September 3, 2010
Checking the Numbers
Who is the Best Switch-Hitter?
When Chipper Jones hit the disabled list following a spectacular play in the field, the biggest question was not when he would return, but if he would continue his career. If he decides to hang up his cleats when the Braves' season comes to a close, baseball would bid adieu to one of the best switch-hitters of all time.
In his career, Jones has faced righties while batting from the left side 7,078 times, hitting .306/.409/.547. When southpaws toe the rubber he has shifted gears 2,576 times, producing a slash line of .306/.395/.508. Sure, he has handled righties slightly better, but he is markedly above average from both sides of the plate.
Switch-hitting is incredibly tough to do, and the level of difficulty associated with switch-hitting is a major reason for the dearth of such players. In fact, from 1974-2009, there were only 227 batters to tally 100 or more plate appearances from both sides of the plate in at least one season. The small number makes sense, especially in this day and age, when there is such a push toward role specialization; players who perhaps would have been given the chance to try their hands at switch-hitting begin focusing their efforts on the stronger side.
The benefits of switch-hitting are simple. First, the player helps neutralize any type of platoon advantage for the opposition. Second, the player saves a roster spot for his team by forming his own platoon. To illustrate the advantage, here are the raw True Average breakdowns from 2005-09 for each of the batter-pitcher matchups (raw TAv is the version of true average that isn't scaled to batting average, and is basically similar to OPS):
Opposite-handed matchups produced similar results, but the effect of a lefty specialist is undeniable here. Largely due to the fact that righties account for almost 75 percent of the plate appearances in a major league season, righty hitters become more immune to the effects of facing same-handed pitchers. For this reason, when judging how a hitter has performed in a platoon split, it is important to compare his numbers with the league average of that split. But even with the self-platoon benefit, switch-hitters can struggle from one side of the plate. If these hitters persistently struggle against one side of the plate, I call them SHINOs: "switch hitters in name only."
I wrote about SHINOs here, attempting to identify the switch-hitters who really should have stuck with one side of the plate. But, what about the opposite? Which switch-hitters have shown the lowest career differential in their platoon TAv marks? Below are the lowest absolute value differentials between raw TAv against righties and raw TAv against lefties for switch-hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances from both sides of the plate. Note that some of the numbers don't completely correspond to career platoon splits due to some games missing from the pre-1974 Retrosheet files as well as some PAs against same-handed pitching; many switch-hitters don't switch against knucklerballers, for instance.
What should immediately stick out like a sore thumb is the inclusion of Mini-Sarge. While Matthews was certainly consistent from both sides of the plate, he couldn't hit from either, which goes to show why looking only at the differential in performance from both sides will not allow us to identify the best switch-hitters. Such an exercise tells us who has been consistent, but does it really matter if someone is equally awful from both sides of the plate?
Restricting the sample to those with raw TAv marks greater than or equal to .800 against both sides, and including the previous PA filter, here are the best switch-hitters who were also consistent as lefties and righties:
There were only 19 total players who satisfied both of these criteria, and after this top 10, the names Victor Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Chipper Jones, Bernie Williams, Milton Bradley and Lance Berkman surface, and this doesn't even include pre-Retrosheet players like Mickey Mantle. As the deltas in both tables indicate, there is a difference between consistency and effectiveness, and when they cross paths we still might not be able to identify the best switch-hitter. Then again, perhaps we are phrasing the question incorrectly. Perhaps being the best switch-hitter is different from being the best hitter who happens to switch, if that makes sense.
In other words, maybe Ken Caminiti and Jose Vidro are the best switch-hitters over the past several decades because they were not vulnerable from a specific side and were also very solid. Someone like Mark Teixeira might be the best hitter who happens to switch since his TAv numbers are fantastic against each side even if his consistency is lower than the other two players. Either way, switch-hitting is incredibly difficult, and in order to determine how someone is faring from both sides of the plate, we must compare his self-delta with the deltas of the league in the appropriate context.
For example, if the raw TAv marks for Teixeira are .928 against lefties and .919 against righties, and the league average marks for RHB-LHP and LHB-RHP are both .794, then T-Rex has a bigger platoon split, but he is far and away better than the average, mitigating the split in the process. It is a two-pronged approach, but one that must be taken to get accurate results. So let me pose the question to you: Who is the best switch-hitter over the past several decades? And do you consider the best switch-hitter to be the player with the lowest split? Or simply the best hitter who happens to switch?
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .