Switch-hitting a challenge to truly master
Chipper, Berkman rank among best but there appear to be few successors
The hit cut Washington's lead over Atlanta to two runs, helping the Braves eventually seal a dramatic 11-10 comeback win last Friday at Nationals Park. It also gave Jones 1,598 career RBIs, the most in history by a player whose primary position was third base, passing Hall of Famer George Brett.
Jones' journey to that career milestone can be attributed to numerous factors, but in his mind, one tops the list. It goes back to the other side of the plate, the unnatural one, which gradually became a second home for Jones through years of practice.
"It certainly took a while to get a grasp on the left-handed swing," Jones said a few hours before his big hit, "but it's the No. 1 reason I'm sitting here at age 40, still playing."
Indeed, switch-hitting can be an invaluable weapon in a player's arsenal, but also an unwieldy one. Few have harnessed it as successfully as Jones or Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman. Among switch-hitters, those two rank behind only Mickey Mantle in career OPS+, a statistic that adjusts a player's on-base-plus-slugging percentage for ballpark and league. They rank behind only Mantle and Eddie Murray in home runs.
But Jones will retire at season's end, and the 36-year-old Berkman might not be far behind. He was considering such a move back in May before receiving a better-than-expected diagnosis on his injured right knee.
Switch-hitters aren't disappearing. Between 20 and 30 tend to qualify for the batting title in a given season; so far in 2012, there are 25, including younger All-Star selections Asdrubal Cabrera, Melky Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Matt Wieters. MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list includes seven who bat from both sides.
But the only active switch-hitter younger than 30 who has produced a 30-homer season is 29-year-old Kendrys Morales. Through Monday, one switch-hitter in his 20s had as many as 15 round-trippers this season: Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
"I don't know if I see the influx of good, young power-hitting switch-hitters," Jones said. "But you're starting to see the game trend back toward speed and the ability to manufacture runs ever since we got steroids out of the game.
"It's not an easy thing to do, to go out and hit for average and power from both sides of the plate. It's a little bit easier to do one or the other."
If a shift in that dynamic is occurring, Chili Davis has a firsthand view. He smacked 350 homers in 19 big league seasons, but as a first-year hitting coach with the A's, his switch-hitting pupils now include power-challenged middle infielders Cliff Pennington and Jemile Weeks.
"They've struggled, both of them, this year, and this should probably be the biggest learning year for them," Davis said. "It's a challenge to work with them because I was a different type of switch-hitter than them. I was more of a power guy."
Weeks has scuffled from the left side in posting an overall OPS of .602 through Thursday. Pennington's troubles from the right side are weighing down his .541 mark. It's a situation that illustrates the obstacles facing switch-hitters, who must in some ways put in twice as much work as their peers.
"The disadvantage is you have two different swings to worry about," Berkman said. "It's hard to keep one swing tuned up, much less two."
Berkman described himself as more pull-heavy right-handed and more capable of driving the ball to the opposite way left-handed. Jones called his swings "polar opposites," simple and compact from the right side, complex and full of moving parts from the left. Over the course of a season, there might be one month when both feel "spot-on," Jones said.
While a switch-hitter holds a constant platoon advantage over the pitcher, opposing teams can deploy their bullpens in a way that best exploits whichever swing is trailing behind the other.
"Understand that the numbers, everything they look at in order to go to that bullpen and bring someone in to pitch to you is to get you on the side that they think you're weaker on," Davis said. "Keeping both sides clicking was huge."
It's a challenge that Jones believes is worthy of pursuit. Without his ability to hit both ways, he doubts he still would be playing, or that the Braves would have made him the No. 1 overall pick of the 1990 First-Year Player Draft.
That doesn't make it an art everyone should practice. Jones was seven when his father introduced him. Berkman was five.
"I think to be really good at it, you have to start pretty early," Berkman said. "Most of the guys that I know that are successful at it have done it their whole lives."
Beyond an early start, Jones identified mental toughness as a key factor.
"You're going to go through your streaks where you can't throw it up and hit it from one side, and you can't miss it from the other, and vice versa," he said.
Despite those impediments, Davis believes switch-hitting will continue to have a place in the game.
"It keeps you in the lineup every day, if you can do it," he said.
Perhaps even at age 40.