- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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Sometime in September, the Boston Red Sox will activate injured catcher Jason Varitek, who will, along with Victor Martinez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, give Boston three switch-hitting catchers, the third team since 1900 to have three switch-hitting catchers in one season. That is a somewhat interesting but pointless oddity, yet the idea of switch hitting is interesting and somewhat odd, a concept filled with inconsistencies, contradictions and questions.
If switch-hitting is such a great thing, then why are only 6 percent of all non-pitchers in baseball history switch-hitters? If switch-hitting provides such an advantage for a hitter because he doesn't have to see the breaking ball coming at him, then why do only two of the top 100 career batting averages of all-time (minimum: 5,000 at-bats) belong to switch-hitters?
How can it be that the best career batting average for a switch-hitter is .316 by Frankie Frisch, who ranks 53rd all-time, and the next best is Chipper Jones, ranked 98th at .306? Of the top 10 batting leaders in each league in 2010, not one is a switch-hitter. Why is that?
Why would the New York Yankees' Lance Berkman, one of the greatest switch-hitters in history, say last season, "If I could do it all over again, I would not be a switch-hitter.'' Why?
"It's really hard to do,'' said Baltimore Orioles switch-hitting second baseman Brian Roberts.
If it's so hard, then why are 15 percent of today's non-pitchers switch-hitters? Why so many?
Ted Simmons, now the bench coach with the San Diego Padres, is one of the greatest switch-hitters ever, and one of the best-hitting catchers of all-time; he hit .285 with 2,472 hits and 248 home runs. He is a natural left-handed hitter who became a switch-hitter at a young age because his father and older brothers, all of whom batted right-handed, noticed that he had a predisposition to ambidexterity given that he could throw a baseball with either hand. So, his family made him a switch-hitter. Simmons is brilliant. He has spent a lot of time analyzing switch-hitters.
"Six percent of all players is a very small sample,'' Simmons said. "And how many of that 6 percent are even capable of hitting .300? Now that 6 percent goes down to maybe 2 percent. So now we're talking about a very, very, very small sample. I also have yet to find a person that completely, totally, unequivocally has bilateral symmetry. One side is always dominant. People can't write right-handed and left-handed with the same physicality. I can't prove that empirically, but when a baby first chooses to suck his thumb, it's either his right thumb or his left thumb. The bottom line is: it is really difficult to do something right-handed and left-handed. I've asked concert pianists if it helps them to be ambidextrous. They told me,'No. It's just that the left hand is trained.' They don't switch pianos for left-handed people. But they switch guitars for left-handers. Jimi Hendrix was left-handed. He switched wires. But being ambidextrous doesn't help as a guitarist.''
A brief abridged history of switch-hitters: The first great one was shortstop George Davis, who drove in 136 runs in 1897. Frisch, who played from 1919-37, was one of the few successful switch-hitters during the beginning of the live ball era (1920-present). In 1950, there were only three switch-hitters in the game, Sam Jethroe, Dave Philley and Red Schoendienst. But when Mickey Mantle came to the big leagues in 1951, everything changed. Switch-hitters became far more prevalent. In 1992, 17.2 percent of all non-pitchers were switch-hitters. "My dad made me a switch-hitter because he loved Mickey,'' said Carlos Baerga, a second baseman who played 14 seasons in the majors. "A lot of dads did that.''
In baseball history, many switch-hitters have been fast, little guys, middle infielders that couldn't hit enough from the right side, so they switched to the left side to get a step closer to first base, which, in part, explains why only 7 percent of switch-hitters all-time throw left-handed. Maury Wills spent eight years in the minor leagues as a right-handed hitter, became a switch-hitter, then four years later won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1962.
"Some kids are just so pitiful as hitters, they would miss the slider by 10 feet, so they turned around, and instead of striking out every time, they grounded out every time,'' Simmons said. "The fast guy, a little closer to first base, will try to beat the ball into the ground and run. Maybe he could beat the ball three times out of 10 rather than 1.6 times.''
Maybe that's the simple answer. Maybe there are so few great switch-hitters in baseball history because so many of them weren't particularly good hitters to begin with, and their only way to the major leagues was to switch-hit. Ray Durham, the former Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants second baseman, became a switch-hitter in professional ball in 1991, and said years later, "I was so bad at first, there would be days where I wouldn't get the ball out of the infield, or wouldn't even hit the ball. I thought 'there's no way this is ever going to work.' But after all the sweat, all the blood on my hands, now I'm actually better from the left side. I've hit left-handed twice against [left-handed pitcher] Andy Pettitte. How do you figure that?''
Roberts said he was made a switch-hitter at the age of 5 by his father, who was then the baseball coach at the University of North Carolina. Roberts is now one of the better switch-hitters in baseball.
"There were times in college when I really wanted to give it up,'' he said. "I'm a natural left-handed hitter, and we never saw a left-hander. So I wouldn't get any at-bats from the right side. But after switch-hitting for as long as I have, I couldn't imagine hitting left-handed against a left-handed pitcher. I would have no chance. I would hit way under .100. Zero chance. I couldn't even hit our left-handed batting practice pitcher hitting left-handed.''
My dad made me a switch-hitter because he loved Mickey [Mantle]. A lot of dads did that.
”-- Former major leaguer Carlos Baerga
J.T. Snow is like Roberts, a natural left-handed hitter, but he gave up switch-hitting late in his career because he couldn't stay sharp from the right side, his weak side, given how few at-bats he got from that side. Berkman is the same way, a natural left-handed hitter who has trouble staying sharp from the right side because he sees so many more right-handed pitchers.
Berkman has a totally different swing right-handed than he does left-handed. Simmons had a similar swing right-handed as he did left-handed. So did Eddie Murray, who is one of the greatest switch-hitters of all-time. He had never tried switch-hitting until one night in the minor leagues when his Double-A manager, Bob Schaffer, told him to try hitting left-handed. Murray had done that in the backyard countless times as a kid, hitting the lids of of coffee cans. So, he turned around, hit left-handed for the first time, and got two hits.
The Red Sox's Victor Martinez has a similar swing from both sides. "It's amazing,'' said Mike Lowell, one of Martinez's teammates on the Red Sox. "His swing path is almost identical from each side.'' But Martinez, like Simmons, is essentially ambidextrous, he can throw a baseball 75-mph left-handed.
Red Sox shortstop Jed Lowrie said, "I try to swing the same way from each side, it's close, but it's not the same. You also have to have the same mental cues from each side of the plate. That's hard. Switch-hitting is hard. It's twice the work trying to keep both sides sharp.''
If hitting a baseball is, indeed, the hardest skill in sports, then why double it by switch-hitting? Red Sox manager Terry Francona, a left-handed hitter, was asked if he ever tried switch-hitting. "No way!'' he said. "I had enough trouble hitting from one side. Why try two?'' Simmons said that most switch-hitters engage in "a battle against themselves, the left-handed hitter in a fight with the right-handed hitter.'' There are times when the switch-hitter is swinging so well from the left side, and so poorly from the right, but he is facing a left-hander, so he has to hit right-handed. Then, by the time he gets back to hitting left-handed, he might have lost the feel for hitting left-handed, fouled up by the right-handed hitter.
"And it's harder to be a switch-hitter now than when I played,'' said former major leaguer Dave Hollins, a switch-hitter who played from 1990-2002. "Back then, pitchers threw a four-seam fastball, maybe a sinker, an overhand curveball and a changeup. I could hit those pitches. Now, so many pitchers are throwing a cutter and a split. The cutter really hurts a switch-hitter because the right-handed pitcher can cut it in on the hands of a left-handed hitter, and visa versa, and it really jams the hitter. I think those pitches have really hurt switch-hitters.''
Maybe the lesson here is that it's not so great to be a switch-hitter. It may help you make a club, it helps your versatility and it looks good on your résumé, but maybe it doesn't make you a much better hitter. But, for most switch-hitters, it's too late to give it up, as Snow did. Orioles catcher Matt Wieters has been switch-hitting since he was 5 years old. "And now,'' he said, "I have no interest in seeing the slider coming right at me.''
So he'll stay a switch-hitter, as will Martinez, Varitek and Saltalamacchia, Boston's three switch-hitting catchers. They will join the 1997 Detroit Tigers (Raul Casanova, Matt Walbeck and Marcus Jensen) and the 1975 Texas Rangers (Joe Lovitto, Lenny Randle and Roy Smalley, all of whom caught only one game each) as the only teams with three switch-hitting catchers in one season. For the 2010 Red Sox, it's a cool, little distinction, but baseball history says that switch-hitting isn't always little, and isn't always cool.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
Being a switch-hitter certainly helps a player's versatility, but batting from both sides of the plate is a very difficult thing to master.