- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

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!