- Community – FanGraphs Baseball - https://www.fangraphs.com/community -

Do Switch-Hitters Always Need to Switch?

Switch-hitting is a rare yet valuable trait for hitters. It gives a player a certain versatility that eliminates the necessity for platooning. But it is not uncommon that a player is markedly more successful from one side of the plate. Take Lance Berkman, for example, one of the best switch-hitters of all time. Here are his career splits from the right side vs. the left side:

Handedness AVG ISO BB% K% GB% FB% wRC+
Left .301 .265 16.7% 16.8% 40.3% 39.9% 155
Right .259 .158 12.6% 15.0% 47.4% 33.2% 105

Berkman was better in every facet from the left side, hitting for better average, more power, and lifting the ball more while showing a better eye. How many of those lefty plate appearances came against lefties? 0. It makes sense that all his plate appearances would be L v R and R v L because pitchers are better facing hitters of the same handedness. But that is not always the case.

There are always reverse split guys, with both pitchers and hitters alike. We even had one in World Series Game 2. Rich Hill‘s splits are not aggressively reverse, but for his career his wOBA and xFIP vs. lefties are .305 and 4.39, respectively. He’s posted .305 and 4.02 against righties in the same categories. The clear difference is his 16.0% K-BB% vs. righties and 11.5% vs lefties. The numbers were much more reverse in 2017, albeit in a small sample. This year, Hill’s wOBA allowed was .374 vs. .253, his xFIP was 6.08 vs. 3.36, and his K-BB% was 25.2% vs. 7.3%.

So, let’s take an example from that World Series game. Marwin Gonzalez, the Houston Astros’ switch-hitting utility man, had four plate appearances (not counting an intentional walk). In his first one, he faced Hill, striking out swinging. In his second one, he faced Hill, striking out looking. Both came as a righty. The next two came as a lefty. In his third, he drew a walk from Ross Stripling. And everyone knows what he did in his fourth appearance.

Gonzalez’s success and failures in those appearances did not stray from what he has done all year. Here are his left and right splits:

Handedness AVG ISO BB% K% LD% wRC+
Left .322 .230 10.0% 19.7% 22.0% 154
Right .250 .217 8.2% 17.9% 14.6% 115

He clearly displayed that he drove the ball better from the left side of the plate. So, Hill is worse against lefties and Gonzalez plays like an All-Star as a lefty. Wouldn’t it make sense to have him hit lefty?

Obviously, it’s not that simple, and you aren’t going to try an experiment in the World Series and have him hit lefty. Gonzalez’ eye isn’t trained to hit left-handed pitchers from the left side. And all his success from the left side may be because he sees right-handed pitching really well there. It also may disrupt a hitter if they mostly hit lefty versus righties, but then infrequently go left on left for the occasional reverse-split guy. It could make hitters completely uncomfortable, and a hitter is highly unlikely to perform if he is uncomfortable. In truth, most factors point to it being a bad idea, despite what numbers might say.

However, experimenting with the idea during inconsequential situations may be a good idea. I looked at some of the switch-hitters of the past decade with clearly more success from one side to see if any had toyed with hitting LvL or RvR. The group included Aaron Hicks, Mark Teixeira, Jose Reyes, Jed Lowrie, Chipper Jones, Pablo Sandoval, Justin Smoak, and Dexter Fowler.

One guy stood out — Sandoval. He’s accumulated 114 plate appearances as a LvL in his career. Still a tiny sample, but a clear demonstration that he has tried. Sandoval’s struggles as a righty are well-known, as his career wRC+ as a righty is a 80, vs. 124 as a lefty. In 2015, it appears he shelved the idea of hitting from the right side. 112 of those 114 LvL appearances came that season. In that one stretch, he was still poor, posting a 59 wRC+ against lefties. So he went back to hitting from the right side.

There are only two other guys, Teixeira and Reyes, who seemed to even have experimented with it. Teixeira hit 48 times as a RvR, and Reyes did the same 43 times. Teixeira seems to have messed around with it his entire career, having 4-5 such appearances nearly every year. While the sample is essentially nothing, his 138 RvR wRC+ is higher than both his LvR and RvL. On the other hand, Reyes’ appearances randomly popped up in 2010 and 2015, with 13 and 20 those years, respectively. He showed no sign of significant struggle as a lefty those years, so the randomness is strange. His -8 RvR wRC+ spoke for itself, anyway.

No one in the last decade, at least to my knowledge, has fully employed the tactic. The few that did fool around with it had mixed results. However, the success of Teixeira points to the fact that if the hitter feels comfortable, it may be a smart decision. Given the right matchup, of course. I attempted to find the pitching matchups for Teixeira as a RvR, but Statcast returned no results. It’s a strategy that probably many have thought about, but none have really used. Throwing in another situation to be accustomed to for a hitter may just be too difficult. But if a switch-hitter feels comfortable, it could be a helpful ability to have in their back pocket.