Left-handed first basemen like Anythony Rizzo are few and far between these days. (Photo courtesy of Ben Grey)
Gone are the glory days of the left-handed first baseman, when players like Mark Grace, Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez, Will Clark, and J.T. Snow were considered the prototypical player for that corner of the infield. Today’s game features very few left handed first baseman, as the position has quickly been taken over by power hitters who’ve become either too old, slow, or bulky to play effectively anywhere else.
Baseball is all about being practical when it comes to assigning positions to a particular player, and that’s why at a very young age, left handed players are told that they can’t play catcher, 3rd base, shortstop, and second. Because of the arm they throw with, it’s just too awkward for a lefty to make the throws required at those positions. There is one position however that is tailor-made for lefties, and that’s 1st base. For a lefty, it’s so much easier for them to apply a tag on pick-off attempts, or throw the ball to 2nd or 3rd base.
Over the next few days, the Blue Jays will be hosting the Royals, and with these two teams, you’ll get to see the increasingly rare sight of two great fielding left handed first basemen. Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak are two of the better fielding first basemen, but unfortunately, players like Hosmer, Smoak, and Adrian Gonzalez are going the way of the Dodo as 1st base increasingly becomes a position set aside as a back-up plan for good hitting players who can no longer play their regular position effectively. Granted that right handed players such as Albert Pujols and Mike Napoli are very solid defensive first basemen, but guys like Hanley Ramirez and Pedro Alvarez are not.
Over the past 35 years, the gold glove award for 1st base has been completely dominated by lefties. Now I’m not saying there aren’t any fine fielding righties who play 1st, but based on the players who’ve won gold gloves at that position, it’s obvious that 1st base is far better suited for defensively minded players who happen to be left handed. Since 1981, there have been 35 gold gloves awarded in each league for 1st base, and of those 70 gold gloves awarded, coincidentally, 24 have been won in the American League by left handed players, and 24 have also been won by lefties in the National League. Incredibly, that works out to a lefty winning the gold glove at 1st base 68.6% percent of the time since 1981. And yet today, only 9 of 30 starting 1st basemen in Major League Baseball are left handed. The best fielding left handed first basemen, Mattingly, Hernandez, Snow, and Hosmer were complete players, every bit as good offensively as they were on defense. They may not have been the ultimate power hitters, but they supplied a solid balance of hitting for contact, hitting for power, and great defense…whereas far too many first basemen today are there for one reason, and that’s the power they supply with their bat.