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An Historical Look at Lefty-Heavy Rotations

13 OCT 2015: Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) pitches during Game 4 of the NLDS between the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers played at Citi Field in Flushing,NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

It’s unusual in baseball for a team to have the majority of the pitchers in its starting rotation be left-handers. Lefty pitchers are more of a rarity and, therefore, usually a more-wanted commodity than right-handed pitchers. Having two, or maybe even three, is seen as a well-rounded rotation, but for a team to have four or five lefties in their rotation is almost unheard of. Almost.

There have been teams in history though, who, like the 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers, have had enough left-handed starters to fill a rotation (though with LA’s recent signing of right-hander Kenta Maeda, it appears an all-southpaw rotation may never see the light of day). 

Beside being rare in baseball, it can also be cause for concern. Teams need right-handed pitchers to match up against right-handed batters, and southpaws to face left-handed batters. In baseball, match-ups are key; having too many left-handed starters can be seen as a problem.

The 2016 Dodgers might now have that problem solved after signing right-handed starter Kenta Maeda out of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. They should also get right-hander Brandon McCarthy back by mid-season, after he finishes his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Still, the Dodgers having so many lefties has left me wondering about how often this anomaly has occurred in Major League Baseball and how it affects the teams’ final win-loss records.

As it turns out, in the 115 years since the modern era of baseball began, there are more teams than you would initially think who have had at least four left-handed pitchers. In fact, 302 teams have used five or more lefties in a season since 1901 – so just over two and half per season.

Currently, the Dodgers have six potential left-handed starters and have the chance to break the record for having the most left-handers make starts in a single season, a record that is currently owned by the 1983 New York Yankees, who called on a lefty to start 127 times that season.

Having a lot of lefties doesn’t predict whether a team will be a winning team or a losing team. Half of the top-10 teams in terms of starts by left-handers in a season have had winning records.

Dave Righetti New York Yankees circa 1987

Dave Righetti was one of the southpaws that helped set the left-handed record for the 1983 Yankees. (Owen C. Shaw/Icon Sportswire)

Coincidentally, the only team out of the ten to reach the World Series was the 1965 Dodgers. That team ranks seventh on the all-time list, using a lefty starter 112 times. Led by the great Sandy Koufax (41 starts) alongside Claude Osteen (40) and Johnny Podres (22), those southpaws took their team to a world championship. That year, Nick Willhite also started six games, Jim Brewer started two and Mike Kekich had the privilege to start one of the 112 games for the ‘56 World Champions.

The Chicago White Sox are the team most represented on the list. They take up four of the top ten spots when it comes to having left-handers starting ballgames. Unfortunately for them, those teams are also four out of the five teams that had losing records. The 1975 White Sox, who are second on the list, finished the season 75-86.

Other White Sox teams on the top-10 list include the 1979 team, the 1980 team and, most recently, the 2015 team. There was not such a big to-do about the White Sox rotation in 2015, which consisted of four lefties: Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, John Danks and Carlos Rondon, with the lone right-hander being Jeff Samardzija.

Other teams on that list of most left-handed starts include the 1982 Kansas City Royals and the 1975 Baltimore Orioles.

Another way to look at this phenomenon is which teams used the most different left-handers in a season. They didn’t necessarily start the most games, but they used a lot of lefties. The record number of left-handers used by a team in a single season is eight. That record is held by four teams: the 2012 Colorado Rockies, 1989 San Francisco Giants, 1956 Kansas City Athletics and the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies.

There are other records involving left-handed starters, including the three teams (2013 White Sox, 2015 White Sox, 1954 Washington Senators) who had four left-handers start at least 20 games in a season. The 1951 Red Sox had five lefties each pitch in 18 games in a single season, setting yet another record.

The Dodgers will, alas, not enter the 2016 seasons with an exclusively-left-handed rotation, but certainly will feature plenty of them this upcoming season. Whether or not they will be a contending team remains to be seen. History tells us it isn’t necessarily about the number of lefties, but the quality of them. The Dodgers certainly have that. The rest, we’ll just have to wait and see. 

Statistics and notes courtesy of baseball-reference.com and MLB.com. 

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