Batting lefty: U of T researcher tests theory of hockey's influence on Canadian-born Major League Baseball players

Canadian-born Joey Votto bats left-handed for the Cincinnati Reds (photo by Lily Delaney via Flickr)

Are Canadian-born Major League Baseball players more likely to bat left-handed? University of Toronto Professor John Cairney has tested the theory of hockey's influence on Canadians batting lefty.

Research suggests that batting titles are won more often by left-handed Major League Baseball hitters in comparison to those who bat right. Interestingly, Canadian-born Major League players may be more likely to bat left-handed because they played hockey as children, according to a study led by Cairney published this month in PLOS ONE.

Think Cincinnati Reds' first baseman Joey Votto named last week as National League Player of the week; Justin Morneau, four-time all-star who retired earlier this year from the Minnesota Twins; former Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Michael Saunders; and Matt Stairs, who spent 19 seasons in the Majors as an outfielder.

Cairney, a professor with the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education and president-elect of the North American Society for Pediatric Exercise Medicine, also researches how to improve the physical, mental and social health of children. He is the author of Immaculate: A History of Perfect Innings in Baseball.

We spoke to him about hockey's influence on batting.

What is the existing hypothesis on hockey's influence on batting?

Anecdotally, it has been “known” for some time that great Canadian baseball players seem to be more likely to bat left-handed. Because they are Canadian and ice hockey is so popular here, people have speculated that perhaps it is due to the fact that for many children, they learn to play hockey before baseball. In hockey, regardless of their dominant hand (e.g., the hand you write with), about half of all players shoot left.

If you shoot left with a hockey stick, it is a fairly easy transition to swing a bat with your right hand placed at the bottom (you are just bringing your hands together and raising the bat above your shoulders). If half of all children shoot left in hockey, many of these children are likely to go on to bat left-handed if they play baseball. In countries where ice hockey is not so popular, batting may be more connected to hand dominance, which is why we see fewer left-handed batters. Interestingly, a similar observation has also been made for golfers.

So, being left-handed is not a major factor in determining batting preference?

Not in this case. About 60 per cent of left-handed batters throw right. We would expect that if hand dominance was a factor, it would be more likely the case that left-handed batters would also throw with their left-hand.

How likely are Canadian-born Major League Baseball players to bat left-handed compared to players born in the U.S. and outside of North America?

As I mentioned, the evidence for this has been anecdotal. So, we wanted to look at the numbers to see if in fact this observation was true. We collected and analyzed player data for both current Major League Baseball players and for all Canadian-born Major League players since 1917, and indeed, we found that Canadian-born baseball players were statistically more likely to bat left-handed when compared to the league average.

For example, among Canadian-born active Major League Baseball players at the time of the study nine of 13 (69 per cent) batted left, which is more than twice as many from Asia and the Dominican Republic (countries with low levels of participation in ice hockey), and almost 33 per cent higher than players born in the U.S. We even went further and divided states in the U.S. into low, medium and high groups based on levels of participation in ice hockey. We would expect, for example, that a child born in Michigan or North Dakota would be more likely to play ice hockey before baseball than a child born in Texas or Florida. In fact, we did find that higher numbers of left-handed batters were born in northern states, but not nearly as high as Canadian-born players.

What is the advantage of batting left-handed?

Conventional thinking maintains that the advantage is because the left-handed batter is closer to first base; those extra steps can be important in close plays at first base. Left-handed batters who are right-hand dominant may be less susceptible to off-speed pitches or breaking balls, as their dominant eye (i.e., right eye, assuming right-eye and right-hand dominance) is closer to the pitcher.

What we do know for sure is batting left is an advantage: Batting averages are higher among lefties and more batting titles have been won by left-handed batters.

How many Jays are left-handed batters, and what does that say about their chances this season?

If we look at the current active roster, Curtis Granderson bats left. Several Jays – Smoak, Solarte, Morales – are switch hitters which means they bat from both sides of the plate. Of all these guys, only Smoak throws left.

As for their chances this season, I think they have a legitimate shot at the second wild card spot. Left-handed bats though are not a major factor in this prediction. Staying free of injuries and getting the best performances out of Donaldson, Osuna, Stroman and Sanchez are much higher priorities.