Best pro baseball players throw right, hit left

(Reuters Health) - For baseball players, throwing right-handed and batting left-handed may be the best combination for success in the major leagues, according a new analysis of player data from 1871 through 2016.

The findings, published in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine, show that such players - among them, Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams - were far more likely to be .300 hitters and were also more likely to end up in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

That challenges the call of a 1982 study, which claimed that southpaws who bat left handed were the better batters, perhaps because the brains of left-handers are less likely to compartmentalize various functions.

The new data suggest that learned behavior, not the brain structure of southpaws, is the key to success, coauthor David Mann of the Department of Human Movement Sciences at Vrije University in Amsterdam told Reuters Health by phone.

“We may be teaching people to bat the wrong way,” he said. “When children are younger, we should teach them to bat both ways,” and several factors may influence why left handed batters tend to be more successful at the game.

Mann said he had previously found a similar trend among cricket players, and the same factors may play a role among professional golfers.

So he and his colleagues turned to baseball to see if the effect could be seen there, too.

They confirmed that players who threw left and batted left were more likely to be successful hitters than those who batted right and threw right.

But right handers batting left turned out to be even more successful.

Those players were 5.33 times more common in the major leagues than on high-school and grammar-school teams, which turned out to be best odds of getting onto a professional team in the first place. In fact, young players who throw right and bat right had the poorest odds of getting into the majors.

Furthermore, the odds of getting into the major leagues and being in the Hall of Fame were 9.92 times higher, and the odds of having a batting average of .299 or greater was 18.43 times higher, for young right handers who batted left.

Additionally, although right handers who bat left represented only 11.8 percent of all major league players, they made up 19.9 percent of all Hall of Fame members and 31.6 percent of the top hitters, further evidence of the trend.

“When you allow for the smaller number of those players, there seems to be a much bigger advantage for right handers,” said Mann.

In contrast, left handers who bat left made up 15.9 percent of players, 13.1 percent of Hall of Famers, and 21.0 percent of top hitters. Players who bat right and threw right made up 62.6 percent of major leaguers, 55.7 percent of Hall of Fame inductees and 44.3 percent of those with a career batting average at or above .299.

The Mann team said several factors may be a work.

The biggest may be that “players who throw right-handed and bat left-handed enjoy an additional biomechanical advantage, with the dominant (throwing) hand being placed further from the hitting end of the bat, providing a longer lever with which to hit the ball,” they said.

Other potential explanations for the trend: The swing of a left-handed hitter automatically twists the batter in the direction of first base (making it easier to take off for the bag after contact), left-handed batters start off closer to first base, pitchers may have less experience throwing to lefties because they are less common, and right fielders may be slightly less skilled than other players.

“This isn’t saying that professional players should change now,” said Mann. “It’s asking, ‘What’s the best way to teach players at the start?’ “

Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the man behind the Physics of Baseball website, told Reuters Health he would be more comfortable with the conclusion if the authors had come up with some hard evidence to explain it.

“Had they chosen a different metric such as home runs, they might have found something different,” he said. “From a purely baseball point of view, I’m very skeptical of conclusions based on complicated statistical analysis.”

SOURCE: The New England Journal of Medicine, online October 25, 2017.