March 7, 2017
Further Frontiers: Handedness
In Thursday’s Boston Globe, Alex Speier had an interesting piece about new Red Sox first baseman Mitch Moreland. Speier began by noting that Moreland and Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs, who field and throw left-handed, won the two Gold Glove awards at first base in 2016, and that left-handed first basemen seem to have a substantial advantage in Gold Glove voting. His question: Why?
We all know several of the reasons and Speier deftly touches on them all. The throw to second base is easier for a left-handed first baseman. A left-hander wears the glove on his right hand, which might give him an infinitesimal but real advantage on ground balls in the hole between first base and second base. Some of the footwork around the bag can be more easily done in the optimal way by a lefty. There are myriad selection biases at work, too. Red Sox infield coach Brian Butterfield summed it all up by telling Speier: “The whole infield was made for right-handers, except for first base." That’s true.
My question: What if it’s also not true?
The 2016 season was a breakthrough campaign for Cubs infielder Javier Baez. He didn’t answer every question about the viability of his hyper-kinetic swing or his hyper-aggressive approach, but he flashed all of his tools, made huge plays during the postseason, saw his jersey become one of the best sellers in baseball, and emerged as one of the game’s most exciting defenders.
The fun quirk that drove some of the nerdiest attention Baez’s way was the speed and panache with which he applied tags at second and third base. It’s a small thing, but the more we learn about catchers’ arm strength and pitchers’ role in controlling the running game—and the razor-thin margins between safe and out—the more it seems like a small thing that can make a big difference.
That made it worth asking how Baez came to be the quickest tagger in baseball, and the answer turned out to be a twist on Inigo Montoya: [Baez] is not [right-]handed. In fact, if you were just having dinner with him or asking him for his autographs in the parking lot, you’d call him a lefty. He briefly took up switch-hitting in high school. While he bats and throws right-handed (and throws hard that way), it’s probably more fair to call Baez ambidextrous than to say he’s either left- or right-handed. That helps explain his remarkable prowess with the glove hand on tags, and his body’s easy cooperation in that effort.