When Reggie Jefferson, then a slugger for the Seattle Mariners, gave up switch-hitting in 1994 and began batting exclusively from the left side, his old teammates in Cleveland asked a switch-hitting authority to convince him to start again: Hall of Famer and Orioles legend Eddie Murray.
“I appreciated it because I respect Eddie Murray so much, but in my mind, I just knew that for me, I had to go left-only because I needed to establish myself,” Jefferson said. “But that’s the way baseball people thought during that time. If you’re able to switch-hit, why in the world wouldn’t you do it?”
Jefferson, who went on to play six seasons between Seattle and the Boston Red Sox and hit .317 with an .895 OPS after dropping switch hitting, is one of just a handful of major leaguers who can relate to what Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins has done to help spark his spectacular start to 2021.
Mullins was a switch-hitter until this spring but ditched it to bat exclusively left-handed, his natural side. Entering Wednesday, Mullins was the league’s best left-handed hitter against left-handed pitching by almost any measure. Among those with at least 20 such plate appearances this year, he was first in batting average (.441), OPS (1.090), and weighted runs created, or wRC+ (213).
Though it’s just 38 plate appearances, it’s far better than his right-handed production against lefties in the big leagues. Mullins hit .147 with a .439 OPS and a wRC+ of 26 in 111 such plate appearances from 2018 to 2020.
Hitting left-on-right has always been a strong suit. He’s a lifetime .257 hitter with a .723 OPS against opposite-side pitching.
Mullins said in spring training that maintaining a right-handed swing when his left-handed swing was his natural one became too difficult, and a discussion that began in the Buck Showalter era and continued with executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde became the plan this winter.
There is barely any precedent for it.
Some players have dropped switch-hitting for periods of time due to injuries. Others at the end of a long career to try and hang on. But it’s a short list of those who have done so permanently and had their big league careers continue apace or even improve the way Mullins hopes to.
Jefferson is one of them. So is J.T. Snow, who went lefty-only in 1999 with the San Francisco Giants. Others include Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Orlando Merced in 1996 and infielder Mariano Duncan three years into his career in 1989.
Each, like Mullins, had to weigh giving up what’s perceived as an elite skill to develop and an advantage for a player who can do it versus what they felt they could do well. Jefferson and Snow, at least, had no regrets.
“I just thought, ‘Man, I should have done this a lot earlier in my career.’ But I always hit right-handed good enough,” Snow said. “That’s kind of how it all started.”
Before Snow went to the Giants from the California Angels, Hall of Famer Rod Carew was his hitting coach and told Snow he believed he’d be able to hit left-on-left pitching just based on his swing alone. He talked to top hitters like Tony Gwynn, Don Mattingly, Mark Grace and Wally Joyner about trying to hit left-on-left as well.
“They said, if you can hit the ball to left-center as a left-handed hitter, if you stay on the ball, you can hit lefties,” Snow said. “If you’re a big pull guy, a yank guy, you’re going to struggle. All those guys were gap-to-gap.”
He never had to act on it, though. He defended so well that as long as he wasn’t completely overwhelmed as a right-handed hitter, he’d be in the lineup every day. But a labrum injury in 1998 meant he couldn’t hit right-handed, and he was becoming a platoon player when he told manager Dusty Baker to leave him in for a left-on-left at-bat if a game was out of reach that year.
“Sure enough, one game we were getting blown out and a lefty came in and I went up there lefty-left and had no practice,” Snow said. “I’d faced some left-handed BP pitchers and the guy threw me a slider and I hit it off the wall in left-center for a double. I was like, ‘OK, I’m done.’”
He honed his left-handed swing obsessively all that offseason and Baker played him against lefties more often in 1999. He learned that he wouldn’t get left-on-left changeups, and pitchers would either try to run a two-seamer on his hands or get him to chase something soft away. Barry Bonds told him to step up in the batter’s box toward the pitcher and crowd the plate, and he walked more often left-on-left than he did as a switch-hitter.
“I didn’t give them much room to work and looked middle-away most of the time,” he said. “It just kept me on the ball and I would every now and then turn on one but for the most part my swing was a left-center swing and I could drive that ball to left-center.”
Snow hit .213 with a .606 OPS in 836 plate appearances against left-handers while a switch-hitter, and hit .245 with a .707 OPS in 656 plate appearances against southpaws from 1999 on. He was a career .268 hitter with a .784 OPS overall.
Jefferson had less big league experience as a switch-hitting corner bat who mostly played as a designated hitter in the early 90s. He abandoned it on the advice of his signing scout after being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 1986, brought it back a year later, and did it until that 1994 season with the Mariners.
He hit .188 with a .538 OPS against lefties in his switch-hitting years, and .245 with a .639 OPS after going lefty only. His prowess against righties made him a lifetime .300 hitter with an .869 OPS. He was mostly a designated hitter, and he owned the left-handed part of a platoon there, but managers always chose another right-handed hitter to start against lefties.
“It just got to the point where I was getting one at-bat every two weeks from the right side, and when I would get it, I would seem lost — like I was just giving away an at-bat. And I just felt like I was at the point where I had to establish myself in the big leagues.”
He laughed recalling an early at-bat against a hard-throwing left-handed reliever at the King Dome where he was so late swinging at a fastball that he almost hit Edgar Martinez in the on-deck circle with a foul ball.
“Then, it just became more natural to me and you get used to doing it,” said Jefferson, now a player agent at Reynolds Sports Management whose client list includes Orioles prospect Gunnar Henderson. “It’s going to take you playing regularly to be able to make that transition.”
He believes transitions like theirs will remain rarities because switch-hitting is “such an advantage,” and believes that’s even more true for up-the-middle defenders whose glove make them lineup mainstays even if their production from both sides is uneven.
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Neither Jefferson now Snow was aware that Mullins was joining one of the smallest subsets of MLB players in existence. There’s a through-line to all of their transitions, though, in that they are — or were — the rare switch-hitters who were naturally left-handed. With more right-handed pitchers in the game’s highest levels than lefties, that means they don’t get as much work honing what’s ultimately a learned swing the way a righty would with his left-handed swing.
“When I went to the right side, it wasn’t my natural side,” Snow said. “I didn’t feel comfortable. I wasn’t hitting and I didn’t want to take my workload away from the left side because I knew I was going to do it more, so I always had to work twice as hard and then I didn’t get a lot of at-bats or chances right-handed and when I did, I didn’t really feel as comfortable.”
Said Jefferson: “I think guys like us, when it’s not your natural side and they don’t give you the reps, it’s a battle, you know? In the minors, playing every day, I tracked it. I always hit the same average-wise. But I always had more power left-handed. Once the reps stop coming, that right-handed side just really fell off.”
Both ended up hitting better with the platoon advantage against them than against opposite-side pitching. Snow believes that having seen things from both sides of the plate, “the lefty-lefty thing was so blown out of proportion for kids that don’t get a chance coming up.
“To say, ‘Oh, a lefty is on the mound, you’re going to sit?’” Snow said. “I think you have to see the kind of hitter he is. Does he hit the ball the other way? Is he a line-drive guy? Does he have a good eye? I don’t think that’s a big deal. I’d love to see lefties get a chance to hit more left-handed hitters. Righties hit righties because they do it all the time. Lefties don’t hit lefties all the time because there’s not as many of them. But it can be done.”