The Greatest Switch-Hitters in MLB History

Near the beginning of last night’s World Series Game Four, which ended up being the Greatest Game in World Series History Pitched by a 14-year old, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were discussing Lance Berkman, specifically his status as one of the most productive switch-hitters in major-league history. Now, I usually believe everything people on TV say. For example, when Tim McCarver asserts, as he has during this season’s Fall Classic, that “Michael Young didn’t complain” when asked to change positions for Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre, or that “Tony La Russa doesn’t lie,” I just take it at face value. However, while I agree that Berkman is and has been an excellent player who may have even have Hall of Fame credentials, I thought I should both trust and verify. How does Berkman compare to the other great switch-hitters in major-league history, and who exactly are they?

Let me begin (as usual) with a round of qualifications. First, I will mostly be using an objective method (based on linear weights) to rank the switch-hitters. There are other ways one could do it, of course, using eyewitness testimony, and things like that, but this is just a basic look using a particular kind of statistic. I think it’s pretty close to the best way to do this sort of thing (with the qualifications noted here), but it is not the only way. The second qualification is related — while I believe that linear weights (here implemented as in the form of wOBA, wRAA and related metrics) are, in principle, the best way we currently have to measure individual offense, the further back in major league history one gets from the 1950s, the less applicable they are due to the lack of play-by-play data for those periods. I do not think that it is a big problem in this particular case, but it is worth noting.

Finally, I have chosen to qualify this as the “Greatest Switch-Hitters in MLB History” because we do not currently have the data set up to incorporate an important group of players, some of which probably would have made this list if we did: players from the Negro Leagues. That situation is changing, of course. I am no expert on the Negro Leagues, but until the data it is fully up, running, and analyzed by people smarter than me, I will have to call lists like this “MLB History” and simply note that players like James “Cool Papa” Bell (considered by many to be the greatest switch-hitter in the Negro Leagues) and Raleigh “Biz” Mackey (perhaps the greatest defensive catcher in the Leagues, and compared favorably overall to Josh Gibson by some of their contemporaries) would likely be high up on this list given more comprehensive coverage.

[By the way, the Negro Leagues Museum is having an important pledge drive in honor of Buck O'Neil's 100th birthday. To learn more about how you can help preserve a very important piece of American sports history, click here.]

The method: I am not listing these players by their overall value as measured by WAR — you can look that up on their player pages quickly enough. The issues is how the greatest switch-hitters compare to each other. Comparing across eras is difficult enough, and I have not made every adjustment (e.g., relative league difficulty), but there are some simple things that will improve the comparison. As noted above, the basis for the rankings is park-adjusted linear weights (the “Batting” line on the player pages and leaderboards — that is just park-adjusted wRAA), which gives us an adjusted number of runs the hitter created relative to the average player during the seasons the player played in. However, I have gone a step further and converted those runs to wins to reflect that the value of a run differs from season-to-season depending on the run environment. Obviously, in 1968, when the league RA was 3.42, each run was more valuable than in 1998, when the league RA was 4.79. That makes a significant difference. (Runs-to-wins conversion is done for player WAR, here I am simply doing it for the relevant component for this piece — batting).

The top switch-hitter of all-time is not a surprise, but sizing up players three through six requires a bit of judgment… Before that, here are the ranks of some of the top 50 switch-hitters, presented without comment: Milton Bradley (#49, 9.4 batting wins), Bill Mueller (#46, 8.7 batting wins), Jose Reyes (#41, 9.6 batting wins), Nick Swisher (#40, 10.6 batting wins), Ken Caminiti (#31, 14.4 batting wins), Mark Teixeira (#15, 26.0 batting wins), Carlos Beltran (#13, 26.9 batting wins), Roberto Alomar (#11, 31.2 batting wins), Bernie Williams (#10, 31.4 batting wins).

And now what I think is the interesting part, the top six, or, more specifically, numbers three through six. Here are three through six in ascending order of batting wins:

Lance Berkman, 47.2
Tim Raines, 47.6
Eddie Murray, 48.8
Pete Rose 48.9

Numerically the order is clear, but the difference between Berkman and Rose is less than two wins — which is very little over a lengthy career. As has been discussed here before, these sorts of close comparisons can be made a bit better by comparing peak value. To do this, I looked at both their top five and top three seasons. Even then the fifth spot was hard to decide using merely “objective” criteria, and I waffled out of a real decision.

5b. Eddie Murray, 48.8 career batting wins, 128 wRC+, 12817 PA
Top Five: 22.9
Top Three: 14.3

5a. Pete Rose, 48.9 career batting wins
Top Five: 22.9
Top Three: 14.7

Murray and Rose are still so close when their peak seasons are compared that I could not make a decision, so I took the coward’s way out and gave them 5b and 5a. Rose’s slightly-higher Top Three just is not enough for me to do otherwise. This best season (5.3 in 1969) is better than Murray’s best (4.8 in 1984), but Murray’s second- and fourth-best are better than Rose’s, and they are tied otherwise. Murray has the higher career wRC+, but one could argue that Rose’s was dragged down by his extended decline seasons, something that really should not count against him in a measure of “greatness.” On the other hand, should Rose get extra credit for blatantly extending his career past its natural limits in search of the all-time hits record? I will admit I am not a big Pete Rose fan, to say the least. Do not get me wrong — I think he should be in the Hall of Fame, if for no other reason than it should cut down on the periodic “Pete Rose as Victim” outbreaks. It is worth noting that the conversion from runs-to-wins helped Rose more than any others in numbers three through six.

4. Tim Raines, 47.6 career batting wins, 134 wRC+, 10359 PA
Top Five: 24.8
Top Three: 15.5

I am sure some people are thinking, “oh, great, another stat nerd babbling about Tim Raines.” While I think Raines was a great player and should be in the Hall of Fame, you will have to take my word that I was a bit surprised he was this high among the switch-hitters. The numbers bear it out though — Raines’ best offensive seasons are better than any of Murray’s, his best was just as good as Rose’s, and his second-, third-and fourth-best seasons are better than anything else Rose produced. If that isn’t enough to convince you, keep in mind that Rose’s career lead of a little over one win came in about 5000 more plate appearances. Rose had the better overall career, but I do think Raines has a slight edge as a hitter.

3. Lance Berkman, 47.2 career batting wins, 146 wRC+, 7423 PA
Top Five: 26.6
Top Three: 16.8

…and finally, the man whose presence in the ongoing World Series led to a comment that inspired this post (whew!). Even if his career totals do not match up to those below him, keep in mind that this season it became pretty clear that even if Berkman is removed from his prime, he will probably still be a ways above average for a couple more seasons, at least. His best two seasons (5.9 in 2001 and 5.6 in 2004) are better than anything done by a player below him on the list. I just wish someone would put him in center field again.

And now the top two MLB switch-hitters of all-time:

2. Chipper Jones, 59.7 career batting wins, 143 wRC+, 10166 PA
Top Five: 27.6
Top Three: 17.5

When McCarver (rightly) mentioned Berkman as one of the greatest switch-hitters of all-time other than the guy at #1, I was sort of surprised Jones was not mentioned (at least I do not recall hearing it). I will admit that on a subjective level, I am not a a Chipper Jones “fan.” Nothing says “veteran leadership” like Jones, who has not appeared in 150 or more games in a season since 2003, and more than 140 only once during that period, telling Jason Heyward he needs to toughen up and play through minor injuries. But that is a personal bias — Jones is one of the most underrated active hitters in the league. No, he is not on the same level as an overall third baseman as Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Mathews, or Wade Boggs, but he is a no-doubt Hall of Famer who will probably be able to roll out of his bed, get his walker, and OBP over .350 when he is in his seventies. Jones is one of the best hitters of his generation, and easily the second-best switch-hitter in major league history, barring Berkman somehow repeating his 2011 a few more times. Jones’ best offensive season, 1999, was 6.6 wins, and is clearly superior to anything done by anyone below him on this list.

1. Mickey Mantle 96.8 career batting wins
Top Five: 42.8
Top Three: 28.0

Surprise! What is there to say about the Mickster you have not already heard a billion times before from the likes of Bob Costas, Grumpy Old Man in Disguise? I wonder if a kid with Mantle’s power would be taught to switch-hit these days. Just one comment for perspective: Mantle’s fifth-best offensive season (7.0 wins in 1955) was better than Jones’ best.

Let the arguments begin!




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


51 Responses to “The Greatest Switch-Hitters in MLB History”

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  1. Louis says:

    CHIPPPAHHHH

    Totally underrated.

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    • Louis says:

      ie he is 35th all time in WAR (for hitters) and basically tied with Sir Albert.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        Counting-stats don’t really work when one player has played 40% more games than the other.

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      • Louis says:

        I know that! C’mon.

        Everyone just constantly talks about how if Pujols retired this year that he would still be a slam dunk HOF ‘one of the best players ever’. And Chipper is never really discussed in that manner.

        I think Pujols will go down as one of the 5 best of all time.

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      • Louis says:

        Also you’re probably just some Yankees troll that’s mad that Chipper is a better player than Jeter.

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      • max says:

        You’re still not making sense. People say that because Pujols has acquired his stats (as you point out, tied with Chipper in WAR at a much earlier point in his career) in such a short period of time. Chipper isn’t discussed in that manner because he’s not top 5 all-time. He’s damn good, but he’s no Pujols.

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      • DCN says:

        Also the discussion is “if Chipper Jones retires today” not some purely hypothetical “if Chipper Jones retired today.”

        But all that said… that dude can rake.

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  2. wobatus says:

    Where did Frankie Frisch place on the list?

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  3. drewgggg says:

    Tim Raines is a switch hitter, but he was so good that he chose to hit righty against RH pitching anyway.

    #ChuckNorris

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  4. Telo says:

    Such a tasty, non steroid inflated, career line .296/.409/.545

    Gotta love a pure, unadulterated batsman. Rooting hard for the Rangers, but it’s hard not to pull for a guy like Berkman, too.

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  5. Mitch says:

    Ken Singleton

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  6. Mitch says:

    Reggie Smith

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  7. Jobu says:

    Never thought of Berkman as an all-time great switch-hitter because the difference in his strokes is so pronounced. I think there’s a case he might be better off hitting exclusively lefty.

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    • deadpool says:

      That’s my question too. Shouldn’t evenness between hands make a difference in a discussion of switch hitters? I’d like to see the the splits for all the guys on the list though, just eyeballing it I’d be surprised if the splits didn’t bear the list out pretty well except for Berkman.

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      • DCN says:

        He’s a great left-handed hitter against righties who I suspect had weaknesses against lefties in his LH approach, because it’s fairly common for lefties (I mean check those Ryan Howard splits).

        All the top 6 had better OPS as lefties except for Mantle.

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  8. joser says:

    I was kind of hoping/expecting to see this broken down by handedness — which switch hitters were the best batting lefty? Which batting righty? (Or, almost but not exactly the same question: which were best against LHP or RHP?)

    And the thing I frequently wonder about (because it’s hard to determine without some real detective work) which are the best using their “natural” handedness, and which are the best when (or despite) hitting with their “unnatural” handedness?

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    • Rob says:

      I think I remember an article on Fangraphs at some point in the past year that broke down all-time switch hitters by handedness, and specifically how big of a gap they had between batting right or left handed.

      And if I’m not mistaken, the premise of the article was judging whether or not Berkman should be considered a great “switch” hitter, based on his splits with the Yankees last year. Sweet irony!

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    • JT Grace says:

      Interestingly enough, Chipper has a career BA of .304 against both RHP and LHP. He truly is one of the greatest switch hitters of all time.

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  9. tyke says:

    Am I unable to read, or does it look like you have Berkman 3rd, even though he should be 6th?

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    • David says:

      Berkman IS listed third. Because the total differences between 3-6 were not statistically significant, the author chose to re-order those four players to give greater weight to peak value. Since Berkman had the best peak performance of the four, he got preference.

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  10. IvanGrushenko says:

    Where did Joaquin Andujar rank?

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  11. max says:

    Klaa – Part of this analysis should include L/R splits. Did switch hitter X put up great numbers because he was amazing one way and pretty good the other way?

    In other words, who was the best at hitting from his “worse” side of the plate?

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  12. Hurtlocker says:

    Mickey Mantle’s 1956 season is one of the top five hitting seasons in the history of baseball. Based on that season alone he certainly was the most talented switch hitter of all time.

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  13. UmYeah says:

    Wouldn’t Tim Raines’ gaudy SB/CS #’s contribute quite a bit more to his career wRAA, wOBA, etc. than anybody else on this list? And while that facet of his skillset obviously has a ton of offensive value, isn’t it a bit unfair to represent it when talking purely about value derived from hitting? Unless wOBA here on FG doesn’t include SB/CS (anymore?), in which case, my apologies.

    Other than that, great article.

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    • Phantom Stranger says:

      I also am not seeing the point of including stolen base value. Being lefty does not affect how many bases you steal for instance.

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  14. John Franco says:

    So, going strictly by hitting, which is what Berkman does best… Raines still has more batting value? And yet Berkman ranks ahead of Raines? Berkman has a slight edge in top-5 and a little bigger edge in top 3, but I’m taking his defense and base-running anyway.

    But yeah, Chippah is #2 for me and it’s not tough.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      The article is about their merits as a hitter, not their merits as an overall ballplayer. Defense and base-running are irrelevant.

      I think the takeaway is that Berkman’s bat was better in his Top-3 and Top-5 years. Even though they were essentially equivalent on a career level, Berkman accomplished his #’s in about 2/3 the number of plate appearances. It’s not a stretch to say that Berkman was a better switch hitter.

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  15. jim says:

    fun things this article did:

    1. made me remember that robbie alomar was a switch-hitter
    2. made me contemplate how far ahead of everyone else mantle was going to be

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  16. jpg says:

    I wonder if Cubs fans would have treated Milton Bradley a differently if they had know he was one of the 50 Greatest Swith Hitters Ever.

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  17. Atari says:

    Surprised by two things (please take into account I am a young guy so these numbers give me a much better historical perspective):

    Tim Raines – Didn’t realize Raines was this good. Anecdotally I just got the sense he was more of the Hall of Very Good variety than an underrated HOF worthy type player. Raines should be given his due.

    Mickey Mantle – Boy was he on another level or what!!! He is honestly on a tier by himself. No wonder the old-timers speak in such awe about the guy. Would like to have experienced that kind of greatness. I can just imagine what it was like with Mantle, Mays and the Duke playing in the same vicinity at the same time. Magical time for baseball.

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    • Agreed says:

      Must have been a joy to watch Mantle play.

      On a similar note, I always wonder what it was like to see the Yankees teams from 1926 to 1931. It was like having juiced up Barry Bonds (but better) in Babe Ruth and a prime years Albert Pujols (but slightly better) in Lou Gehrig batting back-to-back. Not to mention Combs, Lazeri, etc. in the lineup for good measure.

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      • Hurtlocker says:

        The sad part about Mantle is he was injured relatively early in his career and still had monster numbers before his knees gave out.

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      • Bryan says:

        I’m not sure Ruth and Gehrig were “better” than Bonds and Pujols. They stood out more in relation to their peers, so you might expect them to dominate more as teammates, but as entertainment value goes, give me Bonds and Pujols against modern pitching.

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  18. Bad Bill says:

    Out of curiosity, where’s Ted Simmons on this list?

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  19. Andrew says:

    In what way is Jones not on the same level as Boggs or Brett? He’s less than 4 WAR short of Brett and around 7 WAR short of Boggs, and he’s still a very good hitter who knows how to get on base and will be productive for as long as his health permits him to play. When he retires, I think he’ll easily be among the group of great third basemen you mentioned. Also, he has exactly 1561 runs and 1561 RBI. Those numbers probably won’t be equal when he retires, but I’m betting he has the most R/RBI of any player with the same career total in both.

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  20. Nitram Odarp says:

    Random question, but why is Chipper not on the same level as Brett as an overall 3B? Chipper is within ~4 WAR despite having played ~2 fewer seasons at this point, and he’s also played ~200 more games at 3B. Do we really not believe that Chipper could put up ~4 WAR if he went over to the AL and DHed the next 2 seasons?

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    • Ben Hall says:

      I would say it’s because of their peaks. Boggs had 6 8+ WAR seasons. Brett had 3. Chipper had 0. There’s obviously more detail than that, but that’s the essence to me.

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  21. BlackOps says:

    How about Carlos Beltran?

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  22. jpg says:

    @Atari- I’ve lived here in NYC my whole life and its true. It was a magical. The stories surrounding the three of them are endless.

    One other thing that surprised me is the paucity of elite switch hitters over the years. Mantle being #1 was obvious, but as great as Chipper’s career has been, I would have never imagined he’d be #2. The fact that guys like Bill Mueller and Milton Bradley are in the top 50 amongst switch hitters, by any measure, is stunning to me. That Jose Reyes, who isn’t even 30 years old yet, is already #41 on list. Perhaps developing elite switch hitters is the next true market inefficiency that needs to be exploited.

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  23. jpg says:

    Also Matt, great article but could you post the complete list? I think a lot of us would be interested. If not, can you at least humor me (a Mets fan/glutton for punishment) by posting Bobby Bonilla’s place on the list. Thanks

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  24. james wilson says:

    It makes sense to consider who hammers lefties and righties equally, but not what side of the plate they cower on to avoid the experience of a breaking pitch coming at them. It’s like asking who is the best shot without return fire. I will always admire the otherwise contemptible Bonds because he had no fear of lefties.

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    • AdamM says:

      Actually, switch hitters ALWAYS experience breaking pitches coming at them.

      And Bonds wore armour to protect himself.

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  25. JT Grace says:

    Great article. I agree that Chipper is one of the most underrated players in baseball. If he played for a major market like New York or Boston he would be considered a superstar. Brian McCann could also be placed in this same category. It’s sad that a player’s legacy is often determined what team he plays for.

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    • Scott says:

      It’s ok Chipper Jones is considered a god in the south, along with Dale Murphy, so I’m sure he will live never having played in New York or Boston. The national media in general pretty much sucks when it comes to covering baseball. It’s sad what ESPN has become and if it doesn’t happen in the North East it must not be important. It must have killed them to see that almost 30 million people tuned into watch the Rangers and the Cardinals play game 7. Brian McCann is not far from becoming a legend in the south as well.

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