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June 1, 2010

Changing Speeds

Lefty-on-Lefty Violence

by Ken Funck

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As Christina Kahrl has said, one of baseball’s well-worn tropes is that every game provides you the opportunity to see something you’ve never seen before. When you buy your ticket and settle into your seat, you hope to witness something unique, or historic, or even comic, but in a marathon season of roughly 2,430 games, not every game can be so obviously special—and the May 14 game between the Phillies and Brewers, in which the visitors from Philadelphia beat Milwaukee 9-5, appeared to be just such a mundane early-season contest. Ageless wonder Jamie Moyer ran his record to 5-2 on the season, key off-season acquisition Randy Wolf fell to 3-3 for the Brewers, and Milwaukee’s continued pitching woes managed to drag them five games under .500 for the year. Just another win for Philadelphia; just another loss for the struggling Brew Crew; just another box score to digest and forget.

Yet at second glance, it’s clear that those in attendance that night at Miller Park witnessed something that hasn’t happened for at least half a century, if not longer. Most likely no one there realized it, and not even Jayson Stark, ESPN’s oracle of statistical ephemera, has written about it, but during the game there were six home runs hit, all of them by left-handed hitters off of left-handed pitchers—a record of lefty-on-lefty violence unprecedented in the Retrosheet era. In fact, those six home runs weren’t content to just set a new record, they went all Bob Beamon on the old one. Since 1953, the most lefty-on-lefty home runs hit in a game prior to the Phillies-Brewers tilt was only four, occurring in just 12 different games, with merely three (and now four) examples of those being the only home runs hit in the game:

8/7/1955 (Game 2):  Giants 6, Reds 5

Hitter

Pitcher

Gail Harris

Jackie Collum

Hank Thompson

Jackie Collum

Bill Taylor

Jackie Collum

Gail Harris

Jackie Collum

7/11/1973:  Tigers 14, Rangers 2

Hitter

Pitcher

Jim Northrup

Jim Kremmel

Duke Sims

Mike Paul

Jim Northrup

Mike Paul

Dick McAuliffe

Mike Paul

6/11/2002:  Yankees 6, Diamondbacks 4

Hitter

Pitcher

Jason Giambi

Brian Anderson

Nick Johnson

Brian Anderson

Robin Ventura

Brian Anderson

Luis Gonzalez

David Wells

5/14/2010:  Phillies 9, Brewers 5

Hitter

Pitcher

Ryan Howard

Randy Wolf

Prince Fielder

Jamie Moyer

Jim Edmonds

Jamie Moyer

George Kottaras

Jamie Moyer

Raul Ibanez

Randy Wolf

Chase Utley

Mitch Stetter

Such games are rare because there are fewer lefty starters and, of the four platoon splits, lefty-on-lefty demonstrates the greatest advantage to the pitcher, a fact often attributed to the fewer opportunities for young lefty hitters to face same-sided pitching:

Home Runs per Plate Appearance, 2000-2010

Split

PA

HR

HR/PA

LHP vs. LHB

141,877

3,440

2.42%

RHP vs. RHB

747,723

20,486

2.74%

RHP vs. LHB

673,332

18,992

2.82%

LHP vs. RHB

371,235

10,606

2.86%

Other than the fact that both starters were lefties, nothing about this game cried out for a historical portside power surge—on the contrary, what made this exceptional was that both starters had recently been amazingly stingy with the long ball against same-sided batters. Wolf had surrendered a home run to Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart in his first start of 2010, ending a streak of over 200 innings in which he hadn’t allowed a single jack to a lefty hitter since Brad Hawpe took him deep on April 17, 2009. Moyer had seen a similarly impressive streak recently end when Aubrey Huff took him deep on April 27, as the former Ancient Mariner had gone more than 140 innings and nearly a calendar year since a lefty had last homered off him (James Loney on May 13, 2009). Those were the only home runs either pitcher had allowed all season.

The Phillies boast a plethora of left-handed power bats, however, and in the top of the first, freshly-minted gazillionaire Ryan Howard hammered a Wolf offering over the wall in right-center. There is disagreement among smart analysts, even those here at BP, as to whether Howard should or shouldn’t be platooned. I fall into the former camp, since to me the case that Matt Swartz and others have elaborated, which quantifies how Howard is mid-pack among first baseman when ranking offensive performance against same-side pitchers, is vulnerable to our mothers’ “If Everyone Jumped Off A Cliff” riposte—just because the rest of the league accepts substandard production doesn’t mean the Phillies should. (Yes, I know there’s a separate roster construction component of that argument, but we can discuss that another day.) In any case, with a career 5.0 percent HR/PA rate against lefties (third-most behind Russell Branyan and Prince Fielder among active lefty batters, and 25th-highest overall), there’s no argument as to whether Howard can take lefties deep, so his two-run shot in the first was unlikely to raise any eyebrows.

Nor is there any question as to Fielder’s power against pitchers of any stripe. Five years younger and with fewer platoon issues than Howard, the Veggie Avenger reminded fans why he will soon be a mega-gazillionaire by leading off the bottom of the second with a blast to deep right-center. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but two batters later Jim Edmonds went yard. Edmonds had hit lefties well during much of his career, but lately he’s been a platoon player. Of the 20 home runs he hit during his bounceback 2008 season with the Cubs, only one was off a southpaw—Boone Logan, during the fourth inning of the June 21, 2008 Crosstown Classic, after leading off the inning with a blast off current Phillies closer Jose Contreras

Having allowed only two home runs to lefties in the previous year, Moyer now surrendered one to a player who hadn’t taken a lefty deep for almost two years, then two batters later gave one up to back-up catcher George Kottaras, a player who had never hit a major-league home run off a lefty. In recent years the Brewers lineup has featured a distinct righty slant, so it was particularly odd (and possibly off-putting) for fans to see three lefties start against Moyer, but they each homered in their first plate appearance. Conversely, Moyer had now given up more home runs to lefties in the space of five batters than he had in the previous year, and there were now a record-tying four lefty-on-lefty home runs in the books, with seven innings to go.

The game was tied at 3-3 after Kottaras’ home run, but Raul Ibanez put the Phillies up for good with a solo shot off Wolf leading off the fourth. Ibanez launched 13 long ones off lefties last year, but it was his first of 2010. This broke the record, and the Brewers fans on hand showed their appreciation in the most appropriate way: making the sound of one hand (the left) clapping. Wolf exited the game after five innings having given up home runs to two different lefties for only the second time in his career (Barry Bonds and Bill Mueller having turned the trick back in 1999). Moyer left in the seventh, and when Chase Utley homered off LOOGY Mitch Stetter to lead off the ninth, not only did it up the record to six lefty-on-lefty homers, it meant all six lefty position players who had started the game had now gone deep.

If a record falls, but no one notices it, I’m of the opinion it doesn’t make a sound—so hat tip to my friend Doug for hearing this one from afar. While it may not be true that every baseball game will be historic, each one will certainly be unique, and if you pay close enough attention it will likely reward you in some unexpected way—perhaps in a way you weren’t aware of at the time.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

Related Content:  Lefty,  Jim Edmonds,  Randy Wolf

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