler and Bill Terry.
Generally, until World War II, nearly two-thirds of regular first baseman were lefties — 64 percent in 1933, 67 percent in 1941. Sure, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg were righties, but if they did not have such a slugger, managers typically slotted a left-hander at first.
After the war, the percentage dipped slightly — 60 years ago, 56 percent of the first basemen threw left-handed — and that number remained stable a half-century ago. But as the modern platoon system became more prominent, the numbers dipped again. Of the players with at least 1,000 innings at first base in 1963 and 1964, about 45 percent were left-handers; the number is slightly higher when figuring the percentage of all lefties and righties who played at least a third of their team’s innings at first. Those numbers remained stable for decades. Through much of the 1990s, 42 percent to 46 percent of first basemen were left-handed.
The statistician Bill James confirms that pattern. From 1940 to 1959, 54 percent of putouts at first base were made by left-handers. But that number dropped to 40 percent in the next two decades and remained essentially flat for the next 20 seasons.
As teams emphasized long-ball offense in the late 1990s, they started playing more righties at first. In 1998, 39 percent of regulars were left-handed (including platoons); in 2002, the number dipped to 36 percent. Recently, the proportion of lefty first basemen has fallen below one-third and occasionally just above one-quarter. Among first basemen, three of the last four Gold Gloves in the American League and four of six Gold Gloves in the National League have gone to right-handers.
“From the scouting perspective, it makes sense,” said John Mirabelli, the Cleveland Indians’ assistant general manager, who oversees scouting operations. “You must be big to play first. But if you are lefty and have speed or a good arm, then it’s a waste to put you at first, so you go in the outfield.”
Mirabelli adds that prospects who fail as catchers but are good hitters will be pushed to first base, like Carlos Delgado. Many also transfer from third base or the outfield.
James said that the arrival of youth leagues after World War II might have led to more talented lefties being sent to the pitcher’s mound. He added that as left-handed hitters gained value, more right-handers switched sides to provide another lefty bat. First basemen who bat left and throw right have increased in recent decades, but especially lately. Justin Morneau and Prince Fielder are two examples.
McCarver said that right-handers with soft hands could reduce errors on the infield, thus offsetting a left-hander’s advantages.
Keith Hernandez, a former lefty first baseman who won 11 Gold Gloves, added, “You can have right-handers with great range and left-handers that are butchers.”
Although James and Mirabelli give only a modest edge to lefties, McCarver and Hernandez say the difference is more significant.
Putting lefties at first was baseball’s conventional wisdom, McCarver said. “Managers don’t go by the book as much anymore,” he added.
Ultimately, however, McCarver and Hernandez said the emphasis on offense at the expense of defense eliminated some of the left-handers’ advantage.
“The bunt is out of the game today, especially in the American League, where the designated hitter takes the bunt off the table,” said Hernandez, now an SNY analyst. (The A.L. has far fewer left-handed first basemen.) With fewer base-stealing threats, the edge in holding runners on is also diminished.
“If you sacrifice defense for offense, it’ll raise its ugly head a few times a year,” Hernandez said. “but if you’re getting 120 R.B.I. at first, then it might be worth it. First base is an offensive and a power position.”
The Yankees’ Mark Teixeira, a two-time Gold Glove winner, is a stellar first baseman, McCarver said.
But, McCarver added, “I don’t think the Yankees gave him all that money to play defense.”