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March 18, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Lefty Roundup: The Sinister Starters

by Jim Baker

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Consider that which divides us as a species. Look beyond matters of team loyalties to the larger picture. Nationality, race, religion, economic philosophy - these are the stuff of wars and conflict.

But what is it that really separates humanity from itself? What fundamental difference keeps us from ever being a truly cohesive body? Why, it is handedness, of course. Long after all the other world's divisions have been resolved we will still be confronted with the unsolvable divide: the hand with which one performs routine tasks. For now, we coexist peaceably enough. The overwhelming right-handed majority has found uses for the left-handed minority, especially in the sport of baseball. Here, perhaps more than in any other place aside from tennis, are left-handers welcomed and even celebrated. Can the world at large take its cue from the national game of the United States and embrace the insidious southpaw minority, seeing it as something more than a threat to right-handed dominance?

Curiously, some believe the percentage of the population that is left-handed is actually growing. Various sources give it as anywhere from 12 to 17 percent. This appears to be an increase over previous concepts of left-handed incursion, which was usually thought to be about 10 percent. Will left-handers use the ever-increasing softening of attitudes against them to further their gains? Will there come a time when they make up a quarter of the world's population? Half? What, exactly, is their expansionist goal?

In any case, let us consider the left-handed starting pitchers of 2005. Using current projections, they stand to make up almost a third of major-league rotations--numbers far beyond their representation in the population at large.

In 2003, it seemed as though the left-handed conspiracy was at an ebb. Consider that lefties were nearly a no-show in the Top 10 pitchers of '03. Their lone representative there was Jamie Moyer, who had the eighth-best VORP at 62.6. Only three other left-handed starters cracked the top 20 two years ago:

11th: Barry Zito, 58.9
17th: Johan Santana, 51.3
20th: C.C. Sabathia, 49.3

Missing, of course, was Randy Johnson, the man who can be most counted on to represent his left-handed brethren. Last year's showing was more impressive, with Johnson returning and lefties grabbing the two top spots:

1st: Santana, 88.8
2nd: Johnson, 72.9
12th: Oliver Perez, 54.5
17th: Mark Buehrle, 50.8
18th: Odalis Perez, 49.7
19th: Doug Davis, 48.8

In addition, another three lefties made the top 25.

This year, only one team, the Devil Rays, is projecting as many as three lefty starters. Last year, three teams had that many and the Kansas City Royals planned to go with four. (They ended up using lefty starters in two-thirds of their games.) A year ago today, fully six teams were not projecting a lefty starter. Did that conviction last?

  • Boston: The World Champions got one start from a lefty, Abe Alvarez on July 22. They lost.

  • New York Yankees: The Yankees got just 11 starts out of lefties, seven of them coming from Brad Halsey, now a Diamondback.

  • Chicago Cubs: The Cubs got their first start from a lefty when Glendon Rusch was pulled out of the bullpen on May 16. He went on to start a total of 16 game, and was the only lefty to open a game for the team in 2004.

  • Cincinnati: Brandon Claussen started 14 games and Jesus Sanchez pitched in with three.

  • Montreal: The Expos held out until June 22 when they brought up Scott Downs. He started 12 games.

  • St. Louis: The National League Champion Cardinals could have very easily gotten through the entire year without using a lefty starter once. Instead, they waited until the last day of the season and put Randy Flores on the mound to begin the game. He only went three innings as the team ran through eight pitchers as a tune up for the postseason. So, then, the World Series was played by two teams that managed only one real start by a left-handed pitcher.

Heading into 2005, only one team appears to have no plans for a lefty in their rotation. The Washington Nationals are, once more, following in the steps of their Expo forefathers of last year and projecting no left-handed starters at this point. At the other end of the spectrum, the three Devil Rays' left-handers are Mark Hendrickson, Scott Kazmir and Casey Fossum.

In the meantime, who are the young crusaders for the lefty cause? At press time, four left-handed rookies were still listed on ESPN.com's depth charts as having a shot at making their team's rotations. They are:

  • Jeff Francis
    Colorado Rockies
    Age: 24
    Previous ML experience: seven starts in 2004
    Projected VORP: 17.0

    Does Francis have a chance to be the best starting pitcher yet developed by the Rockies organization? If he can match that VORP projection in 2005, he's certainly on his way.

  • Dan Meyer
    Oakland A's
    Age: 23
    Previous ML experience: two appearances in 2004
    Projected VORP: 15.3

    If, for some reason, he doesn't make the team out of spring training, he's a good bet to be an impact call-up player once the season has started. One has to wonder if, say, ten years ago, the Braves would have passed on Tim Hudson and kept the likes of Meyer. This has an excellent chance of being a trade that helps both teams.

  • Gustavo Chacin
    Toronto Blue Jays
    Age: 24
    Previous ML experience: two starts in 2004
    Projected VORP: 8.7

    He is not a strong candidate to advance the southpaw cause.

  • Mike Gosling
    Arizona Diamondbacks
    Age: 24
    Previous ML experience: six games in 2004, four as a starter
    Projected VORP: 5.4

    It can't be any fun being the lefty that replaces Randy Johnson in the rotation. Well, that might not be Gosling; that might be Shawn Estes, a pitcher about as far removed from Johnson in the talent department as is humanly possible while still being in the major leagues.

So, with four of the 2004 lefty holdout clubs going out this past offseason and getting an established starter for their rotations, the left-handed talent is more evenly distributed this year. Boston (David Wells) and New York (Johnson) added a lefty to their rotations and Cincinnati (Eric Milton) and St. Louis (Mark Mulder) did as well. Which team has the best lefty tandem in its starting rotation? Among the 16 teams so supplied, here are what seem to be the best:

  1. Cleveland: C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee
  2. Oakland: Barry Zito and Dan Meyer
  3. Florida: Dontrelle Willis and Al Leiter
  4. Milwaukee: Doug Davis and Chris Capuano
  5. Colorado: Joe Kennedy and Jeff Francis
Based on projections, the top three are extremely close and could easily be jumbled around.

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