ROTISSERIE: Sweet swing of success

Stop! Before you read another word, picture in your mind's eye the perfect baseball swing. When you think “sweet swing,” what hitter comes to mind? Who is the hitter you just love to watch swing the bat because it is such a thing of beauty? If you are so inclined, go ahead and jot down your all-time favorite top-five. It can include anyone, from current-day players, to heroes of your youth, to legends you have only seen on film, to even a hitter you played with growing up. If you would care to share your list, please feel free to do so in the comments at the bottom.

I posed this question to the audience at our recent First Pitch Arizona Fantasy Baseball Symposium and to say the response was astounding would be an understatement. Although I expected it to go the direction it did, the overwhelming ratio simply blew me away. When I asked who in the room was picturing a left-handed hitter in their mind, the audience of more than one hundred attendees almost all raised their hands in unison. When I then asked who was picturing a right-handed hitter, only three hands went up.

I have been actively soliciting this feedback for years, taking great pains to ensure the results are not biased, and the feedback is consistently weighted toward port-side swingers. Over the past year, I have been asking random fans and scouts to share their favorite “Top-5” sweet-swinging hitters. While the results have not been quite so overwhelming as the recent show of hands for number one, they still lean decidedly left over right by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Even more astonishing, when examining the first name on those Top-5 lists, which one might reasonably conclude is the first name that comes to mind, left-handed hitters account for over 75-percent of the responses.

This revelation is especially curious when we consider the percentage of left-handed people in the general population. It seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15 percent, depending on the source, as well as how the determination is made. Of course, some people who might be classified as right-handed have learned to swing the bat from the left side, but not by nearly enough to explain the vast divergence.

So what gives?

Not Doubleday’s Doing

Conventional wisdom maintains the sport of baseball as drawn up by Abner Doubleday naturally favors lefties. Left-handed hitters get to start closer to first base. They also have the benefit of the platoon advantage more often, due to the preponderance of right-handed pitchers. While those explanations might explain some degree of performance advantage, they don’t appear to provide support for why we would overwhelmingly consider lefties to have the sweetest swing. In fact, one might reasonably argue that even the performance advantage is negated with today's game featuring aggressive shifts to the right side (we never see the shortstop playing in short left field) and bullpens full of lefty specialists.

Another theory put forth is that left-handed hitters finish naturally facing first base, which makes them appear more “smooth” in their follow-through, while right-handed hitters are forced to awkwardly “turn around” in order to get moving down the line. With the possible exception of Ichiro, however, not too many left-handed hitters begin running as part of their follow through. This theory also fails to explain batting practice swings, which certainly emulate a hitter’s in-game version. In other words, I would surmise that any hitter deemed to have a “sweet swing” would elicit similar sentiment whether in the game or the batting cage.

Another conundrum I have long considered in this realm is the aspect of “sweet” hitting zones. It has been a long-held notion in baseball that left-handed hitters tend to like the ball down-and-in, while righties tend to like it more up and out over the plate. I once asked a widely acclaimed scout why that might be the case. He proffered the theory that because left-handed hitters grow up facing more right-handed pitchers, their swing becomes “grooved” to hit all the nasty sliders breaking down and in on them.

Of course, the math on how many youth right-handers throwing "nasty sliders" it would take to make all left-handed hitters “groove” their swings accordingly just doesn’t add up. In addition, I can count on one hand the number of youth pitchers I have come across throwing a slider that could be described as anywhere near “nasty.” I bring up these theories because there are many floating around without basis in fact, yet accepted as truth.

The Answer Lies Within

I have come across a discovery that not only provides an explanation for both of these phenomena, but has its foundation in the hard sciences. The basis is found in biomechanical differences between how the left and right hemispheres of the brain function, controlling the right and left sides of our body, respectively. I examine this relationship and how it explains the relative beauty of the left-handed swing in my upcoming book, Hardwired Makeup for Baseball. Though a complete explanation is beyond the scope of this article, the important question for us as fantasy competitors is to determine if we can find a competitive advantage within this revelation.

Think back to your earliest days of playing little league. Do you remember how unusual it was to face a lefty? No matter whether it was from the batter’s box (the pitcher seemed to be throwing out of the “wrong” side of his body) or from the mound (the hitter appeared to be standing on the “wrong” side of the plate), it was startling unless perhaps you happened to have a lefthanded sibling. Even for lefties, the prospect of facing another southpaw was a relatively rare experience, at least in community-based leagues. With the growth of select teams in recent years, the percentage of lefty hitters at young ages in some circles has undoubtedly increased, but the fact remains that there are far more right-handed hitters than lefties playing baseball at the earliest youth level around the world.

I have been unable to find any data on handedness at the youth level, but if we assume that the percentage of the general population somewhat mirrors the handedness of the youngest youth hitters, we have 10-15% of hitters starting out playing baseball as left-handed hitters at the lowest level. Last year, MLB saw 280 (29.3%) left-handed hitters as opposed to 587 (61.3%) right-handed hitters and 90 (9.4%) switch-hitters appear in a game.

Though admittedly a limited sample, last year’s MLB All-Star Game rosters featured 14 LHH (33.3%), 25 RHH (59.5%), and three switch-hitters (7.1%). Looking over our recently released HQ100 top prospects, we see it contains 60 hitters, including 23 LHH (38.3%), 33 RHH (55%), and four switch-hitters (6.7%). Finally, at the highest level of “greatness,” consider the ratio of hitters in MLB’s Hall of Fame: 70 LHH (40.5%), 90 RHH (52.0%), and 13 switch-hitters (7.5%).

Switch-hitters are an interesting study in themselves due to the fact that the vast majority began as exclusively right-handed before adding the left-handed swing at some point, often relatively late in their development. Rarely does one hear of a left-handed hitter becoming a switch-hitter. Despite this, most switch-hitters become more proficient from the left side. The knee-jerk and commonly accepted explanation for this oddity is that switch-hitters face more right-handed pitchers, so they get more work from that side, leading them to naturally become better skilled. Again, it is beyond the scope of this article, but I believe there is a better biomechanical explanation for this peculiarity.

From a pure left vs. right standpoint, however, it is clear that there is significant attrition taking place among right-handed hitters relative to lefties as they climb the ladder from little league beginning to big league stardom. If we can identify where on the developmental timeline that is largely taking place, perhaps we can use it to gain a competitive advantage in building our fantasy teams. That will be the next focus in part two of this series, as we continue our investigation of the “sweet swing.”

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.