Left-handed catchers are rare. The belief is that they have a harder time throwing out runners stealing third because a majority of hitters are right handed, causing the lefty catcher to have to throw through the batter.
They are so rare, in fact, that Major League Baseball has not had a starting left-handed catcher since 1989. Lefty catchers are rare in softball as well, with Colorado State softball head coach Jen Fisher saying she has never coached a lefty catcher in her 20 plus years of coaching.
So just how rare is it to see a lefty catcher in softball? It is about as rare as a sophomore player hitting .477 with a .611 on base percentage, a .923 slugging percentage and nine home runs through 25 games of a season. That rarity has become a reality as Colorado State’s Amber Nelson is the owner of that stat line and the owner of a left-handed catching mitt.
Nelson grew up as a lefty catcher basically because she could catch the best on her team, so her coaches put her behind the plate. From there she never really stopped catching as she fell into the position.
The fall into catcher is similar to how she would describe her start in softball, as Nelson began playing when she was 6 years old because she watched her sisters playing softball. She took a year off around eighth grade to play volleyball, but found herself drawn back to softball and has not stopped since.
“I was kind of always around the field, I kind of just fell into it,” Nelson said. “I’ve always been drawn to the sport, there is something about it.”
That draw to the sport led her to great success at Murrietta Valley High School in Murrietta, California, but college scouts seemed to be afraid of bringing in a lefty catcher.
“A lot of coaches when I was trying to get recruited were pretty skeptical about it,” Nelson said. “I don’t really think it is a disadvantage, it’s just another hand.”
The Cali girl finally decided to come to CSU after seeing all the quality facilities the school offered and how nice the coaches and current players were to her before she was even on the team. But, most importantly, she loved seeing all the green on campus and it is that green grass that she continues to find when coming to bat.
Her batting numbers are in the top 10 in on base percentage and slugging percentage in the entire country and her batting average is the 11th best. At six feet tall and hitting lefty, she towers over most hitters and umpires at the plate and has natural talent at being a hitter. She leads the Mountain West in all three of those previous categories and also leads in home runs with nine.
The poise and self confidence that comes with great hitting is something rarely seen from sophomores and those lessons were tough ones to learn for Nelson.
When she was eight-years-old her mother passed away suddenly, forcing Nelson to become more independent right away. Her father was a truck driver at the time and moved to day shifts, so most of the time he was gone before she was even getting up for school. Nelson’s sisters’ school started before her’s, so she had to grow up quickly and figure things out that most 8 year olds do not have to worry about.
“I had a lot of self-responsibility and I grew up a lot faster than other kids my age,” Nelson said. “I think that has helped a lot with maturity on the field.”
That maturity is quickly making her a respected voice in the dugout as she takes on the catcher’s role of being the field general.
“She is one of about four or five kids that I would say her teammates really rely on her and respect her,” head coach Jen Fisher said. “She says ‘this is what they are doing’ or ‘this is what is being called’ or ‘this is how I think we should handle this.’ She is listened to, she is heard.”
However, being just a sophomore means she has not quite come out of her shell. Fisher describes her as quiet and shy, but her teammate Haley Hutton believes that quietness comes from her confidence and focus.
“I think she is very confident in herself to the point where she’s strong and she knows and believes what is right,” Hutton said. “You can’t really ever tell if she is having a bad game or a good game because she is always level.”
That level head is what has helped Nelson grow from her freshman year in not only her hitting, but also her defense. She has given up only two passed balls all season and has thrown out five runners attempting to steal.
“Amber’s been throwing girls out left and right,” Hutton said. “She throws them out early, they don’t run the rest of the game and they are scared to get leads and that takes a toll on the other team.”
“I think I am a lot more confident. Not just at the plate but also behind the plate catching,” Nelson said. “We have body cues between me and the infield…I just know what they are thinking, so I think that’s made me a lot more confident behind the plate and that has transferred over to hitting as well.”
With all this success coming for a sophomore, the pressure of becoming a large part of the team’s game plan can be heavy. After the Rams’ loss to San Diego State on March 24, Fisher and the team stayed on the field and talked for around 20 or 30 minutes in what Fisher described as a “heart-to-heart.” Nelson struggled that game, going 0-3 with a pair of strikeouts and came back to the dugout in tears after the talk.
“Sometimes when you are on a roll it feels like the minute that you don’t get on base it’s almost like ‘crap, I let the team down,’” Hutton said on her own experience with early career success. “I just had to remind her once, ‘don’t worry, you don’t have to hold the team up every single time. We got your back.’”
“She is being very humble,” Fisher said. “I think she knows that she still hasn’t tapped her full potential…I think that hunger to be better has kept her humble, she is very hungry to put up even more numbers.”
The “heart-to-heart” seemed to inspire the whole team and trigger that hunger in Nelson. In her first at-bat following the speech, Nelson hit her ninth home run of the season, helping to propel CSU to a 7-4 victory over SDSU.
“I’m proud of her for growing up pretty quickly and being away from home,” Fisher said.
“It’s been fun playing with her, I wish I had more years with her,” senior Haley Hutton said.
Nelson’s success is forcing opponents to pay attention to the once overlooked lefty and Fisher knows the challenge of facing tough pitches is still in front of her sophomore slugger. But the only lefty batting and catching Ram on the team has been through harder times and will not let any pitch she sees take away her confidence.
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ajwrules44