baseball history, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized

Switch-Hitting and Small Ball: Not an Obvious Pairing


George Davis, Hall of Famer: formally inducted in 1998, almost a century to the year after his retirement.  As someone wrote lately, the best ballplayer you’ve never heard of.  Okay, I admit that I’d never heard of him, either, before delving into the history of switch-hitting.  George was that rarest of animals, a “bats both” from the nineteenth century.  During the Deadball Era and in the years preceding it, such artists were probably less common than cross-wristed hitters like Dave Bancroft.  It’s not hard to imagine why.  Power-hitting as we know it didn’t exist, so one of the two great motive forces for switch-hitting wasn’t in play.  We think readily of sluggers like Mantle, Murray, Reggie Smith… and more recently, Mark Texeira, Chipper Jones, and Lance Berkman.  They didn’t have to worry about the breaking ball dipping under and away from their bat: they could enter the box with the intent of pulling almost everything.

Slightly less glorified as superheroes, on-base machines like Tim Raines, Ozzie Smith, and the almost-immortal Pete Rose are a bit more of an enigma.  Primarily concerned with contact than power, they hit the ball where it was pitched and—like their mightier brethren—were difficult to neutralize with the slider.  A few batsmen of this category (and I don’t know the story of the three just named) seem to have taken up switching because their career from the right side was going absolutely nowhere.  Maury Wills springs to mind.  I half-believe that Nellie Fox may have adapted to batting south so well that he simply gave up on the right side; I’ve seen him listed both as a lefty hitter and a switcher.

As I say, though, the earliest switch-hitters were certainly not trying to compete with Babe Ruth.  Before stumbling upon Davis (and it took me some stumbling: try Googling “first switch-hitter in MLB” and notice how evasive the search engine becomes), I couldn’t dredge up anyone from my memory earlier than Max Carey and, a bit later, Frankie Frisch.  Now, these two logged plenty of extra-base hits… but that’s what you would expect of any speedy hitter before World War II, when ballparks often had very generous alleys.  Most skilled practitioners of the batsman’s craft would bat left exclusively for the benefit of the step or two they would gain toward first base.  Perhaps Carey and Frisch flat-out couldn’t hit the pitch that broke away from them.  I’m sure neither was trying to be Mark Texeira and ding the foul pole every time they possibly could.

Cobb, Speaker, Collins… all righties who batted left.  (Yes, Speaker: he grew up throwing left only because of a badly broken right arm during his formative years.)  I doubt that the typical big-league striker of the Deadball Era—and these three were far beyond typical—would have objected either to being clipped by a tight pitch or to dribbling it the other way and racing the third baseman’s throw.  Hence the extreme rarity of the switch-hitter in the game’s distant past.

George Davis, then, presents an oddity, to say the least.  At five-foot-nine, he profiles as the kind of batsman we like to study at; and yet, his true utility for the New York Giants appears to have been as an RBI-producer.  His homers are pretty impressive for the 1890’s: seven seasons in double digits from 1891 to 1904.  At the same time, however, his seasonal tally of two-baggers (usually in the mid-twenties) stacks up to about half of Speaker’s monumental totals, and his triples are also fairly mediocre for a star batsman of the time.  With 2665 hits in 9045 at-bats, then, George presumably legged out plenty of singles.  So the mystery remains: was he switching to magnify his pull-power or just to put the ball in play more often?

After I made a rather hasty video about switch-hitting last weekend (hasty because our Georgia weather keeps turning on a dime), I confronted the necessity of having to re-do it.  The result wasn’t all that bad… but why would a site post it that claimed to specialize in the Deadball Era?  Or if the point was precisely that batsmen of the glorious past were almost never switchers, then why hadn’t the video explained the crucial ground of distinction?  What exactly was I trying to accomplish for my viewers in those ten minutes?

What, indeed?  The claim I made repeatedly before the camera was that young switch-hitters should stop trying to mirror the stroke from their natural side in the side they’re trying to learn.  Almost nobody on earth is truly, fully ambidextrous.  That failing, you have one hand which is stronger and “smarter” than the other; and when the dominant hand is driving the bat like a piston, it has an effect very different from when it’s steering the bat down near the knob.  Allowances must be made for shifting points of emphatic power or precision.

Except that they don’t—or not nearly so much—when you’re simply hurling the barrel down into the zone from high above your rear shoulder.  What the Deadball approach teaches us, then, is transmitted through its active enlistment of feet, knees, hips, core muscles, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers… everything in the body is so ingeniously, harmoniously integrated into the Old School stroke that you’re much more apt to notice a cog along the edges getting out of sync.  I genuinely believe this.  I believe, in other words, that our contemporary passion for hurling blunt force at the pitch permits us to ignore a lot of energy leaking out along the way.  If you have a ten-ton tractor to do a job, you don’t care that it belches fumes and spins its treads before the burden attached to it gives way.  But if you have ten men with crowbars trying to budge the same mass, you can’t afford to waste a drop of sweat in the process.  Deadball hitting is the precision attack of a samurai, not the screaming onslaught of a claymore-wielding Rob Roy.  (Pardon the analogy’s inaccuracies: yesteryear’s bat, of course, was actually much more like a claymore—so the lighter, smaller player had to be especially clever about how to exploit the weapon’s imposing mass.)

When I take my favorite Deadball swing from the left side and try to replicate it from the right, I discover that major adjustments are necessary to stay somewhere close to the same paradigm.  That’s what I’ll stress when I remake the video—because I do like switch-hitting, at least when it’s done with a Cobb/Collins, “get on base” mentality.  It has to tie into an approach, a mental projection of the at-bat (and my earlier version just couldn’t have been squeezed under the “approach” rubric on our website).  The switch-hitter should be thinking “opposite field” most of the time, for it’s much easier to stay inside a pitch breaking into you (I find) than it is to be productively late on a pitch that breaks away and just keeps breaking and breaking.  In the latter case, you can outsmart yourself, chasing something far off the plate that—you thought—was right between your crosshairs.

Is this how George Davis hit?  I’ve no idea.  What about the ill-starred Pete Reeser, who couldn’t keep himself form colliding with the concrete walls of Ebbets Field?  I rather doubt it: subtlety wasn’t Pistol Pete’s game.  But I wish it could be more of our present game.  Among other things, standing off the plate to put a late swing on a pitch greatly diminishes the young hitter’s chances of getting hit by today’s flame-throwers who are trying to light up the scout’s JUGS gun.  Not having to guard against the fade-away allows you to frustrate the hurler’s plans more effectively without letting his homicidal wildness bully its way into the back of your mind.  That’s a winning strategy for a five-foot-niner.

Anyway… congratulations, George.  Very, very belated congratulations.