It sounds like a baseball legend, the kind of story your grandpa might have told you before bedtime when you were little and believed everything you were told. A young boy in the Appalachia region of Virginia breaks his right arm –– his dominant arm — twice, before he was 7 years old.
Somehow he learns to shoot left handed, eventually hit 100 miles per hour, arrives at MLB and becomes one of the most dominant pitchers of all time.
What makes this story better is that it is real. “Yeah, I mean, I’m pretty much still right-handed.” Billy Wagner he told me on the phone. “My dominant foot is the right foot, as a kicker, I kick right. I cut my food with my right hand. I would probably gouge out my eye using a fork in my left hand.”
Billy Wagner’s transformation from righty to lefty has been told about before, but not nearly as often as it deserves. We talked to a kinesiologist to see if anyone can do what Wagner did or if the mound has any unique qualities.
Wagner, who is back on the Hall of Fame ballot, was one of those kids who loved sports — mostly football and baseball — so when he broke his arm playing football with a neighbor and again on a railing, he didn’t want to miss out on games or activities with his friends. He had another arm, so why not use it?
“I think when you’re a kid, you have that natural instinct that you’re going to get things done, no matter what,” Wagner said. “Children are very strong and I wanted to play. I wanted to do things. I think the competition of ‘I’m going to play’ took over [de mí]”.
“Yes, it’s called neuroplasticity: our body’s ability to adapt to what we demand,” Dr. Eugene Charles, an expert on the subject, said by phone. “I think we have this ability throughout life. But in general, the consensus is that it is even more powerful [cuando somos pequeños]. The science also indicates that we have more malleability and neuroplasticity at that time… and less self-imposed self-consciousness.”
Thus, unconsciously, Wagner took his newfound neuroplasticity and developed it. He started throwing everything he could find with his left hand – balls, footballs and even rocks. Constant practice is key to changing the dynamics of the brain.
“Yes, with your conscious effort to go with your left hand, you can establish the neural pathways,” said Charles. “It’s nature versus nurture. Nature may be the foundation, but cultivation is what makes you who you are and what you do.”
Suddenly, as Wagner’s right arm continued to heal, he found that he was pulling harder and harder with his left arm. That arm became his good arm. He tore up the foil siding on his home side and in the little leagues struck out older and bigger hitters than he was.
“My dad always says that when I was up against big kids, I had no problem,” Wagner recalls. “It was when I was facing little kids that I couldn’t throw a strike. I didn’t want to hit them.”
In high school, with an 80-odd mph fastball, he struck out 116 batters in 46.0 innings while hitting .451. He enrolled at Ferrum College in Virginia with the idea of playing football, but his instructors advised him to stick with baseball, and his pitching career took off.
“That first year, I gained 40 pounds [y] I grew two or three inches,” said Wagner, who is 5-foot-10. “A big stretch for me. In my first year I went from 78-82 mph to 92-95 mph.”
During one of his seasons in college, Wagner struck out 19.1 batters per nine innings, which still stands as an NCAA record. In a no-hitter, he struck out 19 batters, and finished a three-year career with a 17-3 record and a 1.63 ERA. He was even inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.
In the 1993 Amateur Draft, the Astros selected Wagner with their first pick. The pitcher made his major league debut two years later, striking out 106 batters in 1997 — a record for a Houston reliever — and in 1998, he was named to the first of seven All-Star games.
By then, his “weaker” arm was reaching 100 mph. His future teammate, Chipper Jones, was scared to get in the batter’s box against him. Famous flamethrowing southpaw and Wagner’s Astros teammate, Randy Johnson, commented, “He’s a foot shorter than me, and he throws harder than me.”
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MLB: How Billy Wagner reinvented himself from right-handed pitching to left-handed