There was an article today in the Plain Dealer about the difficulty Nick Swisher is having with his shoulder when he bats left-handed. I looked at his stats and the difference is striking. For most of his career Swisher has been pretty much equally adept from both sides of the plate, but his year he has awful from the left side. Since most of his at bats come left-handed, that has dragged down his overall stats badly.
So that raises the question: why not just bat right-handed? As a right hander Swisher has an OPS of .847, which is right in line with his career mark. Now we would expect that if he suddenly began facing right-handed pitchers from the right side of the plate he would not fare as well as he does facing lefties from that side, but he is slugging .355 from the left side, so how much worse could he be?
The only guys I can recall who actually bucked conventional wisdom on this were Omar Vizquel and Carlos Baerga. Omar was generally terrible as a right-handed hitter, but in 1998 and 1999 he was actually better hitting right-handed, and in those two years he batted right-handed against right handed pitchers a total of 34 times. I also recall Baerga would often bat left-handed against Randy Johnson, although I don’t remember it ever working.
The Indians’ other two switch hitters, Asdrubel Cabrera and Carlos Santana, both have OPS splits of more than 100 points. Santana has been significantly better hitting right-handed throughout his career, while Cabrera’s awful performance hitting right-handed this year is an anomaly. Still, in both cases I wonder if there is as much benefit gained from switch hitting as conventional wisdom tells us. The main benefit is that opposing managers cannot manipulate their bullpen to optimize matchups if the hitter has no disadvantage from either side of the plate. But I assume other managers have access to the same information I just looked up, and if they can figure out that Cabrera has an OPS of .600 hitting right-handed, do the Indians gain any strategic advantage?
So there are two questions here? First, if Cabrera is facing a good lefthander at some point in tonight’s game, should he just hit left-handed? Well, the guy is hitting .181 since the first of July, so we are past the slump category and moving into just generally sucking. I would think that when a guy is trying to figure out what is going wrong, it would be easier to fix one thing at a time. Even in this most recent downturn, Cabrera’s left-handed at bats have looked more solid than his right-handed at bats, which have featured a lot of awkward looking swings and lunging at pitches out of the strike zone. I think it may be easier to get out of this slump if he simplifies his approach and sticks to what is most comfortable. The same goes for Swisher, who apparently feels less pain hitting right-handed. That’s a tougher call, because Swisher would be surrendering his platoon advantage more often that Cabrera would, but his numbers indicate that he is just not able to make good contact hitting left handed, so it would be worth a try.
The other question is more long-term: is switch hitting as big an advantage as it is made out to be? Well, I looked at the top ten switch hitters in terms of current OPS. You would think that these are the guys who have it together and are deriving the greatest benefit from switch hitting. Eight of the ten had OPS differentials of at least 97 points. Four were over two hundred points. As a point of comparison, Drew Stubbs, supposedly the poster child for platoon differentials, has an OPS differential of 188 points.
So I have to ask: hitting a baseball travelling over ninety miles an hour requires exquisite timing and perfect mechanics. Given the time and effort that it takes to hone that timing and mechanics, is it really beneficial to try to do it two different ways? The answer seems to be that only a few guys really have the natural ability to be equally adept hitting both ways, and the rest are gaining only minimal benefit, and may even be hurting their overall performance.