Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Going both ways

Growing up, I never played baseball. I was afraid of the ball. Being at bat entailed someone hurling this missile at me as hard as they could, and hopefully, it would come within inches of hitting me but wouldn't actually hit me. Otherwise, while playing the field, someone would have just finished making contact with a missile that was hurled at them as hard as it could have been. The resulting action was always this same missile coming at me faster than it was thrown, possibly speeding across the ground, bouncing wildly, with the end result being that, hopefully, the ball would come within inches of hitting me but would just land in my glove. I wasn't a fan.

The odd thing is, baseball is now my favorite sport. I enjoy following it more than any other. I feel like this is partly because I am constantly in awe of how talented major league baseball players are. I mean I love football, but football is easy. You try to run past/through the opponent, occasionally tossing the ball through the air to a teammate. All of these actions are easily performed by anyone with even sub par athletic ability. Baseball, on the other hand...I mean, let's take golf for example. Everyone says how hard it is to be really good at golf. It takes so much control and blah blah blah. The fact remains that the ball is just sitting there. Imagine playing golf, but instead of the ball sitting on a tee or in the grass, someone is hurling it at you. That's baseball. There is nothing harder in all of sports than hitting a pitched ball.

That fact is why I am so enamored and amazed by switch hitters.

Where else is this common practice? A player of tremendous ability and talent decides, rather than always using their natural hand to bat with, they will use both, become ambidextrous, and often times bat with their weak hand. Something remotely similar is only done in soccer, where completely right-footed individuals are able to kick rather well with their left foot. I was one of these people playing soccer. But being a switch hitter just seems different.

The idea of becoming a switch hitter is to gain an advantage. Obviously. If that wasn't the case, no one would switch hit. For a natural right hander, batting left handed against a right handed pitcher gives the batter some sort of an advantage, most likely in seeing the ball better. However, how long must it take for a baseball player to practice with their off hand and become good enough where they choose to bat that way against a major league pitcher? Couldn't it be argued they might have been better off using all that practice time on their strong hand and just becoming a really good right handed hitter? No other athletes even attempt this strategy.

To my knowledge there has never been a switch shooter in basketball. Sure, people shoot from close range with their off hand, layups, hooks, and short bankers. But there has never been an NBA switch shooter. Yet imagine the benefit. A defender could never shade you to either side because you could pull up and shoot with either hand. When rising up to contest a shot, which hand does the defender jump towards? It seems to me a switch shooter could get at least a couple open shots each game that would have been contested for a normal shooter.

As far as I know there has never been a switch thrower in football. Brett Favre and quarterbacks of that ilk have very occasionally thrown passes with their off hand in the heat of a rush to a receiver within a couple yards of them. But there are no ambidextrous quarterbacks, yet imagine the possibilities. A defensive coordinator could never scheme a zone blitz to a specific side because you could roll out in either direction and throw on the run. Right handed quarterbacks rarely roll left because it is so hard to throw against your body. That would never be the case with a switch thrower. Heck, there would be infinitely less passes batted down by defensive linemen as well. Just getting that slight angle is often the difference between a batted pass and a completion in the NFL.

Perhaps there is 'something in the water' at baseball parks. Not only is switch hitting common practice, pitchers are even getting in on the action. The New York Yankees currently have a pitcher on roster who throws with both hands. Pat Venditte, on the Yankees minor league club in Staten Island, is a switch pitcher. He throws slightly side-armed when pitching lefty, yet he can be just as successful. There was an at-bat in 2008 where Venditte faced a switch hitter. The batter came up to the plate on one side so Venditte switched his glove to the other hand. The batter then moved over to the other side of the plate. Venditte switched his glove back. This went on for much longer than it should have before the umpire stopped play and forced the batter to step in and stay there, therefore giving Pat the upper hand. (No pun intended.)

(When someone utters the phrase 'No pun intended' isn't the pun always intended?)

In a slightly different situation, MLB star closer Billy Wagner could be considered a switch pitcher of sorts as well. It turns out Wagner is naturally right handed. Yet he throws blistering high 90's fastballs in the majors left handed, and has done so for years. The story goes that, as a kid, Wagner broke his right arm and learned to throw left handed. In no other sport does something like this happen. A major league left handed pitcher with a high 90's heater is right handed.

Then there is Ichiro Suzuki. He is a hall of fame Japanese baseball player. He came to America and will be a hall of famer here as well, even if he never plays another game. Ironically enough, one of the best hitters in recent memory bats left handed yet is naturally right handed. Unlike Wagner, this was definitely done on purpose. Ichiro's father forced him to bat left handed when he was growing up so he would be closer/quicker to first base. Every step counts and being a left handed batter makes him one step closer to the base, allowing Ichiro to beat out a handful of close plays each season.

Of course, these examples can be considered exceptions, yet there is frankly nothing exceptional about switch hitting to the common fan. Each team has at least one or two switch hitters. Besides being an advantage against pitching changes from the opponent, no one bats an eye when Mark Teixeira or Chipper Jones or Jorge Posada come to the opposite side of the plate as their previous at-bat.

The question of is it worth learning to switch hit is really impossible to answer. Would Bernie Williams have played so long in the majors if he only batted from one side of the plate? Maybe if he only took swings right handed he would have been pinch hit for in certain instances, and been less important to his team. Would Mickey Mantle not have been such a historic hitter batting from only one side of the plate? Who knows? Maybe he would have been better if he concentrated on simply batting from one side.

The odd thing to me is that something so commonplace seems so extraordinary. Again, maybe my fascination is aided by the fact that I never played baseball long enough to get good at hitting with my strong hand. But every now and then, when I'm just playing around I pretend to be lefty. I shoot a three lefty on the court. I toss a football left handed to a friend. I imagine how long it would take, how much practice would be needed, to perfect that skill to reach the ability of my strong hand and it leaves my mind boggled.

Sometimes I hold the fork in my left hand while I eat. That's about as successful as I can get.

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