Switch Hitters

By | June 08, 2006

In his latest article on ESPN.com, Tim Kurkjian talks about switch hitters. I assume he got thinking about this after a couple questions about Melky Cabrera in his May 25 chat. In that chat, Kurkjian mentioned that Cabrera is one of the rare switch hitters who throws left-handed — according to Kurkjian, 91% of switch hitters throw with their right hands. When a chatter asked Kurkjian why he thought that was, he said this:

Excellent question. My only theory is that most switch hitters are natural right handed hitters who switch to the left side for many reasons, including getting a step closer to first base. Historically, most switch hitters have been middle infielders who have trouble hitting from one side. All middle infielders throw right handed. Plus, there are just a lot more right handed throwing people in the world than there are left handers.

In this article today, Kurkjian ended with this:

[J.T.] Snow throws left-handed, but of all the switch-hitting nonpitchers in history, only 4.4 percent throw with their left hand, including Wes Parker, [Lance] Berkman and Yankees rookie outfielder Melky Cabrera. Why do so few switch-hitters throw left-handed? Is it as simple as most of people in the world are right-handed? Is it is as simple as the fact that many switch-hitters are middle infielders, and therefore have to throw right-handed? Or maybe it’s just another difficult question to answer in the fascinating world of switch-hitters.

I think he was on the right track in his chat. I have been giving it some thought since that chat on May 25, and I think when you start from the right starting point, some logical conclusions follow. Here are our starting truths:

  • According to Wikipedia, roughly ten percent of the population is left-handed.
  • Also on that Wikipedia page, “True ambidexterity is rare.” In other words, most or all switch hitters are switch hitters by nurture, not by nature.
  • Most players who throw right-handed naturally bat right-handed, and the same for left-handed players.

Now, Kurkjian gives us two stats, and I am going to assume he was correct about them: nine percent of current switch hitters throw left-handed, and the total percentage for baseball history is roughly half that. The current percentage is almost too easy to figure out, as the nine percent and the ten percent of the general population are close enough that we can get by with simple statistics.

But what about the historical number? Ten percent and 4.4 percent are pretty far apart, so there’s got to be a reason. And I think it’s pretty easy to figure that reason out. Let’s assume that all these left-handed throwers are natural left-handed hitters, and the same for right-handers. (While this probably isn’t actually true, it is statistically insignificant, since a person is just as likely to be left-right as right-left.) That means that in the history of baseball, 95.6% of people who made the decision to be switch hitters were originally right-handed hitters. Of course, since 90% of the population is right-handed, our gap is really 5.6%.

The only logical explanation is that right-handed hitters have more incentive to learn to hit from the other side of the plate. That may seem politically incorrect to say, but I’m okay with it. So let’s look at the reasons a player would switch hit, and see if any of them apply more to righties than to lefties:

  • Reason 1: Left-handed hitters start a few feet closer to first base, which gives speedy guys an advantage. Applies only to right-handers.
  • Reason 2: It is easier for right-handed hitters to hit off of left-handed pitchers, and vice versa. That means that every switch hitter has an advantage, because he never has to face a pitcher in those more difficult situations. And because the majority of pitchers are right-handed, this benefit applies more to righties than lefties.
  • Reason 3: Chicks dig switch hitters. Equal benefit.

I made up that last reason when I realized that I had started a bullet list but I only had two things to put on it, so I felt silly. But the point is clear: of the legitimate reasons why a guy would decide to hit from both sides of the plate, there is clearly more advantage for righties than for lefties. How much more advantage? Well, about enough to make up that 5.6% gap, according to the stats.

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