It is generally a marked advantage for a batter to face an opposite-handed pitcher. Platoon splits across the league are evidence of this well documented phenomenon, and managers are quick to take advantage of matchups.
One of the chief advantages of switch-hitting is that the opposite-handed pitcher’s release point is closer to the center of the hitter’s field of vision. This allows him to get a better look at the ball, and judge whether the pitch is worth swinging at. If a switch-hitter generally gets a better look at the incoming pitch he should, in theory, be better at commanding the strike zone than his one-sided counterparts, walking more and striking out less. Do switch hitters have a better BB/K split than other hitters?
While we are limited by a small sample size of switch-hitters who accrue a enough at bats against lefties to possibly stabilize (according to work done by Russell Carleton), we can calculate their splits and compare it to the average split for batters who always hit from one side.
If we assume that switch-hitters would ‘naturally’ hit from the side in which they throw, we can roughly estimate what their split might be if they were not switch-hitters by calculating BB/K split for righties when facing left-handed pitchers (LHP) and right-handed pitchers (RHP).
Right-handed batters (RHB), on average, post a healthy BB/K ratio of .63 against LHP and more dismal .38 against RHP. The table below shows how splits for switch-hitters who throw right-handed compared to those righties who do not swing from both sides of the plate.
|BB/K vs. LHP||BB/K vs. RHP||Difference|
|Eric Young Jr.||0.45||0.46||-0.01|
|BB/K vs RHP||BB/K vs. LHP||Difference|
Or if you prefer to see the splits visually, and compared to the mean for all non-switch hitters:
We can see the results are relatively mixed. If switch-hitters really did display a better ability to draw walks and avoid strikeouts we would expect to see smaller than league-average (below the red line) splits, in the positive direction. Among righties, hitters from Kendrys Morales to Chase Headley in the chart above do not display as severe a split as the average right-handed batter, and may derive a significant benefit to never seeing a same-handed pitcher. However, a surprising number of hitters display reverse splits, improving their ratio considerably when batting from their own weak side.
The extreme negative splits of Coco Crisp, Victor Martinez, and Nick Swisher are all consistent with their recent career numbers. Indeed, these negative splits are even evident when examining their wOBA splits for the last several years.
Alberto Callaspo’s outlier split belies a an impressive ability to avoid strikeouts while taking walks at a accelerated pace. Against lefties he posts an outstanding BB/K of 1.5, and his ratio of 1.03 vs. RHP is still impressive. The dropoff from facing LHP to RHP is steep in absolute terms, but his knowledge of the strike zone is still elite.
The BB/K ratio for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Justin Smoak both see a slight benefit in switch-hitting, featuring splits a bit lower than the league average. Justin Smoak, however, suffers from a serious power outage, posting a .218 ISO when hitting from his left side, and a miserable .082 ISO from his left. Salty’s power split is not as egregious, but the .128 point drop in ISO is troubling for a player who’s contact % is only slightly above Dan Uggla and Pedro Alvarez. Andres Torres, a natural right hander, sees a similar decline in his wOBA splits– .318 against LHP but a paltry .249 against RHP. These players enjoy a nonexistent or marginal advantage in BB/K ratio as a switch hitter, and hitting primarily from their strong side might be an experiment worth performing.
The Shane Victorino Experiment
Shane Victorino’s ratio of walks to strikeouts reduces by .07 when facing RHP as opposed to LHP. After tweaking his hamstring in the second half of 2013, he decided to at least temporarily abandon switch-hitting for the remainder of the season. Since mid-August had almost 50 plate appearances as a RHB vs. RHP, offering a real-life counterfactual case. How does not switch-hitting affect a productive hitter’s BB/K ratio?
From September and into the postseason, Victorino has managed to walk just twice and strike out over 20 times, giving him a miniscule BB/K ratio of just .09, much smaller than his .33 season average. Still, with a wOBA of .356 right in line with his season long average, his overall production at the plate has not suffered despite the more aggressive and less patient approach.
Victorino’s small sample size of hitting exclusively right-handed fails to reliably estimate the counterfactual scenario. However, his case is interesting because, while switch-hitters like J.T. Snow did abandon their dual approach, most did so because of a decline in production from their weak side. Players who eventually decided the advantages of switch-hitting did not offset the challenges of being ambidextrous were already in decline mode—Victorino on the other hand is coming off a great season. While he has officially achieved veteran status, the 32-year old proved this season that reports of his bat’s death have been greatly exaggerated. If he and his coaches are encouraged by his recent wOBA spike, and he abandons hitting from the left side entirely, his BB/K may continue to steadily decline even if his power improves.
The results seen here do not strongly support the hypothesis that switch-hitters have an inherent advantage over others when considering the ratio of bases on balls to strikeouts. While there is some evidence that switch-hitters do enjoy better splits, it is not overwhelming and may provide only marginal benefit to players like Andres Torres, Dexter Fowler and Justin Smoak. Overall, lefties like Carlos Beltran and Daniel Nava joined Alberto Callaspo as possible examples of the reverse, a larger than average split when going from the strong side to weak side.
There are obvious limitations to this study, starting with a small sample size. We only examined 2013 splits, and the number of left-handed hitters who switch-hit is very low. It may be possible moving forward to use career splits for lefties going back decades to determine if left handed switch-hitters generally have worse BB/K splits than their counterparts.
Currently, switch-hitters account for slightly less than 15% of major league hitters. To say that having the platoon advantage is always an advantage for the hitter may not be accurate– players whose weak side bat is significantly less powerful, like Justin Smoak or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, may inadvertently harm their value as a hitter by sticking to switch-hitting in all cases. Baseball is a game of adjustments and gaining incremental advantages, and switch-hitting is no different. Some players use it to gain an upper hand, and others may be wasting their potential.