Will Switch-Hitting Make a Comeback?

Anyone who’s followed baseball over the years knows that the game changes over time, even if it’s barely noticeable. Here’s one example.

Mickey Mantle
In 1965 the Los Angeles Dodgers had an entirely switch-hitting starting infield, and they even won the World Series that year. (Can you name any of those infielders? Their names are at the end of this article.) That same year, the New York Yankees had seven switch-hitters on the team—three pitchers, one infielder and three outfielders, including one player named Mickey Mantle.

 

Fast-forward to 2015 and you’ll see that the Dodgers’ roster had only one switch-hitting position player on the team, catcher Yasmani Grandal—however, they had two “switch-hitting” late-inning relief pitchers…which means they rarely, if ever, came up to hit. The 2015 Yankees had four switch-hitters on their roster, including Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira. That’s quite a few, these days.

 

What about other teams?

On the Red Sox, catcher Blake Swihart was the only switch-hitter on the team.

Neither the Kansas City Royals nor the New York Mets had a switch-hitter in their World Series starting lineup.

There wasn’t a switch-hitter in the starting lineup for either league in the 2015 All-Star Game.

 

Sure, there are still a number of switch-hitters in the League…but unless you follow the teams closely, you might not know who they are:

Melky Cabrera (CWS) Mark Teixeira (NYY)

Coco Crisp (OAK) Billy Hamilton (CIN)

Chase Headley (NYY) Jose Reyes (COL)

Erick Aybar (ATL) Ben Zobrist (CHC)

Kendrys Morales (KAN) Jimmy Rollins (LAD)

Nick Swisher (ATL) Angel Pagan (SF)

Jed Lowrie (OAK) Carlos Santana (CLE)

Asdrubal Cabrera (NYM)

 

Still, even though there are a number of switch-hitters in the Majors, and some pretty good ones, they’re just not as prominent as they used to be.

 

A chip off the old block.

Just a few years ago, one of the best switch-hitters of recent times—and maybe of all time—hung up his spikes: Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves. He was perhaps the most balanced switch-hitter ever to play the game. In more than 2,500 games, he batted .300 from the left side and .301 from the right. No National League switch-hitter ever hit more homers in a season than the 45 he belted in 1999, and no NL switch-hitter had more career home runs than Chipper’s 468. Only Mantle, with 536, hit more home runs than Chipper. We might never see another switch-hitter like that.

 

Back in time.

Mickey Mantle is considered the greatest switch-hitter of all time…but because he played so long ago, a lot of today’s fans might not even know he hit both right- and left-handed. Even though Mantle considered himself a better right-handed hitter, he hit 70 percent of his 536 home runs hitting left-handed, and only 164 as a right-handed hitter. And in case you’re wondering, statistics show that he hit a dinger from both sides of the plate 10 different times.

 

Probably the second-best switch-hitter ever was Pete Rose, who holds the record for career hits with 4,256. There were plenty of switch-hitters during his career. In 1977 (Rose’s era, which is now almost 40 years ago), five of the top 11 hitters in the NL were switch-hitters. Here’s who they were and their averages that year:

Garry Templeton, .322

Ted Simmons, .318

Pete Rose, .311

Reggie Smith, .307

Lenny Randle, .304

 

Fast-forward.

In 2015 there were just 19 switch-hitters in the Major Leagues who had enough official at-bats to qualify for batting-title consideration. Overall, over the past 15 years, the number of labeled switch-hitters in the Majors has averaged about 60 annually, only eight percent of rostered players.

 

Not only are switch-hitters dropping in numbers—some are even giving up one side of the plate:

Shane Victorino is one of them. Before the 2015 season, he made the decision to bat only right-handed, saying that switch-hitting was taking a toll on his legs.

Pablo Sandoval might be another to give up switch-hitting, primarily because he’s batting poorly: only .185 as a right-handed hitter in 2015 compared to .298 from the left side.

In the early ’90s, J.T. Snow, who played for the Giants, gave up on switch-hitting early in his career after struggling from the right side of the plate. He went on to play 16 seasons with a .268 average, and a high of .327 in 2004.

In 2013 the Baltimore Orioles told shortstop Alexi Casilla that he should concentrate that season on hitting only right-handed and give it up from the left because they felt that his being a switch-hitter was “splitting his focus.” It didn’t help. That was his last year in the Majors.

 

A narrowing pipeline.

Based on the way the game is played, there probably won’t be an influx of switch-hitters pouring into the Majors, for a couple of reasons:

There aren’t too many natural-born ambidextrous athletes to begin with.

Most kids today don’t play baseball on sandlots and in pickup games (the way the players of the past did). That’s where kids get to try switch-hitting for fun, without any pressure.

 

More than that, college coaches don’t really want a hitter who is still experimenting with switch-hitting. If a player isn’t already a dedicated (and successful) switch-hitter, it’s probably time, in a coach’s or manager’s eyes, to give it up. In fact, if college coaches revealed their wish lists for lineups, it would look like this:

1. More left-handed hitters, because most pitchers throw right-handed

2. Power hitters over singles hitters, preferably power-hitting lefties

3. Seasoned switch-hitters

 

Most coaches in college want their position players to take up to 3,000 swings during the off-season. A switch-hitter, in theory, would need to split the number of swings between both sides of the plate, and that wouldn’t give them enough time to groove their swing from either side of the plate.

 

Switch-hitters welcome.

There are, however, some hitting coaches who do like switch-hitters—in women’s softball. Because quick-footed, slap-hitting, left-handed hitters get on base often, coaches are willing to teach right-handed hitters how to bat from the left side.

 

That’s good strategy for a softball diamond, but not so much for a baseball diamond. Because coaches aren’t looking to create switch-hitters at any level, the number of them will likely never increase.

That is, unless the game changes again…as it always does.

 

Quiz Answer: Here are the names of the switch-hitting infielders for the 1965 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Did you get any of them right?

1B Wes Parker

2B Jim Lefebvre

SS Maury Wills

3B Jim Gilliam

Photo Credit URL: http://adamport.com/3724/1952-topps-mickey-mantle/