The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Does hockey DNA play a role in Team Canada batters at World Baseball Classic?
TORONTO - It seems that even in baseball, you can't take the hockey out of a Canadian.
Like all good Canadian boys, most of the players on Team Canada's entry at the World Baseball Classic spent a fair amount of time playing hockey in their youth.
And while the two sports would seem to have very little in common, Team Canada's baseball players cite some of their hockey DNA as the reason why the team has a disproportionate number of left-handed hitters.
Nine of the team's 15 positional players hit left. But what's even more unusual - some might even say freakish - is that almost all of those players throw right-handed.
Generally, most left-handed hitters in baseball are truly left-handed, meaning they throw with their left hand. And most right-handed players - those who throw with their right hand - are also right-handed hitters.
Not so on Team Canada. There are eight hitters who are natural right-handers but bat from the left side - Stubby Clapp, Corey Koskie, Pete Orr, Mark Teahen, Adam Stern, Matt Stairs, Joey Votto and Justin Morneau, last season's American League MVP runner-up.
By comparison, the U.S. team has just two, which is about the normal ratio for most teams.
This Canadian righty-lefty phenomenon is more than a statistical anomaly - it gives Team Canada a competitive edge. That's because there are advantages to being a left-handed hitter in baseball.
The majority of pitchers in the game are right-handed, meaning left-handed hitters are not as susceptible to curve balls and other breaking pitches. A left-handed hitter also stands in the batter's box closest to first base, meaning he has to cover a shorter distance for an infield hit.
But what does any of this have to do with hockey?
The "hockey theory" goes like this: most hockey players shoot left; most Canadians play hockey before baseball; when hockey players play baseball, they transfer their hockey stick hand placement to a baseball bat, meaning the right hand is at the bottom, near the knob, and the left hand is on the top.
(The same "hockey theory" has been applied to golf to explain why Canada produces more southpaws, the most famous being Mike Weir.)
Members of Team Canada aren't really sure if they buy the hockey connection, but they can't offer a better explanation.
"I have no theory," says Larry Walker, Team Canada's hitting coach who is also a right-handed thrower who bats left.
"I've thought about it. Everybody seems to go back to something to do with hockey, but I've got no idea. It's just a Canadian thing. It just seems to go with the territory. Something in the water?"
One of the reasons Walker is dubious about the hockey theory is that he was a goalie, meaning he never developed a wrist shot or a slapshot. But when he cleared the puck as a goalie, he shot left-handed.
Koskie played hockey for many years before finally turning to baseball seriously as a 20-year-old. He thinks habits he formed on the ice came with him to the diamond.
"I think hockey might have something to do with it. A lot of guys are left-handed shots."
Jake Epstein had never heard of the Canadian hockey theory when it comes to hitting a baseball, but he says it makes "a ton of sense."
"Being comfortable is definitely going to play a major factor in hitting and the fact that their natural hockey hand position is left-handed, most of the players are probably more comfortable swinging that way," Epstein said in an interview from Greenwood Village, Colo., where he runs a hitting camp for amateur players along with his father, former major-leaguer Mike Epstein.
Epstein says there's another reason why hitting left-handed is an advantage.
"I believe 77 per cent the population is right-eye dominant. As a hitter, it is advantageous to have your front eye - the one closest to the pitcher-to be your dominant eye. Therefore, left-handed hitters typically set up better in the vision department."
As Epstein explains, having the dominant eye facing the pitcher really helps a left-hander pick up off-speed pitchers.
"This is advantageous because now all breaking pitches are coming into the batter instead of away from them .This advantage also helps players pick up the ball easier from the pitcher since they don't have to turn the head as far to get their back eye in line."
If it all sounds too complicated, that's probably why the Canadian players don't think about what makes so many of them lefty hitters. They just go up there and hit.
"I got no idea, I got no rhyme or reason," says Clapp, who points out that he kicks a soccer ball with his left foot, shoots pool left-handed, yet throws, writes and eats with his right hand.
"It's just one of those odd things. It's a phenomenon, but it seems to be a pretty good one. We need some mad scientist to come down here and test us."
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