Left-handed first baseman like Pirates' LaRoche becoming rare
As a left-handed-fielding first baseman, Adam LaRoche is part of a vanishing breed.
A century ago, it was rare to see a right-hander manning first base. The tipping point came in the 1960s, when righties began to dominate.
This season, only a third of major-league teams have a left-handed everyday first baseman.
LaRoche, who's been the Pirates' starting first baseman since 2007, was surprised by the low number.
"I think that's coincidence," LaRoche said. "Five years from now, it'll be back up to 80 percent."
History suggests otherwise. According to stats guru Bill James, 54 percent of putouts at first base from 1940-59 were made by left-handers. From 1960-80, the rate had dropped to 40 percent. In 2002, it was down to 36 percent.
Left-handers comprise about 10 to 13 percent of the general population, and the tendency is more common in males. Although much of society is geared toward right-handers, first base can be a haven for lefties.
"The position is more suited for a left-hander," Pirates manager John Russell said.
Throws to any other position on the field are far simpler for lefties. Right-handers must shuffle their feet and pivot to get the ball across the infield from first base.
"Left-handers just catch and throw," Russell said. "It's an easier throw to second. When you're holding a runner on, the tag is right there as opposed to catching it and reaching across."
The choreography for almost every kind of catch at first base is simpler for a lefty. Right-handers often must backhand the ball or reverse-spin and pivot.
"Some plays, when (righties) have to turn their back to the infield and spin around to throw, I realize how good I've got it," LaRoche said. "I don't have to do a complete 360(-degree turn) to throw the ball.
"On groundballs, they've got it easier down the line and I've got it easier in the hole. For me, down the line, I've got to backhand it. For them, a lot of times you'll hit a hard ball down the line and they make it look routine because it's on their glove side."
Arm strength is not an issue at first base, the way it is at third or shortstop. Most relay throws from the outfield on that side are handled by the second baseman.
Pirates farm director Kyle Stark noted that many left-handed prospects with above-average arm strength are steered toward becoming pitchers, not first basemen.
"The only thing we factor in terms of development is that we prefer to develop younger players at positions that their maximum athletic ability potentially allows," Stark said. "If a guy can play the middle of the field or the outfield over first base, then we would prefer to develop him at those positions because he can always move to an easier position."
Pirates first base coach/infield instructor Perry Hill has been around pro ball for more than 30 years. He's an old-school guy who preaches simpler is better, but he's not sold on putting a lefty at first base.
"It's an advantage, but I don't think it's a prerequisite," Hill said. "Adam's one of the best in the league, by far. But you look at guys like Pujols and Derrek Lee, who are right-handed, and they are top-notch first basemen also."
Pujols and Lee also are two of the biggest power hitters in the game. It's a trait they share with other righty first basemen, such as Mark Teixeira, Adam Dunn, Prince Fielder, Carlos Delgado, Miguel Cabrera and Jason Giambi.
"You can be a little slower, a little more unathletic, have no arm at all and get away with playing first base," LaRoche said, grinning. "If you hit .320 and drive in a bunch of runs, you're fine over there. If you hit .250, they expect you to hit a bunch of home runs. That's just the way it is at that position."
It's no coincidence that more righty sluggers began popping up at first base as the game's emphasis shifted from defense toward offense.
"Ideally, you'd like to have a power-hitting, left-handed first baseman," Russell said. "But sometimes those guys aren't around, so you have to do the best you can."