Baseball: The Value and Difficulty of Switch Hitting

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Baseball: The Value and Difficulty of Switch Hitting
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Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones has announced that he will be retiring at the end of this season, which is sure to spark debates about where he ranks among the greatest switch hitters of all time.  This brings up the question, however, of the importance of such a skill. 

After all, a rundown of the greatest hitters of all time reveals no switch hitters: Ruth, Bonds, Mays, Aaron, DiMaggio, etc.  The consensus greatest switch hitter of all time is Mickey Mantle, a player as associated with grace and athleticism as with pure hitting skill.

All that being said, though, switch hitting is an insanely difficult skill that deserves to be commended.  Hitting itself is said to be the most challenging thing to do in sports. 

Swings take years to develop; each aspect of a hitter’s body must be moving in perfect synchronization.  If one part of it is even slightly off, the entire motion is wasted and the hitter won’t make solid contact. 

Guys take hours of batting practice in the batting cage and on the field every week and still only get hits three out of 10 times.  No other sport has that low of a success rate. 

If quarterbacks only completed 30 percent of their passes, they’d be out of the league.  If basketball players only hit 30 percent of their shots, they’d be out of the league.  And yet, if a baseball player gets a hit 30 percent of the time, he’s an All Star.  That number alone speaks to the immense challenge that hitting a baseball truly is.

Now, take that difficulty and double it.  Switch hitters must work twice as hard for a simple reason: they have two swings.  Let’s say Player X develops a hitch in his swing and spends an hour in the cage trying to fix it.  He’d likely be able to get his mechanics back where he wanted them in that amount of time. 

But let’s say that Player X was a switch hitter, and the hitch was in his right-handed swing.  And let’s say that in his left-handed swing, his hands were dropping before the pitch. 

Now he has to spend another hour in the cage working on raising his hands.  All of this is to say that for all the work hitters put in, switch hitters have to do twice the amount because they have two different swings.

Nor can anyone do it, either.  For whatever reason, some people are simply more capable of swinging from both sides of the plate.  Some people pick it up early, some not until they become pros; some do it voluntarily, some are asked to by their team. 

The minor leagues are littered with examples of position players who tried to switch-hit and failed.  Even guys who are successful often have different looking swings from each side of the plate, because they were unable to translate the mechanics of their natural side over to the other batter’s box. 

Sometimes people with fluid and beautiful swings from the left side have choppy and violent swings from the right side.  Some guys (like Chipper Jones) even use differently weighted bats from each side of the plate, which adds to the difficulty of retraining their muscles.

With all the obvious difficulties and possible pitfalls, the obvious question of “why do it” is raised.  There are a number of reasons.  Sometimes right-handed speedsters like to be able to start a step closer to first base. 

Sometimes hitters are jumpy on arm-side (righty vs. righty or lefty vs. lefty) breaking balls, and it’s easier to stand in on balls breaking towards them so they switch to the other side.  Sometimes, it’s even just simply a competitive challenge.

Baseball history teaches us that simply swinging from both sides of the plate doesn’t guarantee identical results, which supports the assertion that each side is different. 

Lance Berkman, for instance, has an ISO (isolated power, which measures raw power through extra bases per at bat) 120 points higher from the right side than he does from the left side.  However, his K% is lower from the left side than the right side

For whatever reason, some players develop swings that are more conducive to power or contact from each side.

Switch hitting itself is such a unique skill that no one really knows how to value it.  It appears to be something that people are simply either good at or not.  That doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed, though.  It takes an incredible amount of dedication and thousands of hours of working through frustration and retraining muscles to respond in ways that they’re just not used to. 

Quarterbacks don’t teach themselves to throw left-handed.  Basketball players don’t shoot free throws with their off hand.  And yet, some baseball players decide to hit from both sides of the plate. 

They aren’t any more or less valuable than guys who excel from one side of the plate.  But they should be appreciated for their level of talent and dedication and the sheer amount of work they put in. 

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