The Interesting Case of the Switch Hitter

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees

By Casey Boguslaw

Pat Venditte of the Oakland Athletics created a stir in the baseball world when he became the first “switch-pitcher” since 1995. Greg Harris pitched using both hands in 1995 in his next to last game and never did it again. The list of pitchers to use both hands in the modern era of baseball is just that number, two. What Venditte did and plans to continue to do for what he hopes to be a long career is fascinating. However, what Venditte got me thinking about is the other side of the battle. What trends are 2015 bringing for switch-hitters? Is being a switch-hitter still an advantage for a batter? And also, if the batter starts to lose that advantage, would they ever change their mind on hitting from both sides of the plate?

When I began research on the trends of switch-hitters I hypothesized that the amount of switch-hitters has gone down this decade. I felt that the amount of players capable of hitting from both sides of the plate have dwindled over the years. It turns out that I am only halfway right. In 2000, there were 65 hitters who were considered switch-hitters with at least 100 at-bats. Of those 65, only 21 received enough at-bats to consider them batting average-qualified. Last year, the numbers were 62 and 18 – slightly lower, but not by an amount of note. In fact, in the current century, those numbers peaked at 71 and 29 (both in 2003), the valleys being 58 (2012) and 13 (2008). The average numbers since 2000 are 64 and 22 with 61 already reaching 43 at bats in 2015 with 18 being currently batting average-qualified.  The switch-hitter isn’t necessarily an endangered species but 29 of 165 total qualified hitters made up 17.6% of the league in 2003; last year’s numbers (18 of 146) only make 12.3% of the league switch-hitters.

As far as switch-hitting providing an advantage, even though the sample sizes are still very small this season, it isn’t looking good. The entire Major League is hitting .252 currently this season. Switch hitters are hitting .234. Switch hitters batting right-handed are hitting .229 and they are hitting .235 left-handed. With only about one-fourth of at-bats coming from the right side of the plate (one would presume with only about one-quarter of pitchers being southpaws), the power numbers are still lopsided. Switch-hitting batters have hit 34 homeruns overall (in 2188 at-bats through June 17th) from the right side of the plate. They have hit 128 from the left side. Are switch-hitters losing their advantage and what hitters may at least want to start thinking about sticking with one side of the plate?

Billy Burns is about the perfect model of consistency that every switch-hitter strives to be. The young Oakland Athletic outfielder is hitting .296 righty and .325 lefty. His OPS is .756 righty and .803 lefty. It would be hard for anyone to argue that Burns should be sticking to one side of the plate but he may be an exception compared to the rest of his switch-hitting counterparts. Of the 61 switch-hitters with at least 43 at-bats this season, only 22 have averages on either side of the plate within 0.05 of each other. To put that in perspective, there is a fairly big difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter. Only 25 of the 43 have an OPS within .150 between the different sides of the plate. With their overall average far beneath the average player and with one side of the plate being that much better than the other, maybe switch hitters should even start to be more endangered than they have become.

Kennys Vargas of the Minnesota Twins is currently hitting .349 as a right-handed batter, which would be the highest average in the American League if that was the only side of the plate he hit from. He also chooses to hit lefty when the situation calls for it and is hitting .165 when he does. Victor Martinez has a much longer tenure than Vargas, and maybe his older age has an effect, because when he returns from the DL, he may be wiser to only hit right-handed. Victor is batting .462 with a 1.17 OPS against lefties and a .141 average with a .395 vs righties. Melky Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval, two of the bigger free-agent signings this offseason are seeing the exact opposite problem. Cabrera is hitting .280 with a .645 OPS from the left side of the plate while hitting .133 with a .309 OPS from the right. Sandoval’s numbers are .325 and .902 vs .141 and .323.

These players’ coaches and managers have to at least be thinking to instruct their player to stick with one side of the plate. There is some history of players restricting themselves to one side of the plate when once being a switch hitter but usually injury is the excuse. It will be interesting to follow along with these players and switch-hitters as a whole to see if some of these numbers start regressing to what made these players become switch-hitters in the first place. Or will we possibly see a trend-setting organization to start recognizing that perhaps focusing on one side is more advantageous to a hitter than the disadvantage it may give the pitcher.

You can find Casey on twitter @CaseyBoguslaw or join in the conversation @CTBPod 

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