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?
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 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,
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