Russell Martin and Jason Bay don’t seem all that unusual. Well, sure, they’re two of the best baseball players on the planet, but nothing about their swings or the way they play the game seems too different from most players.
Both guys bat and throw righthanded. Pretty standard, right? Most people in the world are righthanded, and that’s how the majority of major leaguers bat and throw.
In Canada, however, Bay and Martin are minorities. Canadian big leaguers, in general, simply don’t bat righthanded. Sure, there are exceptions like Bay and Martin, who could end up going down as the two best righthanded-hitting Canadians of all time, but that’s a list that’s just slightly longer than the list of people who have landed on the moon.
“I do everything righthanded,” Bay said. “I couldn’t do anything lefthanded, whether it’s shoot a hockey stick or dribble a basketball. I’m a righty all the way.”
The greatest Canadian hitter of all time? That would be the lefty-hitting Larry Walker, the newest member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. The top ten hitters of all-time by runs created from Canada? The only righthanded batter among them is Bay.
“It is what it is,” said Greg Hamilton, Canada’s national team director. “We’re not exactly a secret to a lot of countries. They know we’re going to feature a predominantly lefthanded lineup.”
Why is it that the majority of hitters in major league history have hit righthanded, while most Canadian-born major league hitters have hit lefthanded? The answer, it seems, might be rooted in hockey.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, among all players (excluding pitchers) with at least one major league plate appearance since 1901, just about 31 percent have been lefthanded hitters. Righthanded batters make up roughly 61 percent up the major league population, while the remaining players have been switch-hitters.
|Here’s a guide of what to look out for when the Classic gets started.
United States, Depth: No nation can match Team USA’s depth. Thanks to its baseball tradition and huge, diverse population, Team USA is almost always a factor internationally even when it doesn’t send its top team. Cuba, for all its greatness and talent, hasn’t replaced Jose Contreras as its undisputed ace pitcher since his 2003 defection; Japan struggles internationally when it doesn’t send its top roster. The Americans’ depth has some drawbacks, though, specifically a lack of national-team cohesion that nations such as Canada, Cuba and South Korea display. This applies to a certain extent to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela as well, mostly because they have weaker national federations.
Dominican Republic, Arm Strength: At virtually every position, the Dominican team can throw, and many of the hardest throwers in the tournament figure to be in the Dominican bullpen.
Puerto Rico, Catchers: Puerto Rico’s provisional roster had seven current or former big league catcher on the roster, though that’s counting Carlos Delgado, who was a catcher in the minors before becoming a first baseman in the majors.
Asian Nations (China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), Pitching backward: Scouts and other international observers debate the origins—a contact-oriented approach by hitters, or smaller-bodied pitchers, or less emphasis on velocity and more on pitchability? Even Japan’s power arms, such as Red Sox righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka, often nibble and work off their offspeed stuff. Asian teams also are more likely to have lower arm angles, again with these pitchers working off their offspeed stuff.
Cuba, Cruise Control: One National League scout with plenty of international experience compares Cuba to an NBA team that coasts for three quarters, then turns up the intensity in the fourth quarter. The primacy of baseball in Cuba’s culture makes the sport so instinctive for its national team players that they can execute under pressure better than most players.
By those same criteria, there have been 75 Canadian-born hitters; 51 batted lefthanded, 21 batted righty and three switch-hit.
So while nearly 61 percent of players in major league history have been righthanded batters, 68 percent of Canadian major league hitters have hit exclusively lefthanded. It’s like Canadian hitters are stepping into the batter’s box of the Bizarro World.
Tom Valcke, the president and CEO of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, scouted Canada from 1991-1996 for the Major League Scouting Bureau. “Teams used to say, ‘We need a lefthanded-hitting catcher. Let’s call Valcke and see what he’s got in Canada, because we know they’re going to be a lefthanded bat,'” Valcke said.
To this day, Canada still leans left at the plate. Of the 15 positional players on Canada’s World Baseball Classic roster, nine are lefthanded hitters and five are righthanded hitters, while the Diamondbacks’ Luke Carlin is the team’s lone switch-hitter. And that’s an upgrade from last year’s Olympics, when nine of Canada’s 13 hitters batted lefthanded, and the 2006 WBC, when only three of Canada’s 16 hitters were righthanded-only batters.
“Obviously you want balance on your roster offensively and the ability to have options that afford you that balance,” Hamilton said. “But at the end of the day, our situation is such that you have to look at, where there’s clearly a difference in talent level, you have to take the talent over the balance. You have to put aside what you’d like to have in an ideal world and put your best lineup out there.”
While Justin Morneau, Joey Votto, Mark Teahen and Matt Stairs will provide Canada manager Ernie Whitt with big league lefty bats, he’ll also have Bay and Martin at his disposal. But aside from those two players, Canada won’t have another big league regular with a righthanded bat.
“As a manager there’s really nothing you can do,” said Whitt. “Am I going to put in a righthanded pinch-hitter for Morneau when they bring in a lefthanded reliever? If I do, I shouldn’t be managing.”
So why are all these Canadian players lefthanded? Perhaps the better question to ask is, are these Canadian players really lefthanded?
According to a 2004 study from Sarah Medland of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, of more than 11,000 adults, 10 percent of the population is lefthanded. In Canada, 13 percent of people are lefties. So Canada might have a slight natural southpaw edge there, but that doesn’t fully explain the gaping disparity in the batter’s box.
In baseball, a player doesn’t necessarily bat from his dominant hand’s side of the plate; there are players throughout the game who throw right and bat left. Not so for throwing. Players usually throw the ball with their dominant hands. If they write with their left hands, they throw lefthanded, and vice versa. So are these Canadians natural southpaws, or are they simply batting lefthanded for some other reason?
Remember those 51 lefty-hitting Canadian big leaguers? Of those 51 batters, 36 threw righthanded—just over 70 percent. And those 12 lefty hitters on Canada’s preliminary WBC roster? All but one of them (Indians outfielder Nick Weglarz) throw righthanded.
Furthermore, Canada isn’t lacking in righthanded pitching. Baseball-Reference.com lists 96 pitchers born in Canada: 67 righthanders, 28 lefthanders and one unknown. So while Canada’s hitters have historically been 68 percent lefthanded batters, only 29 percent of the country’s pitchers have been lefthanded.
Sixteen of the 23 pitchers on Canada’s preliminary WBC roster are righthanders. And of those 16 righthanders, seven of them bat lefthanded (including Rich Harden). By comparison, Canada has more lefty-hitting, righty-throwing pitchers than all 15 other WBC teams have combined (five).
It doesn’t appear that these Canadians are lefthanded at all; they just bat lefthanded at an alarmingly high rate. (Ned Flanders might want to put those plans for franchising the Leftorium in Canada on hold for now.) So what’s really going on here?
There is no definitive answer, but most theories tie the root of the lefthanded-hitting Canadian to another sport: hockey.
“I don’t know the scientific approach to it, but the Baseball Canada consensus in the locker room was that it had everything to do with the hockey stick,” Bay said.
In Canada, hockey is king. While American children who play sports split their time between baseball, basketball, football, soccer, hockey and other sports, Canada’s cold-weather climate and extensive history of passionate hockey fandom draws Canadian children to the ice.
“I hate to say the stereotype is true, but especially in the small towns, you play hockey,” Bay said. “When I got to an age that I realized I didn’t have to, I was excited for baseball.”
As a result, 52 percent of all NHL players during the 2008-2009 NHL season through mid-February have come from Canada, according to NHL.com. Americans? They account for just 34 percent of NHL players this season.
And in hockey, lefty shooters dominate the ice. Of the 827 players in the NHL this season, 64 percent shoot lefthanded. Why do hockey players shoot lefthanded, even though the majority of the world’s population is righthanded?
“There’s a couple of things,” said Mark Tabrum, USA Hockey’s director of coaching education program. “There are some kids who just pick up a hockey stick and they just grab either a lefty or a righty stick—that’s happened for years. But there’s a lot of scientific background about having the top hand of your hockey stick be your dominant hand. For a lot of people, that would be their right hand, making them a lefthanded shot.
“When I see people whose dominant hand is their top hand on a hockey stick, those are very good stick handlers. They can handle the puck really well. When I see a lot of righthanded players, where their dominant hand is their lower hand, I think they shoot the puck real hard. In my mind, there seems to be a correlation there.”
In the United States, kids traditionally are taught to bat righthanded if they are naturally righthanded, and vice versa. But given how deeply ingrained hockey is in Canadian culture, it seems entirely plausible that a child in Canada is more likely to pick up a hockey stick before he picks up a baseball bat. So once a child is taught to shoot a hockey stick with his dominant hand on top, it would only feel natural for him to swing a baseball bat the same way.
“For most of them, the first thing they picked up was a hockey stick,” Whitt said. “They shot the puck lefthanded, and that’s come over into baseball.”
Then again, there’s Weglarz, the team’s lone naturally lefthanded positional player. Weglarz, 21, was on skates when he was three years old. Like many hockey players, Weglarz was taught to shoot with his dominant hand on top, making him a righthanded shot in hockey. But lefties rarely hit righthanded in baseball.
“If you carry hockey over the way a lot of Canadians do, I should hit righthanded, right?” Weglarz said. “But I’ve always done everything lefthanded.”
At the WBC, Canada will be matched up in Pool C with the United States, Venezuela and Italy. While Team USA and Venezuela will be the favorites to advance to the next round in Miami, Canada’s lefty skew could become an advantage. Other teams, particularly from Latin America, have largely righthanded pitching staffs. While Team USA could have plenty of lefties to throw at the Canadians, Venezuela has no lefthanded starter on its roster.
Throw in the home-field advantage of those pool play games being in Toronto and Canada could advance. Either way, Canada’s presence in the international baseball world is growing, even if it does have a lefty-swinging slant.
“People looked at it more as a hobby, something fun to do to get ready for hockey,” Bay said. “Now people are taking it more seriously.”