MINNEAPOLIS — If Ron Gardenhire had his choice, he would have been a switch hitter during his career as what he refers to as a “futility infielder.”
Instead, Gardenhire batted only right-handed during his five seasons with the New York Mets. His career batting average? Just .232 in 285 games. Against right-handers, he was a career .205 hitter.
“I just know from when I played, if I could have stepped on the other side and not had to swing at a right-hander’s slider, I might have added five points to my career (average),” Gardenhire said. “Who knows, because I couldn’t hit a slider to save my life.”
Gardenhire didn’t have the option of being a switch-hitter, but he now has the luxury of managing four of them. Aaron Hicks, Ryan Doumit, Pedro Florimon and Eduardo Escobar are all able to bat from either side of the plate for the Minnesota Twins. It’s a blessing in that it gives Minnesota flexibility against opposing pitchers, especially in late-game situations with relievers coming out of the bullpen.
“It gives the manager something else to think about because you bring in a left-handed reliever and they can turn around to the other side,” Gardenhire said. “It just gives you other things to think about going against guys like that, and I like that part of it.”
But it’s also a challenge for those four switch hitters to try to stay sharp from both sides of the plate. All four of Minnesota’s switch hitters are naturally stronger as right-handers. Since there are more right-handed pitchers than lefties in baseball, though, those four will often be flipped around to bat left-handed.
Doumit, a nine-year veteran, has the biggest sample size of those four. Prior to Wednesday, he had 2,058 career at-bats as a left-handed batter versus a right-handed pitcher and only 759 at-bats as a right-handed batter against a left-handed pitcher.
For Doumit, switch-hitting has always been a part of his game. He remembers hitting from both sides of the plate as young as three years old.
“My dad didn’t really give me a choice,” he said. “It wasn’t until about high school that I even realized it was a big deal. It was always just what I did. Guys were like, ‘Man, I wish I was a switch hitter.'”
Hicks didn’t become a full-time switch hitter until his junior year of high school. While all three of his home runs this season have come from the right side of the plate, Hicks has shown the ability to hit for power from both sides. Last year in the minors, he hit 13 total home runs — six came as a left-handed batter and seven came from the right side. His averages were fairly similar, too: .287 batting lefty, .283 as a righty.
But as Hicks has had to adjust to facing major league pitching during his rookie year this season, he’s also had to worry about trying to hone his swing from each side of the plate.
“You’ve got to really try to keep both sides as fresh as you can,” Hicks said. “A lot of times with switch hitters, one side’s going to be better than the other. That’s just how it is. Very rarely you’ll have both sides going. Really just try to get as much work in as you can on each side.”
Only Houston has more switch-hitting position players than Minnesota, as the Astros have five. Some teams — Miami, Milwaukee, the Mets and Yankees — have zero. Most have at least two, and several have three. But with four switch hitters on the roster, the Twins are a bit of a rarity.
Gardenhire likes having that versatility in the lineup. So, too, does hitting coach Tom Brunansky, whose job it is to make sure those four all get their hacks from both sides of the plate.
“Obviously it helps matchups when they go into certain bullpen situations,” Brunansky said. “It gives us a flexibility so we can go ahead and protect certain hitters by having a lot of switch hitters. Certain guys can get sandwiched in between there and they might not have to face a lefty coming out of the ‘pen. It helps in that way.”
For Brunansky, the work he does with each switch hitter depends on the pitcher the Twins are facing that day. If it’s a right-hander taking the mound for the opponent, Minnesota’s batters will spend even more time from the left side.
For a veteran like Doumit, that may be the case anyway as he’s naturally better from the right side and has spent years on his right-handed swing.
“He’s better and more secure to the right side,” Brunansky said of Doumit, who is batting around 100 points better and slugging nearly 200 points higher as a right-hander so far this season. “We continually give him a little bit just to see it so they don’t lose it. In their mindset, they feel more comfortable from that right side. They don’t have to put their work in daily like they do from the left side.”
Brunansky said he’ll even have players who aren’t switch hitters try and take some swings in the batting cage from the other side of the plate to break things up or help them see things from a different vantage point.
Of course, at this stage in a major leaguer’s career, it’s too late to learn how to bat from both sides, but that experience in the cage can be beneficial, Brunansky says.
“The whole process here is not to beat them into the ground, but to kind of keep them fresh,” he said. “I never (batted left-handed) in a game but I’d always do it in practice or messing around because it helps. I’ll even take some of the kids in here that aren’t switch hitters sometimes when they get kind of messed up in their swing and I’ll have them go on the other side and take some swings, just kind of change up your feeling and get that swing level again.”
For now, the Twins are enjoying having four players on the roster who can step into either batter’s box and feel comfortable at the plate. It’s certainly a luxury to have players with that type of versatility, but it doesn’t come without plenty of work off the field.
“I can only think back to guys like Chili Davis and people like that who I used to talk to about switch hitting way back in the day,” Gardenhire said. “Their thoughts were switch hitting’s great because you always have the ball coming into you. But we have two swings to worry about, where most guys have one. … It can be valuable, very valuable, but it can be tough.”