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February 3, 2014

Overthinking It

Searching for Switch-Hitters Who Shouldn't Switch-Hit

by Ben Lindbergh


Every so often, someone asks me whether there are any switch-hitters who are making a mistake by batting from both sides, or whether a particular hitter would be better off picking and sticking to one side of the plate. There are two reasons, I think, why the question comes up even though there have been BP pieces about it before, and despite the fact very few players have ever stopped switch-hitting after making the majors.

The first is that switch-hitting is inherently interesting to those of us who can barely button a button with our non-dominant hand. Hitting baseballs thrown by big-league pitchers, we’re told, is one of the toughest tasks in sports. Switch-hitters can do it not only from the side of the plate where we look at least a little coordinated, but also from the side where we look like Hunter Pence. There are mutants in the X-Mansion with less impressive powers (like Longneck).

The second is that the subject feeds our need to find inefficiencies. We like to come up with ways in which a team or a player could add wins without paying what they’re worth. What could be more inefficient than a hitter who actively hurts himself by batting from his weaker side? And what could possibly cost less to correct? The idea’s allure makes us sound like those ads you sometimes see on sidebars: Hey, struggling switch-hitter—become a better batter by using this one weird trick!

So do these self-destructive switch-hitters we’re seeking actually exist? Probably, but finding and fixing them isn’t as easy as looking up the players with the largest platoon splits and telling them to hit from their stronger side.

For one thing, it takes time for platoon splits to stabilize. How much time? For switch-hitters, about 600 plate appearances vs. left-handed pitching, according to the authors of The Book. That’s about three full seasons, and even then you have to regress the observed split ratio 50 percent toward the league-average split ratio to get an accurate estimate of the switch-hitter’s true platoon talent.

For another, we can’t assume that if a switch-hitter were to stop switch-hitting, he’d immediately (or even eventually) have a league-average split from the left or right side. Some switch-hitters haven’t faced same-side pitching since PONY League, and all of them have thrived enough as switch-hitters to make it to the majors, which understandably makes them reluctant to stop. Both physically and mentally, it’s a difficult adjustment to make, and no team wants to pay for an adjustment period—not even if it starts during the offseason or spring training, since it’s so hard to say how long it might last.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Baseball Therapy: How ... (02/03)
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Overthinking It: Polli... (01/29)
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Premium Article Overthinking It: Parsi... (02/04)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Prospects Will Break Y... (02/03)

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