The player who no longer exists in the Majors

February 4th, 2021

Our story begins in that serene sanctuary where so many consequential decisions are made: The airport bar.

It was September 1988, and the Pittsburgh Pirates were entering the final leg of a four-city road swing near season’s end. The Buccos were above .500 but far away from postseason contention. So this was a time for first baseman/right fielder Benny Distefano -- a September callup with only a modicum of Major League service time in his seven years in the pros -- to make an impression and possibly position himself for the 1989 roster.

While waiting to board the flight from Philadelphia to St. Louis, Distefano and pitching coach Ray Miller were having a cold one at the bar and watching a bit of a ballgame on TV.

“How come there are no left-handed catchers?” Miller mused aloud to Distefano, who, like his fellow Lafayette (Brooklyn) High School alum Sandy Koufax, was a left-handed thrower.

Only years later would Distefano realize that this was no spontaneous remark by Miller. The coach was planting a seed, and it took root quickly. For the very next day, Distefano went to manager Jim Leyland’s office and made an announcement.

“I’d like to be your third catcher next year,” he said.

Leyland, already wise to this scheme, said he was open to it. With roster sizes about to be reduced from 25 to 24 men in 1989, versatility was vital. And sure enough, in '89, Distefano, who had spent time in the fall instructional league to practice his new position, was on Pittsburgh’s Opening Day roster as a bench player. He stuck around all season and wound up making three brief appearances at catcher (a total of six innings) over the course of the year.

“A lot of people thought it was a joke,” Distefano says now. “But I had a strong arm, so I was able to do it. When I played for the Astros in 1992, that was Craig Biggio’s first year as a second baseman, so I went to Major League camp with the pitchers and catchers, as the emergency catcher. And my last year, I went to camp with the Rangers’ pitchers and catchers. So it was taken seriously.”

Distefano’s playing career ended in '93, and those three scant opportunities in '89 turned out to be his only appearances at catcher in the Majors.

Now, more than 30 years later, he remains the most recent left-handed thrower to play backstop in the big leagues -- a status he does not expect to surrender anytime soon.

“I think,” he says with a laugh, “I’m safe for a while.”

* * * * * * *

It’s right there in baseball’s unwritten rule book (in invisible ink):

You don’t put a left-handed thrower at catcher.

We’ve seen the unwritten rules challenged quite a bit in recent years. Attitudes are evolving on swinging at 3-0 pitches with a lead, on bat-flipping, on using closers in tie games on the road. An upstart generation has brilliantly deduced that, were these rules rational and rigid, they would have been written down in the first place.

But on the left-handed catcher topic, baseball basically hasn’t budged.

For more than a century.

Oh, sure, there was Distefano’s little dalliance behind the dish with the 1989 Pirates. And there was Mike Squires’ short squatting stint (two games, two innings) with the 1980 White Sox. But the (Dale) Long and (Chris) Short of it is that the live-ball era has basically operated sans southpaw catchers. (Long caught 1 2/3 innings for the 1958 Cubs, and Short was listed as the starting catcher one day as part of some pregame shenanigans by Phillies manager Gene Mauch, only to be replaced prior to first pitch.)

The last lefty thrower to appear in more than a handful of games at catcher was good ol’ Jiggs Donahue with the 1902 St. Louis Browns. And the only left thrower in Major League history to have caught at least 1,000 games was Jack Clements, who played from 1884-1900 (and who also holds the distinction of being the first catcher to wear a chest protector).

Even in the Minor Leagues, over the last 15 years (as far back as we were able to search), there has not been a lefty catcher who accrued so many as 250 plate appearances in a single season. (Daniel Santin had 219 PAs for the Everett AquaSox, a Class A Short-Season affiliate of the Mariners in 2005.)

So this rule, it would appear, is about as entrenched as they come. Left-handers, who are relegated to a life of awkward handshakes, frustrating scissor experiences and discriminatory field hockey arrangements, cannot and will not become catchers in the big leagues. Period. Dot.

Why, though? Why can’t a southpaw achieve squatters’ rights? Why are righties the only ones who catch on?

If we’re going to reexamine the unwritten rules, at large, we should take the time to see if this particular one passes the smell test.

* * * * * * *

Over the years, a handful of assumptions have been made as to why lefties should be left out of the catching ranks. Let’s examine them:

1. Left-handed throws to second base are adversely affected by right-handed hitters.

Controlling the running game is important, and the majority of plate appearances come with a right-hander at the plate. So the assumption is that “throwing through the batter” negatively affects the catcher’s accuracy.

But this right-handed-hitting majority is not as strong as you might assume. Historically, 58.3% of all plate appearances have come from the right-handed batter’s box. In 2020, it was 57.3%. So that’s not an overwhelming majority.

And the “throwing through the batter” rationale falls apart when we look at how right-handed catchers have fared at throwing out runners when a left-handed hitter is at the plate. Here are the numbers from 2019-20:

Righty up: 1,808 stolen bases, 643 caught stealing -- 26.2% caught stealing percentage

Lefty up: 1,357 SBs, 481 CS -- 26.2 CS%

The exact same percentage, whether it’s a lefty or righty at the plate.

Of course, lefty pitchers are generally better at controlling the running game, because of the ease of the pickoff move to first base. So we can break the above down further by pitcher handedness.

When we do that, we see that the caught-stealing rate when a right-handed batter faces a right-handed pitcher (25.2%) is the exact same as when a left-handed batter faces a right-handed pitcher (25.2%). But when a left-handed batter is up to bat against a left-handed pitcher, the caught-stealing rate (30.1%) is better than when a right-handed batter is facing a lefty pitcher (28.7%).

We can only reasonably conclude, therefore, that “throwing through the batter” is not a thing. Right-handers have actually fared better at throwing out runners when the batter is on their arm side.

We ran this idea by Jerry Weinstein, a professional baseball coach for more than 50 years who literally wrote the book on coaching catchers.

“As a matter of fact,” he says, “I see right-handed catchers being able to generate more velocity with left-handed hitters up to bat. They create more of a hip hinge and are better able to load their lower half to throw.”

(Translation: When right-handed catchers reposition themselves to avoid the batter on their arm side, they generate a more powerful lower half and throw the ball harder.)

So now we’ve got both math and science on our side. (And considering the number of stolen-base attempts has been in steady decline each of the last six seasons, this is all becoming more and more of a moot point, anyway.)

2. A lefty catcher would struggle to throw out runners at third base.

This is true! Whereas a right-handed catcher can keep his feet planted and make the throw, a lefty would have to pivot first. This encumbrance counts on plays in which fractions of a second make the difference between safe or out.

Of course, it works the other way, too.

“It’s no different than a right-hander having to throw to first,” Weinstein says. “And there are far more throws to first base.”

To repeat: It’s not as if we’re in an era with a bunch of Rickey Hendersons running wild. So while this point is valid, it should not be disqualifying.

3. Left-handed throws have more “tail” on them, negatively affecting accuracy on throws to second.

We don’t have the left-handed catchers to unilaterally prove or disprove this. Distefano did admit his throws had a little run on them. He never deemed it to be an issue when catching on a consistent basis in the instructional league, though the lone stolen-base attempt on him in the big leagues was successful.

While on the subject of wayward throws, though, Distefano offered a counterargument.

“There are so many more right-handed pitchers than left-handers,” he says, “and there are so many curveballs and sliders that break away from right-handed hitters.”

Indeed, this would be an advantage for a left-handed catcher who can more easily get his glove in position to handle these wild pitches.

So let’s call it a draw.

4. Lefties have more difficulty tagging out runners on plays at the plate.

This one is true, too. Right-handers are in better position to receive the throw from the outfielder or cutoff man and reach down for the tag with his left (gloved) hand than a left-hander who would have to catch the ball with his right (gloved) hand and turn his body before applying the tag.

But this is another argument adversely affected by the relative rarity of the play. And both Weinstein and Distefano dismissed it.

“If you’re going to receive,” Distefano says, “maybe you put your right foot on the plate and left foot in foul territory and let it travel so it’s not as much of a backhand."

Adds Weinstein: “The first basemen and second basemen and shortstops are all making backside tags. There’s no reason why a left-handed catcher can’t make backside tags as well. There’s no reason why he has to face the baserunner. He knows where the guy is going to go, especially when taking throws from right field where your glove is closer to the plate. So it doesn’t happen that much, and I don’t think it’s an impediment when it does happen.”

5. It’s weird.

Ah, yes, the argument that holds back much of human progress. It’s not done because it’s not done.

“There aren’t any left-handed catchers,” says Weinstein, “so there can’t be any left-handed catchers. It’s faulty reasoning.”

Admittedly, pitchers peering in for the sign might find the sight of a gloved right hand jarring at first.

“But we’re all grown-ups,” adds Weinstein, “who are there because we can adapt and adjust.”

* * * * * * *

This leaves us with just one, valid reason why left-handed catchers don’t exist in the big leagues:

Nobody’s really trying in the amateur levels.

Generally, if a kid has a strong left-handed throwing arm, he’s headed to the mound, not behind the plate. So by the time players advance to professional baseball, what few lefty catchers that could have existed have either been eliminated or eliminated themselves.

But if the above has convinced you that this unwritten rule ought to be broken, allow us to end on an optimistic -- and amazingly coincidental -- note.

The 59-year-old Distefano has devoted his post-playing career to coaching. He coached in the Tigers and Mets farm systems from 2006 until 2020, and he has offered youth lessons in Houston for many years.

As fate would have it, Distefano is currently working with an 11-year-old apprentice who not only shares his first name but also his love of left-handed catching. Ben Whitley plays on a 12-and-under team under the umbrella of USA Baseball and has been catching since Little League.

“My coach needed a catcher,” Ben explains, “so he made me get the gear on. I enjoyed it. He said, ‘Do you want to catch in the game?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do that.’”

He’s been doing it ever since. He found the lone left-handed catcher’s glove for sale at Academy Sports. He’s improved his footwork and blocking. He’s learned to love being involved on every pitch. And he has a message for every southpaw who has eyed the tools of ignorance and wrongly assumed they must abstain.

“If you’re the best catcher on the team and you’re left-handed,” Ben says, “the coach will play you.”

Unwritten rules, after all, were made to be broken.