By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Hitting the switch is sexy.
There’s just something about seeing the term “switch-hitter” in a scouting report that makes a player’s profile all the more appealing. It’s not just about maintaining a permanent peloton advantage or giving a team greater line-up flexibility; it’s also the remarkable coordination required to do one of the hardest things in sports – hitting a baseball – using both sides of your body.
Granted, it’s obviously not as difficult or as rare as the change-to throw (thanks to Pat Venditte and Jurrangelo Cijntje), but hitting with a switch is still an underrated feat of physical dexterity, especially when achieved at the highest level of sport. After all, us regular people have all tried to do things with our weaker side, and it almost always feels awkward, awkward, and uncomfortable.
But the best athletes in the world are only so for a reason, and switch shots are one of many incredible displays of physical ability that we’ve come to accept as standard practice in the game we love.
The switch-hit is almost as old as baseball itself. The first hitter was Bob Ferguson, who played for the New York Mutuals in 1871, which is widely considered the first year of organized professional baseball. Somewhat amusingly, however, Ferguson struck not for squad purposes but based on the game situation and how he felt at the time.
Still, he was the first to use the strategy for some reason. Historians suggest that the switch did not understand quickly at the time, partly because no one wanted to emulate Ferguson, who was not particularly well-liked.
Even so, it wasn’t long before teams began to realize the value of facing opposing pitchers, and more and more players began to give it a shot. At the turn of the century, about 10% of the league’s skilled hitters were hitting both ways.
Over the next half-century, the switch’s popularity fluctuated. Switch variety stars came and went, including Hall of Famers Max Carey, Dave Bancroft, Frankie Frisch and Red Schoendienst. In the black leagues, legendary speedster Cool Papa Bell and iconic receiver Biz Mackey were switch stars themselves.
By the late 1940s, the number of established hitters in baseball had drastically declined.
Then, in 1951, a 19-year-old from Oklahoma named Mickey Mantle made his debut for the New York Yankees. That season, only three switch hitters qualified for the batting title — or 4% of all qualified hitters — which tied for the lowest total in 70 years. But Mantle took over the league in surprising fashion, destroying pitchers on both sides of the plate like no other hitter the game had ever seen. By the time The Mick retired in 1968, the switch shots were, unsurprisingly, back on the rise.
The next generation brought Hall of Fame wide receiver Ted Simmons and the Hit King himself, Pete Rose. Next came Eddie Murray’s 504 home runs – 362 on the left side, 142 on the right side. And while he’s best known for his otherworldly defense, Ozzie Smith has benefited heavily on hits en route to 2,460 career hits.
In fact, from 1985 to 1987, the St. Louis Cardinals had five regular hitters on their roster, the most of any team in MLB history: Smith, Vince Coleman, Tom Herr, Willie McGee and Terry Pendleton. . Two other Cooperstown-linked players, Tim Raines and Roberto Alomar, also played during this time. In the late 1980s, switch-hitters made up nearly a quarter of MLB’s skilled hitters.
Then Bernie Williams, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran and Chipper Jones brought the art of switch-hit into the 21st century. Mark Teixeira and Jimmy Rollins continued to show that switch-hitters could come in all styles, shapes and sizes. José Ramírez has become the gold standard among today’s switch-hitters.
Okay, thanks for taking my brief history lesson. Why, you might ask, did I want to write about the switch-hit in the first place?
Well, the switch could be at a turn of this century. It apparently plateaued in 2008, when 9% of skilled hitters changed hitting, before peaking at 18% in 2018 and then dropping back down to 13% in 2021, which is about the rate we’ve seen. so far in 2022 (12.5%). . More importantly, however, 2021 has brought the escapes of two players who represent very different possibilities for the future of the switch: Baltimore Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins and Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander. Frank.
Heading into the 2021 season, Mullins decided to ditch switch shots and only hit from his natural left side. Throughout the minors and early in his big league career, Mullins posted much better left-handed batting numbers.
It’s not that rare. Switch hitters often have a favorite side, but having the permanent advantage of the pack is worth the relative struggle on one side – and it’s always better to have to face a pitch from the same hand. So, ditch the switch-hit in favor of facing the pitcher with the same hand for the first time in years at the sport’s highest level? It’s bold.
Well, the gamble paid off epically. Mullins made his first All-Star Game and was a beacon in an otherwise bleak season for Baltimore. Most notably, while facing southpaws on the same side for the first time in years, Mullins acquitted himself very well. His .788 OPS against left-handed pitchers was 15th among left-handed hitters (minimum 100 plate appearances) and a better rating than traditional left-handed hitters such as Freddie Freeman, Rafael Devers and Joey Votto.
Like many MLB hitters, Mullins is off to a relatively slow start to 2022, at least by the sky-high standards he set last year. His .762 OPS isn’t as garish as last year’s .878, but when you realize that’s good for a 125 OPS+ (comfortably above the league average), you realize that his start was not so disappointing after all.
Mullins’ ambitious move – and subsequent escape – got me thinking: Could we start to see other switch hitters in today’s game give up their weaker side in hope? of greater overall success?
There is no lack of switch-hitters with distinctly extreme splits who could hypothetically benefit from this move. Ozzie Albies, Ketel Marte and Dylan Carlson are spectacular right-handed hitters but just okay on the left side. Others, like Ian Happ and Yoán Moncada, are solid southpaws but struggle to match that production on the right side. Almost all of these players are around the same age or younger than Mullins, so you’d think it’s not too late for them to also try to fully lean into their stronger side.
That said, it’s unfair to suggest that a hitter should give up practice based solely on his spreads. It’s easy to show how well it worked for Mullins, but it’s not a solution with much precedent. Only a handful of batters never gave up swinging back and forth midway through their careers, and none of them saw immediate positive results to the extent of Mullins.
Still, I’m curious to see if Mullins’ bet inspires other players to give it a shot – and if we’re starting to see fewer hitters as a result.
On the other hand, Rays rookie Franco’s incredible debut last season suggests we could be entering a new golden age of switch shots. Franco, the nephew of 12-year MLB veteran (and hitter, of course) Erick Aybar, had been in the limelight virtually since he was a kid, and his arrival at the big league level did not disappoint. He finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, despite only playing 70 games, and then signed a monumental, $182 million extension before turning 21.
So far this season, Franco hasn’t seemed to get the memo that hitting is supposed to be very hard in 2022 – especially if you’re somehow still the youngest player in the league. Instead, he was absolutely raked on both sides of the plate and was one of baseball’s most productive hitters, alongside Ramirez, Happ, Francisco Lindor, Josh Bell and Tommy Edman.
And there are plenty more hitters on the way. Since Franco received a $3.8 million signing bonus as the 2017 International Class MVP, several other hitters have also signed for huge bonuses.
In fact, the two highest bounties in the 2019 class — both over $5 million — went to switch-hitters Yankees outfielder Jasson Dominguez and track and field shortstop Robert Puason. Dominguez in particular took the perspective (and trading card) assault world.
Additionally, two of the best players in this year’s international signing class — Washington Nationals outfielder Cristian Vaquero ($4.9 million signing bonus) and Yankees shortstop Roderick Arias ($4 million signing bonus) — are hitters, with Vaquero becoming a switch hitter only recently, having mostly worked for teams using his left-handed swing.
the run after that? It includes another switch shortstop in Felnin Celesten, who is should sign with the Mariners.
On the national side, the 2022 MLB Draft is also littered with hitters. Two of best college hitters bat on both sides: shortstop Cal Poly Brooks Lee and LSU outfielder Jacob Berry. Lee could be in the mix to become the Orioles’ No. 1 overall. Among the players in the prep position, infielder Tucker Toman of Hammond High School in South Carolina is another hitter who could make the first round in July. (Interestingly, Arizona catcher Daniel Susac, who is also part of the college batting elite, came to campus as a hitter but has recently focused on hitting right-handed. is perhaps a point in the Mullins category?)
Last, and not to forget, baseball’s top prospect entering the 2022 season was Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman, a hard-hitting receiver with elite offensive potential who was the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft. His MLB debut is set to arrive. soon.
Like I said, there are a lot more hitters out there.
So what’s it gonna be? Will Franco’s rise reinvigorate the art of the switch like Mantle did 70 years ago? Or will Mullins’ choice to go to his stronger side convince the others that maybe the switch isn’t the way to go?
I sure hope it’s the first, and that switch-banging gets a revival rather than becoming a lost art.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He lives in DC but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t sleep much. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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