More Than Ever, Lefties Are Gold This Year
See also: Lefthanders In The First Round Through Draft History
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.
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 clichï¿½. 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:
The Expos used the No. 3 pick not on high school shortstop Derek Jeter, but on college lefthander B.J. Wallace.
Kansas City took college lefthander Jeff Granger with the fifth pick, when righthanders such as future Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter were available.
St. John's lefthander C.J. Nitkowski went to the Reds with the ninth choice, ahead of Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko and Jason Varitek.
The Mets' affection for lefthanders bit them when they picked high schooler Geoff Goetz sixth overall.
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.
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.
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.