What do these teams have in common this season: the Red Sox, Cubs, Reds, Expos, Yankees and Cardinals? They’re not all contenders, they’re not all pennant-race non-entities, they’re not all possessed of similar strengths and weaknesses, they’re not all of a the same economic strata, not all their mascots have feathers, fur or nylon stitching. So what could it be? The answer is that all of the aforementioned teams are poised to open the 2004 season without a lefty in their rotation. What’s more is that the Pirates, if they do indeed dispatch Oliver Perez to the minors to start the season, and the Blue Jays, if Ted Lilly‘s wrist injury keeps him off the opening-day roster and he’s replaced by Vinny Chulk, will join their ranks.
I can’t really say whether this is a historical oddity, but my suspicion is that when more than a quarter of the league has not a single left-handed starter among them, something’s afoot. And, mind you, other than the Reds, these aren’t teams that have performed the industry equivalent of dumpster diving to assemble their pitching staffs. In fact, you’ll find among these sans-lefty squads the probable top three pitching staffs in all of baseball. Additionally, the Padres may become the first nominal contender since the ’94 Expos to go with an all right-handed bullpen for the bulk of the season. So is there any reason for this, ahem, southpaucity?
Maybe so. With a major assist from the supremely talented Keith Woolner, let’s look at some numbers. Here’s what opposing hitters have done against right-handers and left-handers from 1972 through 2002:
Opponents' AVG OBP SLG LHPs .262 .326 .397 RHPs .261 .325 .397
As you can see, over this 31-season span it’s been basically a wash. Right-handers hold narrow advantages in AVG and OBP, but for all intents and purposes righties and lefties have been equal over this time period.
Now let’s take a look at the 2003 season:
Opponents' AVG OBP SLG LHPs .271 .335 .435 RHPs .265 .329 .424
The two groups are equal no more. Right-handers last season were notably better in all three major rate stats. I doubt that more than a few teams are aware of this sea change, but there may have been some qualitative assessments around the league that have led teams to observe that it’s not high cotton these days for left-handers.
To get a feel for the degree to which this is true, let’s take a look at the how the top ten lefties from a season ago stack up against the top 10 righties in terms of Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). First, the port-siders:
Rank Pitcher VORP 1. Mark Mulder 53.4 2. Jamie Moyer 51.3 3. Johan Santana 50.9 4. Barry Zito 49.3 5. C.C. Sabathia 45.9 6. Darrell May 44.0 7. Billy Wagner 37.2 8. Dontrelle Willis 36.5 9. David Wells 36.1 10. Damaso Marte 35.6 Total 440.2
And now the right-handers:
Rank Pitcher VORP 1. Esteban Loaiza 74.7 2. Pedro Martinez 71.9 3. Tim Hudson 69.5 4. Jason Schmidt 69.3 5. Roy Halladay 66.8 6. Mark Prior 64.1 7. Kevin Brown 60.2 8. Livan Hernandez 57.4 9. Javier Vazquez 54.7 10. Kerry Wood 53.7 Total 642.3
As you can see that’s a whopping advantage for the right-handers. In fact, the top-ranked lefty, Mulder, has a lower VORP than the 10th-ranked right-hander, Wood. The pitchers on the right-handed list, on average, are even a tad younger than their lefty counterparts (29.5 years of age versus 29.7 years of age). You’ll also notice that among the top 10 lefties are two full-time relievers (Wagner and Marte) and one who spent part of his time last season in the pen (Santana).
You can of course make the case that it’s a golden age for right-handers rather than a dark age for lefties, but those are two sides of the same coin. In any event, today’s left-handed pitching appears to be quite weak relative to the imposing crop of right-handers that’s in baseball right now, and the seems to be reflected in the personnel decisions made around the league.