ST. LOUIS - David Peters was born left-handed. It took a few raps on the hand by 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 right-handed, but in baseball 25 percent of the players, both pitchers and hitters, are left-handed,” Peters said.
“Do lefties have an advantage? They definitely do. The statistics bear that out.”
Peters’ observations were for an article on the university Web site, 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 left-handed, 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 hitters were even more startling. Odell said 71 Hall of Fame position players batted right-handed, 59 left-handed, 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 left-handed hitters are some of the game’s greatest names: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds and George Brett.
Peters said left-handed hitters are simply taking advantage of a game set up to favor them, starting with the direction the hitter runs to first base.
As a right-handed hitter 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 right-handed, the left-handed hitter also tends to have a matchup advantage.
“You see the ball better” as a left-handed hitter facing a right-handed pitcher, Peters said. “You get depth perception. A right-handed batter facing a right-handed 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 the Web site retrosheet.org, left-handers hit .272 against right-handed pitchers last season. Righties vs. righties hit .261. Against left-handed pitching, righties hit .281, lefties just .251. But there were 122,053 at-bats against right-handed pitchers last season, nearly three times as many as the 45,730 against lefties.
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Musial was so dominant at old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis that Peters, a lifelong Cardinals fan, recalled the team for one season removed a screen aimed at turning cheap homers into doubles. The move backfired: opposing teams hit more homers there than Musial and his St. Louis teammates did, and the next season, the screen went back up.
While many of the left-handed oddities favor hitters, Peters said southpaw pitchers have built-in advantages, too, especially at youth league levels where hitters simply don’t see them very often. And, he said, many people think lefties tend to have a natural tail on their pitches that allows the ball to move away from right-handed hitters.
Not all advantages go to lefties. Catchers are nearly all right-handed — a lefty trying to cut down a base stealer would have to throw over or around the right-handed hitter. Infielders except for first basemen are virtually all right-handed because a left-hander would have to make an awkward turn to get into throwing position.
Odell notes that it’s not being left-handed, but rather hitting left-handed, that appears to be the advantage, at least among Hall of Famers. Just 22 of the 138 position players were pure left-handers — batting and throwing left. But 37 right-handed throwers hit left-handed. Among left-handed throwers, none hit right-handed.
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