Baseball America

More Than Ever, Lefties Are Gold This Year

The
Atlanta Braves have been a model organization for a generation, and
Paul Snyder played a vital role in the growth of the Braves with his
esteemed work as scouting director.

Snyder was never rigid in
his views, but he always kept one thought in mind going into drafts: Do
as much as possible to get at least two lefthanders in the first 10
rounds.

That thinking brought in Steve Avery, Ken Dayley, Tom
Glavine, Derek Lilliquist, Kent Mercker and Zane Smith during the
1980s, as the Braves gathered the talent that led to 14 consecutive
division titles. Snyder just missed on another lefthander in that span:
Randy Johnson, taken by the Braves out of high school in the fourth
round of the 1982 draft.

“You can never have enough pitching,” Snyder said. “And you can never have enough lefthanders.”

Snyder is not alone in that thinking.

Hall
of Famer Clark Griffith often said, “give me all the lefthanded
pitchers, and I’ll beat you to death.” As Mets general manager, Frank
Cashen would tell the scouting department to, “take all the lefthanded
pitchers you can get. A southpaw is a commodity.”

That will be more evident than ever in this year’s draft.

“If you don’t get a lefthander early, you’re not going to get one,” Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken said.

This draft could see a run on lefthanders to rival anything seen in the draft’s history (see chart).

“There
are some good lefthanders out there,” said Angels scouting director
Eddie Bane, a pretty good lefthander himself during his playing days.
“And I would like to get one.”

Bane, who was the second
lefthander selected in the 1973 June draft out of Arizona State, will
not get Vanderbilt’s David Price, who could become the fourth
lefthander in draft history to be the No. 1 overall pick.

The
other lefthanders to go first overall were David Clyde to the Rangers
in 1973, Floyd Bannister to the Mariners in 1976 and Brien Taylor to
the Yankees in 1991. For different reasons, Clyde and Taylor became
spectacular burnouts. Bannister was a quality major leaguer who
finished a 15-year career on mostly mediocre teams with 134 victories
and one all-star appearance.

There could be four lefthanders
among the top 10 picks overall. That would approach the 1976 frenzy,
when four of the first five choices were lefthanders: Bannister, Pat
Underwood (Tigers), Bill Bordley (Brewers) and Bob Owchinko (Padres).
As many as nine lefthanders could go in the first round of this draft,
which would be a landmark moment. The 2004 draft set the current
standard for lefthander fever, when seven went in the first round.

It
has not always been like this. In 1968, only a half-lefthander went in
the first round, when Washington selected high school
pitcher/outfielder Donnie Castle. In four drafts (1974, ’78, ’85 and
’89) only one lefthander was taken in the first round.

But the
game has become more specialized, several scouting directors said.
Teams want multiple lefthanders for the bullpen in addition to the
rotation because they can neutralize lefthanded hitters. With the
increase of right-field porches, that is not insignificant. Lefthanders
can also dent running games.

There is also the understanding
that lefthanders can be effective through unconventional means. With
lefthanders, size and arm strength are not as important as intelligence
and feel.

“All things being even close to equal, you’ll take
the lefthander,” Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd said. “You have to be careful
not to overdraft, but you’d like to get as many as possible because
they’re so rare. They’re a precious commodity.”

A Struggle To Find Good Ones

The ancient Zuni Indians, who considered lefthanders to be a good luck charm, were on to something.

By
and large, lefthanders have a disproportionate role in baseball. About
10 percent of the population is lefthanded, so of the 675 pitchers who
appeared in the majors last season, about 68 should have been
lefthanders.

Not even close. A total of 160 lefthanders pitched in the majors last season.

Yet
when it comes to lefthanders, some clubs just cannot get it right. The
Yankees play in a park that dramatically favors lefthanders, but they
have not developed a lefthanded starter since pulling Andy Pettitte out
of a Texas high school in the 22nd round in 1990.

It’s not for
lack of effort. From 1991-2004, the Yankees drafted 113 lefthanders,
and had 12 reach the majors. Of that group, only five pitched for the
Yankees. The leading winner of the quintet is Randy Choate, who went
3-2 in 82 relief appearances.

As Seattle’s scouting director,
Roger Jongewaard had a sharp eye for lefthanders. Shawn Estes and Mike
Hampton were quality picks, but they had the misfortune of reaching the
majors with a manager, Lou Piniella, who had little patience with young
pitching.

But the Mariners also had a pair of first-round
lefties in consecutive drafts who didn’t work out: Ryan Anderson, who
was thought to be the second coming of Randy Johnson, and Matt
Thornton. Anderson, a first-rounder in 1997, was plagued by injuries
and eventually gave up to go into training as a chef. Thornton, a
surprising selection at No. 22, had to move on to the White Sox bullpen
to find a career.

Lefthanders Wade LeBlanc and Cesar Ramos
hope to reverse the course of players like Anderson and Thornton. And
if history is any indicator, both should reach the majors.

Why?

Padres
assistant GM Grady Fuson was involved in San Diego’s decision to use
premium picks (supplemental first round for Ramos in 2005, second round
for LeBlanc in 2006) on the two lefties, and no one has had more recent
success in pulling lefthanders out of the draft than Fuson.

As
scouting director with the Athletics and Rangers, Fuson used a
first-round pick on a lefthander four times. All four have reached the
majors. Mark Mulder and Barry Zito were significant pieces in a
dominant Oakland rotation before changing clubs. Eric DuBose overcame a
series of major injuries to make it with Baltimore. John Danks went
from centerpiece of the future with the Rangers to the White Sox
rotation after being included in the Brandon McCarthy trade in the
offseason.

Mulder, the second overall selection in 1998, was an
obvious choice. Much more thought and evaluation went into the
selections of DuBose (1997), Zito (1999) and Danks (2003).

“There’s
something about the game that allows them to get away with more from
time to time,” Fuson said of lefthanders. “Don’t get me wrong. They
can’t do it if they don’t have command and feel. But they don’t have to
have a knee-buckling breaking ball and a dominating fastball to get
by.”

Fuson follows the same procedure for the physical
evaluations of righthanders and lefthanders, “but there is an
understanding of the bigger picture,” he said. He said the key to
evaluating lefthanders is rating their ability to pitch rather than raw
arm strength. Experience has taught him that lefties can effectively
pitch with a fastball in the 88-90 mph range. A righthander with that
skill set would have to be special to get a second look.

With
lefthanders, Fuson is more interested in their breaking pitch and
offspeed pitch. With the fastball, he wants to see if they can spot it
down and away to a righthanded hitter rather than blow out a radar gun.
He has always looked kindly upon “feel” pitchers in general, and that
affection is more pronounced with lefthanders.

“It’s about the
feel they have for their stuff, how they work sequences,” Fuson said.
“A lot of times when I look at lefthanders, I’m looking to see if
they’re command oriented.”

Others share that opinion. The
consensus within the scouting community is that scouts can give wiggle
room when it comes to velocity but must see deception in the delivery,
life on the fastball and the potential for a second pitch, whether it
is offspeed or a breaking ball.

If that second pitch is the
curveball, all the better. Most lefthanders who went on to be big
winners in the majors had the curveball as a second pitch. Jimmy Key,
Kenny Rogers, David Wells and Glavine all fit that profile.

“The
lefthanders just are not going to stack up with the righthanders in
terms of stuff,” Bane said. “Most of the good ones have that little
extra that Jim Kaat called to and fro, change speed on every pitch.
They have to think that way: sink it away and cut it in.

“If you’re a lefthander and can do that, you’ve got a future.”

A Little Bit Flakey

Lefthanders
have always been different, and a little bit unsettling to more
conventional thinkers. In fact, the Latin word for left was “sinister.”
In German, linkisch translates to left, clumsy, awkward or socially
inferior. In Spanish the word for lefthanded, zurdas, also means wrong
way. The Italian word mancino means both left and dishonest.

In
baseball, the lasting image of a lefthander is that of a flake. Rube
Waddell, a four-time 20-game winner with the Philadelphia Athletics in
the early 20th century, liked to chase fire engines and shoot marbles
under the stands during games. Waddell likely was mentally deficient,
but he helped form the image for lefthanders. Other lefthanders
perpetuated the image: Nick Altrock, who became a baseball clown; Lefty
Gomez, Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Tug McGraw.

There have been many
wise and rational lefthanders as well. Kaat, who won 283 games, is
among the most intelligent men in the game. Frank Tanana was bright
enough to make the conversion from power lefthander to quintessential
“crafty” lefthander. But the die was cast long ago. In a righthanded
world, lefthanders are seen as different.

Scouts agree that a
lefthander’s makeup must be judged on a different scale, much as the
fastball is. What may seem eccentric or off-base may just be a
lefthander finding his way through a righthanded world. Lefthanders
generally need more development time, and Bane said if he were a farm
director, he would never release a lefthander who showed even a hint of
potential.

“I can’t imagine doing that,” Bane said. “You’re going to get burned if you do that.”

If
they had done it, the Dodgers would not have had Hall of Fame
lefthander Sandy Koufax. And several teams gave up on lefthander Jamie
Moyer, who is still getting it done at 44 with the Phillies this
season. From 1990, when Texas dumped him, through 1992, Moyer was
released four times. From 1993-2006, he won 185 games.

The key
to a lefty’s development hinges on command of the fastball. The wild
lefthander is more than a cliché. The career leader for walks per nine
innings is a lefthander: Tommy Byrne at 6.9. Of the eight qualifying
pitchers who had the highest walk rates last season, four were
lefthanders: Doug Davis, Paul Maholm, Ted Lilly and Zito.

According
to former major league manager and executive Clyde King, even the famed
Branch Rickey could not explain the inherent movement on the pitches of
lefthanders.

“It’s the only question I asked him that he could not answer,” King said.

Former
major league pitching coach and manager Ray Miller said lefthanders
have a natural “body lean” that allows them to cope in a righthanded
world. That helps explain, Miller maintained, why lefthanded hitters
handle the low pitch so well and lefthanders struggle with control.
Lefthanders unconsciously develop a low three-quarters delivery, and
that causes more late movement, often out of the strike zone.

Mike
Arbuckle, the Phillies’ assistant GM for scouting and player
development, understands. He’s a lefthander himself, and he has labored
his entire life with the simple act of throwing a straight ball. “For
whatever reason, they develop slower,” he said. “They tend to have more
life on the fastball, and it takes longer to get command of that. You
have to keep that in mind when you’re looking at them.”

Lefties Are Always Alluring

Lefthanders are the siren song of the draft. Their appeal can lure teams into big mistakes with premium picks.

“We’ve
got to be very careful of overvaluing them,” said Wilken, whose many
draft successes include Key in the third round of the 1982 draft with
the Blue Jays. “It seems like we’re so willing to overlook things just
because they’re lefthanders. They can get too much of a benefit of the
doubt, and that can hurt you.”

Look at recent draft whiffs,
and a lefthander often is involved. The 1990 draft in particular will
live in lefthander infamy. The Dodgers took Oklahoma high school
lefthander Ron Walden with the ninth overall pick, and the Rangers
chose Creighton lefthander Dan Smith over Stanford righthander Mike
Mussina. And those are just some of the worst examples of recent big
misses:

1992: The Expos used the No. 3 pick not on high school shortstop Derek Jeter, but on college lefthander B.J. Wallace.

1993:
Kansas City took college lefthander Jeff Granger with the fifth pick,
when righthanders such as future Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter were
available.

1994: St.
John’s lefthander C.J. Nitkowski went to the Reds with the ninth
choice, ahead of Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko and Jason Varitek.

1997: The Mets’ affection for lefthanders bit them when they picked high schooler Geoff Goetz sixth overall.

1998:
At No. 6, Minnesota got the wrong lefthander in Arizona State’s Ryan
Mills. High schooler C.C. Sabathia went 14 picks later to the Indians,
who have had more success with lefthanders.

1999:
Financial concerns forced Montreal to select high school lefthander
Josh Girdley with the sixth choice. In the franchise’s defense, they
probably could not have signed other possibilities such as Barry Zito
or righthander Ben Sheets, both top 10 selections.

2000: High
school lefthanders Mike Stodolka (Royals), Mark Phillips (Padres) and
Joe Torres (Angels) were selected among the first 10 picks. All have
seen their careers derailed. Injuries forced Stodolka off the mound,
and he is trying to make it as a first baseman. The injury-plagued
Torres is now in the Carolina League with the White Sox affiliate.
Phillips once had the best pure stuff in the organization, but his
makeup wore out the Padres’ patience. They included him in a deal with
the lefthander-hungry Yankees, and Phillips dropped out of sight.

The list goes on and on.

“You
have to look at lefthanders a bit differently,” said Logan White, the
Dodgers’ assistant GM for scouting. “I believe in trying to draft and
sign as many lefthanders as possible, but you don’t want to take a
lower-ceiling lefthander just because he’s a lefthander.”

But the temptation can be hard to resist. Everyone wants a lefthander, especially this year.

Longtime national baseball reporter Gerry Fraley is currently a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

Draft | #2007

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