Pennington is Baylor's lone switch-hitting pupil
Batting from both sides of the plate a dying art form in today's game
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Much like throwing a screwball or eating sunflower seeds without using your hands, switch-hitting is one of the more arcane skills in baseball. A dark art that counts alliterated mystics Frankie Frisch and Mickey Mantle among its masters.
"It's not that one person that you see there, it's two, because you could start out the game hitting left-handed, finish hitting right-handed," said D-backs hitting coach Don Baylor.
Baylor was strictly a right-handed batter as a player, but the former All-Star, 1979 American League Most Valuable Player and three-time Silver Slugger Award winner has compiled his share of observations over his 19-year playing career and the time he's logged as a manager and hitting coach since then. For example, he's seen that switch-hitting takes more than simply getting one side to mirror the other.
"I notice [switch-hitters] use different ounces, maybe another bat, so they're always thinking that it's another guy, you know, that I might be using a 32-ouncer hitting left-handed. Right-handed, I might use a 31-ounce bat," Baylor said.
Switch-hitting is an art form in today's game. Only about 8 percent of players currently on Major League Spring Training rosters are switch-hitters.
For those few who do hit from both sides of the plate, there are two key advantages. It minimizes the effectiveness of same-handed pitching matchups and it helps limit the effectiveness of nasty breaking balls. But it only works if everything is in sync. The difficulty of dialing in two different swings is one reason why the D-back's only switch-hitter, shortstop Cliff Pennington, describes switch-hitting as both a blessing and a curse.
"It's twice as much work to keep the swing feeling right," Pennington said. "You can be where one side feels good and one side doesn't, and it always seems to work out where the pitcher is [throwing from] the wrong side that day."
As Baylor pointed out to a certain Atlanta third baseman during his 1999 MVP season, having one side stronger than the other can leave an opening for opponents to exploit.
"When I had Chipper Jones, he wanted to just hit left-handed, left-handed, left-handed," he said, referring to Jones' practice routine. "I said: 'Well, when I managed against you, I wanted to flip you around to hit right-handed, because I knew that you would take a single to right. You'd just get a base hit and you'd be happy. But we're going to work on hitting the ball out of the ballpark.'"
For now, Baylor is working with Pennington on shortening and simplifying his cuts, as well as making sure the infielder is getting equal work on both sides of the plate.
"He works so hard, I try to back him off a little bit, because it wears you down. Especially some of the routines I have guys do," Baylor said.
As important as the physical mechanics are, it could be that the true secret to effective switch-hitting lies in the mind.
"The special part of it is just the confidence you have to have in it," Baylor said. "Sometimes, especially at the Major League level, if you don't do well, then all of the sudden you say, 'I want to get back to my natural side.' A lot of times you can't."
Nathan Humpherys is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.