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A eulogy for switch-hitting pitchers

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There may not be a switch-hitting starting pitcher in the National League this year, and that’s a shame.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Since 1901, only 161 switch-hitting pitchers (minimum 90% of games at P) have secured ten or more career plate appearances in the big leagues. Last season, Tyler Lyons (9) and Wandy Rodriguez (8) were the only ones with more than a single plate appearance. Lyons has only 22 career PA, and just two of those have come as a RHB, far too few to make any sense of his splits. Rodriguez, on the other hand, has logged a total of 509 PA over his 10 year career, which puts him at 36th most all-time.

If Wandy Rodriguez is the "Great Switch-Hitting Hope", he'll need to make the most of his invitation to Atlanta Braves big league camp this spring. To make any kind of impact at the plate, he’ll need not only to make the team but the starting rotation as well. This seems unlikely after managing just 62.2 IP and 26.2 IP over the last two injury-plagued seasons with the Pirates.

If Rodriguez fails to make it back to The Show, he’ll be remembered as a solid starter who went more than 190 innings for four straight years while posting fantasy baseball stats that inspired the Wandy Line. This post aside, he's unlikely to be remembered for his hitting. Over his career, Rodriguez went homerless while posting a -26 wRC+ and .139 wOBA. These values are bad, even for a pitcher. He appears to have been equally dreadful from both the right and left side of the plate. Although his batting average was nearly 20 points higher from the right, he walked more from the left which balanced out his OPS.

Rodriguez PA HR K% BB% BA OPS ISO
RHB 219 0 24% 0.5% .143 .310 .022
LHB 290 0 27% 3.1% .125 .302 .023
Total 509 0 26% 1.9% .133 .306 .022

Should Rodriguez make the Braves rotation, he would take the spot that Kris Medlen may have filled should he have returned following his second Tommy John surgery in 2013 rather than being non-tendered. Medlen signed with the Royals this offseason, where his own switch-hitting skills will be all but wasted.

Compared to Rodríguez, Medlen looks like The Mick. He posted a career wRC+ of 15 and wOBA of .192, both above average values for a pitcher. Although he has started only 64 games at the major league level, Medlen has amassed enough PA to rank 70th among switch hitting pitchers.

Medlen clearly enjoys swinging the bat, posting a career strikeout percentage of 39% and identifying himself as a "platoon DH for the Kansas City Royals" on Twitter (only after being a Hubby and Dad x2). However, he also takes his share of walks (7.2%). Together with his home run (which he wasn’t entirely convinced cleared the fence), Medlen qualifies as a three true outcome player, posting a TTO percentage  of 46.7% (K+BB+HR/PA -- no need to worry about removing the IBB here).

Medlen PA HR K% BB% BA OPS ISO
RHB 40 0 35% 2.5% .114 .274 .000
LHB 112 1 40% 8.9% .151 .457 .080
Total 152 1 39% 7.2% .141 .408 .055

The 2015 season will be our second without a glimmer of hope for the return of the best switch-hitting pitcher of all time. Although he is still just 33 years old, Carlos Zambrano hung up his cleats after toiling in the Phillies minor league system in 2013. Zambrano finished his career with a wRC+ of 57 and wOBA of .273. He also clubbed a staggering 24 HR, good for 3rd most career HRs by a pitcher, behind Warren Spahn (35) and Don Drysdale (29). However, he did so in just 744 PA, besting both Spahn (1.7%) and Drysdale (2.2%) with a HR% of 3.2%.

In fact, Zambrano is currently tied with Yasmani Grandal for 199th in career HR by a switch hitter. That’s EVERY SWITCH HITTER! SINCE 1901! His peak power came in 2006 when he hit 6 HRs. Since 1961 only three pitchers (Mike Hampton, Earl Wilson (twice), and Don Drysdale) have hit more HRs in a single season (7). He won his first Silver Slugger award that year. He would win it again in 2008 and 2009.

Twenty of Zambrano’s HRs came in the ESPN Home Run Tracker era (2006 onward). His longest HR came in his final season when he launched a 431 ft. (true distance) opposite field shot off Joe Blanton in Citizens Bank Park. His power was no fluke as Home Run Tracker rated only 15% of his HRs as lucky. According to their classification system, 70% of Zambrano’s HRs had no trouble clearing the fence (brought to you in the Miami Marlins colors that Zambrano helped introduce in 2012).

Zambrano can be generously referred to as a free-swinger, taking HR cuts from both sides of the plate and striking out at similar rates. Over his big league career (2001-2012) he had the fifth worst K% and second worst BB% among all players with more than 700 PA. However, his career .150 ISO was just below the league average (.155) during that time. This tied him with the likes of David Freese (1,234 PA) and put him just ahead of Eric Hosmer (1,161 PA). Both players have seen their career ISO decrease over the following two seasons.

Zambrano PA HR K% BB% BA OPS ISO
RHB 218 9 33% 1.8% .269 .739 .187
LHB 526 15 32% 1.1% .226 .595 .135
Total 744 24 32% 1.3% .238 .636 .150

Zambrano seems to have been a slightly stronger batter from the right side of the plate where he posted a healthy .739 OPS over his career. This fall, Zambrano confirmed that he’s happily retired, but at his age, you have to wonder if the best hitting (full-time) pitcher couldn’t catch on as a DH platoon somewhere. After all, right-handed power is in demand and he had it in spades. Maybe his knees just couldn’t take the abuse any longer.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphsBaseball-Reference, and ESPN Home Run Tracker.

Matt Jackson is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can also read his work at Banished to the Pen. Follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.