Heading to the Giants game tonight made me think of baseball’s most interesting players, the switch hitters. One of the very first switch hitting players I enjoyed watching was Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. The idea for switch hitting comes from the fact that a hitter can hit right-handed against a lefty and left-handed against a righty pitcher. The advantage comes from having the curve ball break into the hitting zone versus breaking across the hitter’s body into the strike zone.
Despite this, some players are “natural” righties or lefties, and consequently hit better from that side. In Mantle’s case, he considered himself a better right-handed hitter, but obviously hit more home runs left-handed (more pitchers are right-handed, Stewie!!!). But injured Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval is a better left-handed hitter, though he is right-handed. The Giants also have switch hitters in Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Hector Sanchez, and Emmanuel Burriss. Most switch hitters have been right-handed throwers. Melky is a smooth and graceful lefty, like me!
Even stranger, is the switch hitting pitcher, even though pitchers are such notoriously bad hitters. Rarer still is the switch pitcher, one who can throw with either the left or right hand. I can see already there would be a problem finding a glove that would deal with this ambidexterity. I can see that this type of pitcher might have some real identity issues! Or at least, he would have trouble trying to figure out his “right” brain.
In 1986, a natural righty, Greg A. Harris, was the last pitcher to pitch with both hands (arms) in modern baseball. On September 28, 1995, he was playing for the Montreal Expos, and opposed by the Cincinnati Reds. He retired Reggie Sanders while pitching right-handed. He switched to his left hand for the next two left-handed hitting batters, Hal Morris and Eddie Taubensee. Harris walked Morris but got Taubensee to ground out. Everyone on the field must have been doubled over in laughter. He then went back to his right-handed pitching and got Bret Boone out to end the inning.
Currently, the only player in organized baseball who does this is Pat Venditte, who plays for the Yankees minor league team in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Also, the Japanese phenom, Yu Darvish, throws with his left hand to keep himself “balanced.” He has not pitched a game left-handed, yet.
And who have been the best switch hitters of all time? I would say, for power, Mickey Mantle, and for the most base hits, the hit king himself, Pete Rose. Currently, I would say it is Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves, although Pablo Sandoval of the Giants will soon be the big switch hitting star, since he has more power than Chipper. Besides, Chipper is a kind of weenie name for a baseball player. Why don’t people name their kids Yogi, or Butch anymore?
Pablo’s teammate, Melky Cabrera could supplant Chipper if he continues his hot hitting streak for the rest of the season. In fact, in the month of May alone, he had 51 hits, or about two hits per game. Totally unreal. But to top it off, he has been superb in the outfield, with numerous assists in game-saving situations. That in fact, is a lost art these days. Nobody seems to even try to throw anyone out anymore.
Besides Mantle, the other players who switch hit and belong to Baseball’s Hall of Fame are: Eddie Murray, George Davis, Frankie Frisch, Ozzie Smith, Red Schoendienst, and Mac Carey. The very first switch hitter admitted to the Hall of Fame was Frisch, who played for the Cardinals and Giants.
But I wonder if switch hitting results in a real statistical advantage? Only two of the top 100 career batting averages belong to switch hitters. But the argument might be that, without switching, the player may not have reached the major leagues at all! Frankie Frisch with a .316 batting average ranks 53rd all time. The next best is the still active Chipper Jones at No. 98, with a .306 batting average. A total of 15% of today’s players are switch hitters.
A real oddity was last September in Boston. When the Red Sox activated catcher Jason Varitek from the disabled list, it gave them THREE switch hitting catchers. the other two were: Victor Martinez, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Yet, they were the third team since 1900 to have three switch hitting catchers. Strange but true!
So, anyway, just for jollies, here are the ten best of all time:
10. Chili Davis-OF, who started with the Giants and hit over 20 HRs ten times. He was an excellent all around players as well. He might have been as good as Bobby Bonds in his prime!
9. Lance Berkman-1B, has hot over 40 home runs twice and over 100 RBIs six times in his career. He always seemed to be a bigger, slower type of player, not much defensively, but a weapon at the plate.
8. George Davis-SS, an old-timer, a .300 hitter who once drove in 136 RBIs in a season.
7. Bernie Williams-OF, with the NY Yankees, batted over .300 8 times, over 20 HRs 7 times and 100 RBIs 5 times. He was also a very good defensive player, and speedy on the base paths.
6. Frankie Frisch-2B, batted over .300 13 times, over 100 RBIs 3 times, and over 200 hits 3 times.
5. Roberto Alomar-2B, batted over .300 7 times, over 100 RBIs twice, and over 20 HRs 3 times.
4. Pete Rose-several positions, the all time hit king, with 3 batting titles, over .300 15 times, over 200 hits 10 times, and one MVP Award. It may take generations of loyal baseball fans to give him proper recognition into the Hall of Fame. I have actually seen him in Vegas, still trying to sell autographs at a little memorabilia store at Caesars’ Forum Shops.
3. Eddie Murray-1B, hit over .300 7 times, over 20 HRs 16 times, over 100 RBIs 6 times, Hall of Famer in 2003. He was never very impressive, just a day-to-day type of player, whose consistency and longevity served him well.
2. Chipper Jones-3B, one MVP, one batting title, versatile player, over .300 10 times, over 30 HRs 6 times, and over 100 RBIs 9 times. Playing in Hotlanta never helps either. A sure-fire Hall of Famer when he retires.
Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in the magical 1961 season
1. Mickey Mantle-CF, the prototype for a switch hitter, power and speed. He won 3 MVPs, one Triple Crown, over .300 ten times, over 50 HRs twice, over 40 HRs twice, over 100 RBIs 4 times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974. He was certainly the most colorful switch hitter, and always brought excitement to the ballpark. Sadly, his life slowly spiraled downhill, after years of drinking, a controversial liver transplant, and tragedy in his family. But he was still my favorite player when I was growing up.