This annotated week in baseball history: Aug. 14-Aug. 20, 50 BC

August 17 is the traditional Roman celebration of Janus, the god with two faces. In honor of this, Richard looks at the best of switch-hitters.

As I may have mentioned before, I’m a natural lefty hitter. Ostensibly, this would give me an advantage when facing most pitchers. As it turns out—like a lot of lefties—I couldn’t hit left-handed pitching. But I also couldn’t hit right-handing pitching. Or pitching machines. Hitting was simply not for me.

Perhaps because of that, I’ve always had tremendous respect for switch-hitters. Not only could they hit from the natural side, but they taught themselves to hit from the other side. Given how hard it is to hit major league pitching full stop, being able to do it effectively from both sides of the plate is no mean feat.

In honor of these men, this week’s column is dedicated to the best individual seasons ever posted by a switch-hitter at each position. Unlike the career teams—fear not, a career switch-hitting team will come some day—there’s no flexibility on this team. Each player is represented by the primary position they played that year. So let’s begin.

Catcher: Ted Simmons, 1977

There are only five seasons by switch-hitting catchers valued at least five-and-a-half WAR. One is Mickey Tettleton in 1991, all the rest are by Simmons and Jorge Posada.

I’ve written before about the profound under-appreciation for Simmons’ career—few catchers were ever better though he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after just one year—but this reflects it. Simmons started 139 games behind the plate in 1977—putting up a .908 OPS—and led the Cardinals in home runs, RBIs and walks. That performance, along with throwing out thirty-six percent of base stealers, puts Simmons just ahead of Posada’s 2003 season.

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Mark Teixeira in the midst of the best switch-hitting season at 1B (Icon/SMI)

First Base: Mark Teixeira, 2008

Well, this one surprised me. Teixeira was good but not great during his time in Atlanta but hit like a house on fire upon being traded to the Angels, batting .358 and posting a 1.081 OPS.

Combined with Teixeira’s strong defense, this remains the only season by a switch-hitting first baseman to top seven wins above replacement. And that is enough to push Teixeira above strong years from the likes of Eddie Murray and Lance Berkman.

Second Base: Frankie Frisch, 1927

Frankie Frisch is arguably the greatest switch-hitter ever to play not named Mickey Mantle. And he was never better than in 1927, when the Fordham Flash hit .337 in his first season for the St. Louis Cardinals.

For good measure, Frisch also stole 48 bases, swiping a third more bases than second-place Max Carey. Frisch also drew great value from his time at the keystone, recording nearly four wins worthy of value in the field.

Third Base: Frankie Frisch, 1921

By pure WAR, both Chipper Jones in 2007 and Ken Caminiti in 1996 were better than this season. But while I’m not a PED-hardliner, Caminiti’s admissions of use make it hard to put him on this team—and he was just 0.1 WAR ahead of Frisch anyway.

Moreover, it seems hard to believe that Jones was a superior defense player in 2007 at age 35 than he was at age 27, when his defensive shortcomings were enough to take his 1999 MVP season off the top spot. With that in mind, the spot goes to Frisch, who was manning third for John McGraw’s world champion Giants.

Shortstop: Dave Bancroft, 1921

With a left side of the infield like that, it should be no surprise the Giants won the World Series in 1921. Bancroft did draw significant value—two whole wins—from his defense in ’21, but he was also an offensive force, banging out nearly 200 hits. His .830 OPS was more than a hundred points higher than any other National League shortstop.

Left Field: Pete Rose, 1973

This was Rose’s MVP season, and also the year when he fought Buddy Harrelson during the 1973 NLCS. So it might be said that this season represented the apex of Rose at both his powers as both a player and as Charlie Hustle, the man who would do anything to win.

Rose played in all but two games this season and won the batting title (at .338) while also banging out 230 hits to lead the league. And unlike future years—when he would be stretched defensively playing the infield in his mid-to-late 30s—Rose could still handle left.

Center Field: Mickey Mantle, 1956

You knew this was coming. By WAR, the top five seasons by a switch-hitter in baseball history are all by Mantle: 1956, 1957, 1961, 1958 and 1955. Only Frankie Frisch, in his 1927 season, has a WAR season above 9.0 as a switch-hitter. Meanwhile, all of Mantle top-five seasons are above nine and a half, and this one is nearly 13.

In addition to his defense in center field, Mantle posted an insane 1.169 OPS (210 OPS+) and stole ten bases while being caught once. He led the league runs, home runs, RBIs, total bases and won the batting title. That’s greatness.

Right Field: Pete Rose, 1969

If 1973 was Rose’s best year, 1969 is not far behind. He won his second consecutive batting title, hitting a career-high .348, and led the league in runs scored for good measure. Playing for a Reds team largely devoid of good pitching (they gave 34 starts and nearly 200 innings to Tony Cloninger and his 5.03 ERA), Rose helped bring them to within four games of the National League West title.

Designated Hitter: Milton Bradley, 2008

Clearly, no one is giving Milton Bradley any points for personality. But the fact remains that when he was on the field—and not injured, or suspended for losing his mind at fans, umpires or teammates—the man could simply play.

Stationed primarily at DH for the Rangers (though he also saw some time in the outfield), Bradley led the league in OPS at .999 and OPS at 161. He drew 80 walks and slammed 55 extra-base hits. Bradley might not be a man you want in the clubhouse, but on the field, he was a superstar.

There are not, of course, a lot of switch-hitting pitchers. But you could assemble a pretty good rotation, featuring names like Robin Roberts, Early Wynn, Jack Coombs, Carlos Zambrano and Bill Donovan. With that kind of pitching—and anchored by the incredible offensive prowess—the switch-hitting team would definitely be a serious contender in any league.

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Comments

  1. Paul E said...

    Rich:
      Nice piece. Interesting that the difference between Alomar and Frisch, and for that matter, Chipper and Frisch, would be the defensive metric portion of WAR that favors Frisch. Also, the “2nd greatest” switch hitter of all time would not be Frisch, but the guy who should have gotten more love in LF and/or RF from you – Lance Berkman. Berkman has the second highest career OPS+ (146)of anyone who BB. How about some Reggie Smith in RF (1977, 1978)or Ken Singleton (1979)over Petey Squarehead
      I still am a non-believer in WAR as a defensive metric…somehow Ryan Howard just can’t be better than Prince Fielder at 1B, but WAR thinks so. Howard is the first 1B in the history of the sport to lead his team in errors – and he’s about to do it for the fourth conscutive year. Still, better than the Vegan Prince….

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