Growing up in New York I began a love affair with baseball that has not stopped. There were a combination of influences. My grandfather was a huge baseball fan. He lived and died first with the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Mets. I was at his apartment in Brooklyn every Sunday either watching games on television or going to games with him. My older brother Howie played baseball every living minute and included me in a lot of his games with his friends. Then there was Mickey Mantle. This icon was it for me. He could do no wrong in my eyes as I tried to emulate everything he did from his batting stance to the way he walked and talked. Mickey Mantle is considered the greatest switch hitter to ever play in the major leagues. In my youth I would head to Yankee Stadium from Westchester taking the number 20 bus then the number 4 train to the “House That Ruth Built.” Unlike my friends, I arrived early just to watch Mickey in batting practice. Back then players took a lot more repetitions than today. Mickey used to park balls in the upper deck both lefty and righty like you and I drink a cup of coffee.
Mickey Mantle’s switch hitting was great to watch but are we seeing a skill that is dying a slow death in Major League Baseball? After Mickey Mantle, names such as Pete Rose, Eddie Murray, Tim Raines and Chipper Jones all batted from both sides of the plate. In 1992, 19.9% MLB plate appearances were by switch hitters. In 2018 the number went down to 13.5%. And today I’m sure it is lower.
The benefits of switch hitting stems from the idea that batters can pick up the ball earlier from the pitcher’s release point and they have a better chance of hitting a breaking ball. What is fascinating is that some switch hitters have said if they could do it all over again they would concentrate on hitting from only one side. Even with analytics being so influential, players feel it is so much work that they would rather devote 100% to batting one way than 50% to batting both ways. Former Astros player Lance Berkman has said that if he could do it all over again he would not be a switch hitter. Utility switch hitting infielder Andrew Romine has said the same thing. But I think just the opposite, and switch hitting can create careers for some players that wouldn’t have made it to the major leagues.
When Baltimore Oriole Hall of Fame player Eddie Murray was in the minor leagues he struggled as a right handed hitter for months when he first started. The organization knew he was one of the most talented players they ever signed. Most of the Oriole hierarchy knew he would eventually come out of this slump though some thought differently. He was playing in Asheville, North Carolina and his manager at the time was Jimmie Schaffer. Schaffer suggested to Murray that he try batting leftie and experiment with switch-hitting to overcome this prolonged slump. The Oriole officials in Baltimore were so incensed they went down to Asheville wanting to stop this mad experiment by Schaffer and Murray. But Eddie Murray convinced the executives it was worth trying. Eddie Murray is the only switch hitter to have hit 500 home runs along with 3,000 hits. What if Murray didn’t listen to his manager and continued his struggles? We may never have seen a wonderful skilled player like Eddie Murray.
Maybe switch hitting is stagnating some growth of players but can it be something that can open the doors for others. I speak to scouts and every year when I ask them what they are looking for they tell me the same thing:
1) Leftie Pitchers
2) Defensive catchers
3) Leftie Contact Hitters.
Switch hitting may open the door for some players that may never have had the opportunity to succeed. In youth baseball, coaches are more concerned with wins than developing or expanding a player’s skill such as switch hitting or having a player pitch for the first time. Winning trumps all today in youth sports. One coach who I admire, thinks switch hitting is a waste of time. He gives stats about how none of the top 50 major league all time hitters are switch hitters. In his defense he says that all batters should learn how to bat leftie and only bat that way 100% of the time. I don’t really agree with him and am still of the opinion that switch hitting may open an opportunity for some players.
How do you approach teaching switch hitting? First off I would start a player very young at 9,10 or 11. Batting tee work is a key with a lot of repetitions from both sides of the plate. Also doing the short toss drill is important. The goal is to have the player feel comfortable from both sides of the plate. If and when he gets to that point, I would take the next step. I would tell his coach what you are doing and suggest if your son or daughter is making progress practicing, you’d like him to try and bat his opposite way sometime during the season. As your player gets older, if he is in demand for travel teams, I’d tell the coaches that he won’t play unless he is able to switch hit. Explain to them what you have been doing and the progress you have made. But as a parent you have to be objective and you don’t want to put him into a position to fail. No doubt learning to switch hit will take extra work but it can be worth it for some.
I know how major league baseball has become specialized. Things such as platooning batters, and using certain relief pitchers for different players are here to stay. The defensive shift has become a regular strategy in every baseball game. Analytics is a lot more than the flavor of the month and is a permanent fixture of the game. I just think if you are a parent who knows something about baseball, switch hitting may be an opportunity for your son or daughter. But you have to be realistic and know when to call the experiment off. All I know is I saw Mickey Mantle hit mammoth home runs from both sides of the plate. And Pete Rose who has the career record for hits batted .307 from the left side and .293 from the right side. I’d sign up for either one any day of the week!
Marty Schupak has coached youth sports for 25 years. He has written 11 books and produced 26 sports instructional videos. His is the founder of T-Ball America.
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