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Flipping the Switch: Examining the Value and Decline of Switch Hitting

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The Houston Astros project to have their first season in 50 years without a switch hitter plate appearance. Switch hitting is on the decline league-wide. We take a look inside the numbers to determine how much benefit there is to switch hitting, and if it is worth the extra time and effort.

Spring Training

Disappearing Ink

Houston Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch’s lineup card is an impeccably neat and organized document. The names of each of his hitters and pitchers are neatly printed in block letters in black ink. A red marker is used for position players Josh Reddick, Michael Brantley and Tony Kemp to indicate their left-handedness.

Sunday, May 12, 2019 Rangers at Astros Lineup Card

Last year, he would have used a a blue marker for the versatile utility player Marwin Gonzalez. Gonzalez has since left in free agency for the Minnesota Twins. There has been no blue ink this year. There are no switch hitters on the 2019 Houston Astros.

Barring a trade or a waiver pickup, there will not be an Astros switch hitter anytime soon either. Switch hitting prospects are sparse in the pipeline. Third baseman Abraham Toro of the AA Corpus Christi Hooks is the only switch hitter on the Crawfish Boxes top 30 Astros prospects list, at #23. He is not expected to reach the show until late 2020 or 2021.

For the first season in fifty years, the Houston Astros will not have a single plate appearance by a switch hitter.

The Houston Astros have long been home to switch hitting lineup fixtures over the years: Roger Metzger, Alan Ashby, Bill Doran, Kevin Bass, Ken Caminiti, Lance Berkman, Geoff Blum and most recently Gonzalez. How did the well dry up?

To Switch or Not to Switch

The dearth of switch hitting is not a situation specific to the Astros. Switch hitting has been on the decline in the majors since its peak in 1992. 19.9% of plate appearances across the majors in 1992 were by switch hitters. Last year, in 2018, it was 13.5%.

The advantages of switch hitting are well-documented. When facing a pitcher throwing with the opposite-handedness of the batter, the batter has better visualization of the pitch’s release point, and can begin to track the pitch sooner. The pitcher’s breaking balls break toward the hitter’s bat, rather than away. The vast majority of pitchers in the major leagues are right handed. 72% of 2018 MLB plate appearances were against right-handed pitching. The ability to bat as a lefty against right-handed pitching offers a theoretical advantage.

Switch hitting allows the batter to be in a favorable situation, no matter who is on the mound. When a right handed pitcher is throwing, the batter bats as lefty. When a southpaw is on the hill, he hits as a righty.

It is not easy. Maintaining batting approaches from each side of the plate is exactly as tedious as you might imagine. It requires twice as much practice, twice as many cuts in batting practice, twice the amount of time in the batting cage, twice as much work. Making sure the right-handed swing does not get rusty requires particular effort. As left-handed pitchers are less common, a switch hitter might go days or weeks between plate appearances against left-handed pitching. The Minnesota Twins went through the first twenty games of the 2019 season without facing a left-handed starting pitcher.

Switch hitter Lance Berkman batting left-handed.
Former Astro Lance Berkman ranks among the most successful switch hitters in MLB history, but would not do it again, if he could do it over.
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In 2009, Astros switch hitting legend Lance Berkman stated in an interview, “If I could do it all over again, I would not be a switch hitter.” Seattle Mariners utility player Andrew Romine feels similarly. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Romine wondered where he might be if he had focused entirely on his right-handed swing, instead of staying determined to be a switch hitter. “Being a switch hitter doesn’t necessarily make you valuable,” says Romine, “You have to be a good switch hitter.”

In youth and lower levels, coaches discourage the practice. The extra time and attention required to develop the skill of switch hitting takes away from the team, in favor of the individual. Today, team success is prized over player development. It is whether you win or lose, and not how you play game.

The recent advent of the defensive shift lessens the advantages of being able to bat from both sides of the plate.

All these reasons have led to the decline in switch hitting in today’s game. With the extra amount of time and effort required to keep up switch hitting abilities, is it really worth it?

Which Hand Do You Throw With?

Before we can answer that question, it is important to understand what kind of players are switch hitters.

The overwhelming majority of switch hitters are true right-handed players, meaning they throw with their right hand. Of the 79 switch hitters to make a plate appearance in 2018, only 4 (5.1%) threw with their left hand: Justin Smoak, Melky Cabrera, Robbie Grossman and Cedric Mullins.

Being able to hit left-handed is so desirable that the majority of left-handed hitters in the game today are not actually left-handed. Only 59 of the 193 (30.6%) left-handed hitters of 2018 actually throw with their left hand.

Throwing Handedness of 2018 MLB Hitters

Batting Handedness MLB Total in 2018 Throws Right Throws Left
Batting Handedness MLB Total in 2018 Throws Right Throws Left
Right-Handed Hitters 356 353 3
Left-Handed Hitters 193 134 59
Switch Hitters 79 75 4

Compare that to right handed hitters, where of 356 right-handed hitters in 2018, all but 3 (0.8%) are actually right-handed. The three exceptions, for those wondering, are Joey Rickard, Ryan Lamarre and Guillermo Heredia. These are not exactly household names. The decision to be a right-handed batter when you are naturally left-handed is a curious one, and unless your name is Rickey Henderson, it does not come with a lot of success.

94.9% of switch hitters are right-handed players who want to be left-handed when they face a right-handed pitcher. 69.4% of left-handed hitters are also right-handed players who want to be left-handed when they face a right-handed pitcher. The difference between these two groups is that the latter does not have to maintain separate swings from each side of the plate. In the 28% of plate appearances when a lefty is on the mound, they simply elect to face left-handed pitching as a left-handed batter as well.

Keeping Right and Left Straight

As you have likely noticed, right vs. left is a frequent distinction that is made in this article: for pitching, hitting, and throwing (true-handedness). The pitcher can either be a right-handed pitcher or a left handed-pitcher. The hitter can either be a right-handed hitter, left-handed hitter or a switch hitter. Within these hitter groups, the hitter can either be true right-handed (throws right) or true left-handed (throws left.)

With all the possible permutations, keeping the configurations straight in your head can be challenging. For that reason, please refer to this brief guide for abbreviations:

  • RHP – Right-handed pitcher
  • LHP – Left-handed pitcher
  • RHH – Right-handed hitter
  • LHH – Left-handed hitter
  • SH – Switch hitter
  • RH-LHH – Right-handed (throws right), left-handed hitter
  • LH-LHH – Left-handed (throws left) left-handed hitter
  • RH-RHH – Right-handed (throws right) right-handed hitter
  • LH-RHH – Left-handed (throws left) right-handed hitter
  • RH-SH – Right-handed (throws right) switch hitter
  • LH-SH – Left-handed (throws left) switch hitter

As mentioned earlier, LH-SH and LH-RHH are fairly rare. Generally, players who are naturally left-handed simply bat as left-handed hitters.

In 2018, in the American League, 44 switch hitting non-pitchers made plate appearances. 40 of them were RH-SH. This article examines these 40 players: right-handed switch hitters. The four LH-SH’s (Smoak, Cabrera, Grossman and Mullins) are excluded, and comprise too small of a subset to examine as their own entity.

Of these 40 players, the top 15 constitute 70% of the AL switch hitting plate appearances and are listed in the following table:

Top 15 2018 AL Switch Hitters (Throw Right) by PA

Player 2018 Plate Appearances
Player 2018 Plate Appearances
Francisco Lindor 745
Jose Ramirez 698
Jed Lowrie 680
Yolmer Sanchez 662
Yoan Moncada 650
Jeimer Candelario 619
Jurickson Profar 594
Aaron Hicks 581
Marwin Gonzalez 552
Victor Martinez 508
Yangervis Solarte 506
Niko Goodrum 492
Kendrys Morales 471
Eduardo Escobar 408
Neil Walker 398

This article will consider all 2018 AL players who throw with their right hand (true right-handed players), and divide them into three categories: RH-RHH, RH-LHH and RH-SH. By comparing these three groups, we can get an idea of the value of switch hitting, as opposed to dedicating oneself completely to a right-handed swing or completely to a left-handed swing.

What if Right-Handed Switch Hitters Just Batted Right-Handed All the Time?

Comparing RH-SH with RH-RHH

How much advantage does switch hitting provide over always batting as a right-handed hitter? The player is already right-handed. How big of a difference is there between RH-SH and RH-RHH?

Against RHP:

2018 AL RH-RHH and RH-SH vs. RHP

Matchup PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Matchup PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
RH-RHH vs. RHP 35444 0.252 0.314 0.42 0.735
RH-SH vs. RHP 8980 0.24 0.316 0.416 0.732

These numbers are almost identical, with .002, .004, and .003 differences between OBP, SLG and OPS. At first glance, this may seem as if a RH-SH electing to bat left-handed against RHP imparts no advantage at all.

However, when these two groups’ effectiveness against LHP are compared, where both sets of hitters bat right-handed, we see that the RH-RHH’s are a simply a better group of hitters than the RH-SH’s:

2018 AL RH-RHH and RH-SH vs. LHP

Matchup PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Matchup PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
RH-RHH vs. LHP 15361 0.256 0.328 0.429 0.757
RH-SH vs. LHP 3510 0.243 0.305 0.382 0.687

It is impossible to know how the RH-SH’s would bat against RHP if they continued to bat right-handed instead of switching to the left. But considering that RH-SH’s batting right handed against lefties fared worse than RH-RHH’s doing the same thing, it is reasonable to think that if they also batted right-handed against RHP, they would similarly fare worse.

Instead, the RH-SH’s bat lefty against RHP, and their production is elevated to equal that of the better hitting RH-RHH group. This suggests the switch to lefty against RHP does provide appreciable advantage.

What if Right-Handed Switch Hitters Just Batted Left-Handed All the Time?

Comparing RH-SH with RH-LHH

How much advantage does switch hitting provide over simply always batting as left-handed hitter? The player has already developed a left-handed swing to use against RHP. Why not just use that swing against LHP as well, so that the player does not need to maintain two swings? How big of a difference is there between RH-SH and RH-LHH?

Against RHP:

2018 AL RH-LHH and RH-SH vs. RHP

Matchup PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Matchup PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
RH-LHH vs. RHP 13034 0.25 0.323 0.421 0.744
RH-SH vs. RHP 8980 0.24 0.316 0.416 0.732

Here, both RH-LHH and RH-SH step into the batter’s box against RHP batting lefty, despite the fact that they are naturally right-handed. RH-LHH’s are marginally better than RH-SH’s, but not by very much, AVG, OBP, and SLG are all within .010.

Against LHP:

2018 AL RH-LHH and RH-SH vs. LHP

Matchup PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Matchup PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
RH-LHH vs. LHP 4252 0.233 0.301 0.363 0.664
RH-SH vs. LHP 3510 0.243 0.305 0.382 0.687

Here, while RH-LHH’s continue to bat lefty against LHP, the RH-SH’s bat righty. Their switch to the right-handed batting approach results in slightly more effectiveness, mostly in power, but not by a terribly huge amount.

If a RH-SH elected to simply bat left-handed against all pitching, and become a RH-LHH they would lose a little bit of production, but not a great deal.

Is It Worth It?

2018 OPS of AL Hitters (Throw Right) as LHH, SH and RHH

It is more favorable to switch hit than to be dedicated entirely to a right-handed hitting approach. Batting left-handed against RHP has allowed AL RH-SH’s to produce on the same level as AL RH-RHH’s who markedly outhit them against LHP.

It is slightly more favorable to switch hit than to be dedicated entirely to a left-handed hitting approach, as a player who throws with their right hand. The gains are much more modest though. It may be more efficient from a time and training perspective to develop as a left-handed hitter rather than continue to preserve the right-handed hitting approach for the less frequent occasions where a left-handed pitcher is on the mound.

Considering the continued downtrend in switch hitting, that may already be where the game is headed.