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The Rise and Fall of the Switch Hitter

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#1 Teflon

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Posted 15 August 2016 - 01:50 PM

switch hitters
 

Since the introduction of the Designated Hitter in 1974, the percentage of plate appearances by switch hitters (non-pitchers) steadily grew in both the American and National Leagues, reaching a combined plateau of around 20% of all plate appearances, a level that remained intact for ten years, from 1986 to 1996. Since that period, the use of switch hitters has dropped back down, albeit more gradually, to the current rate of only 13% of non-pitchers’ plate appearances in 2015.

 

What caused the initial rise and the subsequent decline in popularity?

 

The Rise
In 1974, right-handed pitching accounted for 67% of all MLB innings pitched. Over the next 15 years, this number did not vary significantly but the percentage of plate appearances by right-handed batters steadily declined from 60% in 1974 to 51% in 1987. Teams were favoring left-handed at bats against right-handed pitching more and more. While some of this was accomplished through platooning, surprisingly, this increase in left-handed at-bats was not driven by left-handed hitters (32% of plate appearances in 1974, 34% in 1990) but by switch-hitters. 

 

This preference for switch-hitters over pure lefties in this period may have been largely due to frugality. Owners had trimmed active rosters down to 24 players in 1986 – a supposed cost saving reduction that lasted until the end of the decade.As teams were unlikely to sacrifice a pitcher in those circumstances, the last batter on the bench was removed more often than not. When you’re one player down on the bench, a switch-hitter suddenly became a lot more valuable. 

 

In 1974, there were only 12 switch-hitters that topped 500 plate appearances, led by Pete Rose and Larry Bowa. While two new teams joined the majors in 1977, by 1987 the number of regular switch hitters had more than doubled. There were now 26 of them, an average of one per lineup. This new group included Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, Tim Raines, and Terry Pendleton, switch-hitters that would have played in any era,but it also included the likes of Bill Doran, Mitch Webster, Johnny Ray, and Spike Owen, names that will not similarly persist in baseball memory.

 

The St. Louis Cardinals of this era did more to popularize switch-hitting than any other team with five 500+ PA switch-hitters alone on the 1987 World Series team that faced the Twins.Triva – how many of the switch-hitting Cardinals can you name? (Answers at the bottom of this post.)

 

By 1989, there were 31 players in this group in the majors and the Twins even had a pair of their own – in Al Newman and Gene Larkin – with Chili Davis soon to join them. If you were going to designate a golden age of the switch-hitter in the MLB, 1989 would have been the pinnacle.

 

 

The Fall
The decline of the switch hitter was signaled once MLB rosters were again restored to 25 men but would not actually begin to trend in that direction until the then-established careers of the switch-hitting baby-boom players ended and they were gradually replaced with fewer and fewer switch-hitters.Even as the number of pitchers making up rosters increased to 12 and 13, the numbers of switch-hitters continued to decline. Even as the number of left-handed at-bats in response has grown tothe highest level since the DH was created, the percentage of at-bats has continued to decline. It would seem, current circumstances would again favor switch hitters for their added dimension given shorter hitters’ benches, but perhaps an indifference in signing them during the initial downturn in importance has created a lag effect in the talent pool. Or this could just be a cycle.


For fun, I thought I’d close with a look at some of the Twins switch-hitter over the years.

1961 – 1974 
A dearth of switch-hitting on the Twins. Outside of pitchers Jim Perry and Pedro Ramos, only one position player, SS Marty Martinez in 1962 had switch-hit at-bats.

 

1974 – 1981 
Under Gene Mauch, the Twins had their first prominent switch-hitters in Roy Smalley and Butch Wynegar. Dave McKay was also a switch-hitter.

 

1982 – 2000
Tom Kelly had had a few switch-hitting options on his teams over the years with Al Newman, Gene Larkin, John Moses, Chili Davis,and Denny Hocking.

 

2000 – 2009
Gardy loved him some Nicky Punto as well as Christian Guzman, Bobby Kielty, Luis Castillo, Alexi Casilla, and Matt Tolbert

 

2010 – 2014
The early years of Target Field saw the Twins acquire a number of switch-hitters in Orlando Hudson, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Ryan Doumit, Pedro Florimon,

 

2015- Present
No shortage of pinch hitters coming through the Twins with Aaron Hicks, Eduardo Escobar, Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas, and Jorge Polanco

 

 

 

1987 Cardinals switch-hitters: Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton, Willie McGee, and Tommy Herr
 
 

 

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#2 Bob Sacamento

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Posted 10 May 2018 - 12:25 PM

Just thought I'd mention it but this post and TwinsDaily message board got a nice mention on Fangraphs' Effectively Wild Podcast Episode 1214 this week while discussing switch hitting and the dying art

 

About at the 30:30 mark

 

 

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#3 ashburyjohn

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Posted 10 May 2018 - 08:36 PM

Just thought I'd mention it but this post and TwinsDaily message board got a nice mention on Fangraphs' Effectively Wild Podcast Episode 1214 this week while discussing switch hitting and the dying art

 

About at the 30:30 mark

Kudos to Teflon, Senior Member of Twins Daily! :)

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#4 DocBauer

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Posted 10 May 2018 - 09:12 PM

I have to wonder if "specialization" isn't the reason for the drop off in switch hitting. In most sports, there seems to be less and less importance played in fundamentals, IMO. Kids today seem to concentrate more and more on a singular sport, for college and possible career opportunities. Basketball is less and less about defense and passing, and more and more about 3 point shooting and the open floor running game. Football has become more specialized and spread offense with nickel and dime sets defensively. Baseball has seen various HR explosions, and less and less "small ball" of SB and situational ball. Even at a young age, if you show more power from one certain side, then concentrate on that vs learning the possible value of switch hitting.

Just a thought.
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#5 Teflon

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Posted 11 May 2018 - 06:09 AM

 

Just thought I'd mention it but this post and TwinsDaily message board got a nice mention on Fangraphs' Effectively Wild Podcast Episode 1214 this week while discussing switch hitting and the dying art

 

About at the 30:30 mark

 

Thanks for posting this, Bob. It was an interesting listen. Their theory on why switch hitting hasn't reemerged with the shorter positional benches is that switch hitting effectively is more difficult in today's game with all the situational adjustments teams make with pitchers and defense. I also like DocBauer's thought that small ball fosters a greater need for switchhitters than large ball.  

 

I wonder, too, if there is some cultural shift in the development of younger players who are now exposed to more sports. While the kids growing up in the U.S. and Latin America in the 60's and 70s might play baseball more exclusively and have a greater focus and opportunity on developing switch hitting, today's kids are splitting more of their time between baseball and soccer or hoops. (or e-sports). 

 

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#6 ashburyjohn

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Posted 11 May 2018 - 09:29 AM

I found it interesting a few years ago when the trend emerged that Terry Ryan seemed to especially value switch-hitting, based on guys he acquired and guys being brought up. Some kind of market inefficiency he felt could be exploited?

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#7 Nine of twelve

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Posted 11 May 2018 - 12:37 PM

The decrease of the roster size in the late '80's is cited as a reason for the rise in switch hitting. Well, today we are seeing essentially the same thing with the preponderance of 13-man pitching staffs. I would think switch hitting would be a distinct advantage to have, especially as a utility player or pinch hitting type.
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#8 nicksaviking

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Posted 11 May 2018 - 01:20 PM

I feel bad that this piece was largely missed until Fangraphs brought it to life for us. Very well done Teflon.

 

I wonder how same handed batters are fairing against same handed pitching these days compared to decades past? I don't have any stats in front of me, but could it be that young lefties are better at hitting against left handed pitching in today's game? Making the need to switch-hit less impactful?