By Michael LeCompte
Switch-hitting, a hitter batting right-handed against a left-handed pitcher or from the left side of the plate against a righty is a tough and rare talent for a baseball player, one with both inherent pros and cons.
In 1950 there were only three players classified as switch-hitters in Major League Baseball. The next season that all changed when Mickey Mantle, perhaps the most proficient and certainly the most well-known switch-hitter joined the Yankees.
Maris’s success from both sides of the plate led to an increase in the number of players who learned to switch hit over the ensuing decades. In the years since Maris the amount of switch-hitters in the game has ebbed and flowed as the merits of the skill have been debated or ignored. As of 2013 only 61 players in the Majors could be classified as switch-hitters, just 8% of players in the game.
Being able to adequately hit from both sides of the plate is an admirable and coveted skill because, theoretically at least, it means the batter does not have to face a slider or other breaking pitches. If a righty is pitching and a switch-hitter bats left-handed or if a lefty is throwing and a switch-hitter bats from the right side, then breaking pitches should come into the barrel of the bat, thus allowing a switch-hitter a better opportunity to make contact.
Another advantage switch-hitting provides is that it potentially nullifies some situational pitching changes. If a manager wants to bring in a specific pitcher to pitch to a certain batter one way, the batter could simply begin his at-bat from the opposite side of the plate, thus forcing the manager/pitcher combo to either pitch to the batter and live with the results or use another pitcher.
After Maris hit .298 and slugged 536 home runs in a Hall of Fame career a generation of Dads in backyards across America tried to teach their kids how to bat from both sides of the plate. Since Maris many notable players have possessed the ability to switch-hit. Pete Rose, Lance Berkman, Chipper Jones, Pablo Sandoval, and Mark Teixera are perhaps the most notable.
While the ability to switch-hit has allowed players to break into the game as valuable bench players or hang in the game longer than they otherwise would have, the skill does have its critics.
Successful switch-hitting is still a fairly rare feat that takes hours and perhaps even years to master. From little league through every level of organized baseball a player is only going to get a certain number of practice swings so they are probably going to take those swings from their more dominant side of the plate.
Therefore most coaches aren’t going to promote switch-hitting and they certainly don’t have the time to teach it to their players when they have practices to get through. Becoming a switch-hitter, therefore, takes a level of personal dedication to the craft by a player or their family that most modern players are not accustomed to. As Mantle once said, “my dad taught me to switch hit. He and my grandfather, who was left-handed, pitched to me everyday after school in the backyard. I batted lefty against my dad and righty against my granddad.”
Hitting a small ball with a thin piece of wood from even one side of the plate takes concentration, practice, the honing of reflexes, and the building of muscle memory. The ability to hit a baseball is the hardest skill in all of sport and critics of switch-hitting argue that the challenge shouldn’t be doubled by having a player try and bat left and right handed.
The small number of switch-hitters in the game today shows that the ability to hit proficiently from both sides of the plate is a daunting task, yet this fairly rare feat ensures them a place in the game and illustrates a pure athleticism missing from many other players who only bat from one side or the other.