Lingering Superstition in the Language of Baseball

I was talking with some baseball aficiandos recently and asked them to think up the most common descriptor of left-handed and right-handed pitchers. They agreed quickly on “big farm kid” for righties (runner up: “Hard-throwing”) and “crafty” for lefties (runner up: “wily”).

Jesse Wolfersberger believes that this linguistic distinction has it roots in reality. He presents statistical analysis indicating that left-handed pitchers are better at striking out batters with off-speed, tricky, curving pitches rather than straight-at-you fastballs.

You can see what you think of his analysis by following the link, but even if it holds water I doubt that is the full explanation because it leaves out the moral nuance of the contrasting descriptors.

The idea that the right side is morally better than the “sinister” side goes back centuries, and we have not fully escaped it even though we recognize that it has no logical basis. “Crafty” is not too far from “sneaky/dishonest”. Meanwhile, consider the descriptor “big farm kid” for righties. That doesn’t just imply strength; it also connotes All-American wholesomeness. Many right-handers certainly grow up in cities and many left-handers grow up on farms, yet it would feel strange to hear a baseball announcer speak of a left-handed pitcher as a “farm kid”.

Likewise, there have many been right-handed pitchers who didn’t just manfully throw a straight and true fastball down the pipe, challenging their opponents honestly like Arthurian Knights at the jousts. Knuckle ball masters Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro and Tim Wakefield all pitched right-handed. And the New York Yankees, whom all God-fearing people agree are servants of Satan, have employed many right-handed pitchers over the years.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

23 thoughts on “Lingering Superstition in the Language of Baseball”

  1. I think baseball is special enough that it isn’t worth generalizing to the morality aspect (which, I admit, exists).

    As a batter, facing a lefty is a completely different experience from facing a righty. Batters are also right-or-left handed, so chirality is indeed a factor in the batter/pitcher catchup. I have vivid memories of the first time I faced a left-handed pitcher in Little League — the ball comes at a different angle, it is harder to pick up the trajectory of the ball, one’s stance in the box feels wrong, timing one’s swing is difficult, etc. Most kids learn to hit against right-handers, because right-handers are so much more common, so facing a lefty will always feel wrong somehow.

    So, I’d say that there is indeed a logical basis for why left-handed pitchers have an advantage over and above their skills of velocity, control and break. It isn’t a moral thing, but simply taking advantage of chiral mismatch. That sounds pretty ‘crafty’ to me.

    1. ‘matchup’ , not ‘catchup’. Either that, or the pitchers are putting some mustard on their deliveries.

    2. Worth noting that the shorter pitchers tend to be lefties. It looks like a chiral advantage compensates for an altitudinal disadvantage.

    3. Thanks for teaching me a word; “chirality” was new for me. I bat right-handed and do pretty well with balls on the outside of the plate, badly with inside stuff. I therefore found lefties difficult because their pitches were coming from the “inside side” from my perspective as a hitter.

  2. Being a righty batter I liked seeing that the opposing pitcher was to be a lefty. My reasoning? I had less of a chance being hit by the pitch due to the geometry, because his left arm was farther away from me than his right and I would have more time to react.

    Unfortunately, in going through my memory bank, all the memorable times I was hit it was by a lefty.
    So, chalk me up as one who agrees with, “the right side is morally better than the “sinister” side,” and, since all the times I was hit it was by fastballs I’ll go so far as to add to the lefty descriptor, “sneaky/dishonest”.

    1. The lefty aiming At the inside of the plate is throwing towards you, while the righty is not, so you are probably more likely to be hit by a lefty.

  3. Keith,
    The New York Yankees are not servants of Satan. Satan is a servant of the New York Yankees.

  4. Keith,

    I have to wonder how old your baseball-loving friends are, because nobody’s really used the old “big farm kid” descriptor in years. Sure, early and even mid-modern baseball was filled with moralizing sportswriters who used terms like that and really did imbue them with all sorts of value judgments, but I don’t think this is the case anymore. Also, while baseball used to be filled with kids like Jimmie Foxx who was (supposedly, apocryphally) discovered by a scout passing by his family farm and noticed his amazing farm-honed physique, that’s not true anymore either.

    Also, there IS a very common term applied to “crafty” righties: Greg Maddux-like. Every righty who experiences success with a fastball at 92 MPH or lower gets (inaccurately) compared to Greg Maddux nowadays.

    1. One more or less real example of the “farm kid” business was Bob Feller. Supposedly he learned to pitch by throwing at a target painted on the side of the family barn.

      Feller was a very hard thrower early on, but remained effective even as his strikeout totals dropped, presumably because his fastball, once clocked by primitive means at 98 mph, slowed. I guess he got wily.

      1. Interestingly, among the great “power pitchers,” Feller lost his huge strikeout numbers much earlier than most. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings dropped precipitously, to less than six, at age 28. At age 30, they dropped under five. Yet he was still a very effective pitcher for quite a few more years.

        It should be noted, though, that Feller’s ERA went up precipitously at the exact same time his strikeouts went down. So there’s certainly something to the generalization that “extreme power pitchers tend to last longer, because they have a higher peak from which to decline.”

  5. I tend to associate “wily” with “veteran,” rather than left-hander. That makes some sense, if we think that as physical skills decline somewhat pitchers rely more on guile. “Crafty,” OTOH, is definitely associated with lefties.

    I wonder if the platoon issue might explain some of the difference. Only 23% of batters lefties face, per Wolfersberger, are left-handed, while right-handers face a 50-50 mix. If fastballs are less effective when the pitcher faces a platoon disadvantage (R vs. L, or L vs. R) then leftes have more occasion to throw breaking pitches, change-ups, and so on. That deosn’t explain why their fastballs are slower, on average, but I think Wolfersberger offers a fair guess at that.

    1. I think you may be underrating Whitey Ford, who certainly fit the image of “crafty lefty.”

      It was said that you would hate to have to face Sandy; he could make you feel helpless. But off Whitey, you could have a very comfortable Oh-for-four day.

      1. Ford was superb, even though he relied on Elston Howard’s sharpened shin guards to improve his breaking pitches. But, much as I am a fan of his, for sheer dominance over a fairly short period it is impossible to top Koufax, and for long-term excellence Spahn was amazing. Though I will mention that Spahn had only two more strikeouts over his career than “farm kid” Feller, who lost about four prime years to WWII.

  6. Being left-handed lets pitchers who might not be able cut it right-handed. Platoon splits for left-handed hitters are much wider than for right-handed hitters — this probably has to do with the fact that there are fewer lefties at lower levels of play. This encourages teams to keep left-handed pitchers on their roster to give the team an advantage against difficult left-handed hitters, or even deter the manager from putting some of those hitters in the lineup altogether.

    Similarly, because left-handedness is more common in baseball than the population at large, the left-handed pitchers tend to stick around longer. So you get people like Tom Glavine who can’t break 90 mph with a fastball pitching until he’s 42, or Jamie Moyer who can’t break glass pitching until he’s 50. Lefties who _can_ throw a good fastball don’t get this label; see Johnson, Randy; etc.

    There are successful right-handed pitchers who don’t throw very hard, but as guy says there are fewer of them. There’s a big bias in scouting towards guys who can throw 95 mph, and there enough of those guys that a lot of teams don’t feel it’s worth it to hunt for the next greg maddux.

  7. I am amazed that this assessment by Wolfersberger contains a temporal dislocation. He is writing about terminology that originated in a bygone day, yet he has done his statistics based on 21st century data.

    I think a more interesting study would look at, not all the pitchers, but just the very best. Those are the ones about whom people make up phrases. You could make a list of the best pitchers of each decade, then assign attributes like “power pitcher,” “junkballer,” and a few in between. You wouldn’t need pitch speed data when looking at the very best; they are well known and well documented, even long before there were Radar guns. Then you could test correlation in the simple two-by-two matrix of lefty-righty vs. power-other. (BTW, this would also let you include the knuckleballers, since you wouldn’t care the numeric value of pitch speed, simply the fast/slow dichotomy.)

  8. I think it was Clint Hurdle who said, approximately, about Steve Carlton: “When you call a guy ‘Lefty’ and everyone in both leagues knows who you’re talking about, that’s pretty special.” I’m waiting for “Righty.”

  9. It may well be that the Yankees organization deserves the epithet “satanic”, but to me the symbol of an upstanding righteous athlete has always been Joe DiMaggio. I know most of you will say “Joe who? , but you gotta give my age some respect. Hank Aaron is right up there too.

  10. I also think there is some truth to those superstitions. For some reason, right-handed and left-handed players display those stereotypes. Great topic, by the way. Thanks, Keith. 🙂

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