The all-time best switch-hitters

May, 5, 2011
5/05/11
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So Lance Berkman’s back in action and ripping pitchers like it was 2001 or 2006, his best seasons in what has already been an outstanding career. Where does this put him among the game’s best switch-hitters of all time?

It may have snuck up on you, but he’s already on the short list. In offensive WAR (OWAR), he’s already ranked 12th among all switch-hitters. Let’s look at the chart -- ranked by OWAR -- and then give some thought to his chances to climb higher on this list, and even discuss his Hall-worthiness.

The very top of the list holds no surprise for most of us. Mantle ranks among the all-time greats from whichever side of the plate they hit from. Then things get interesting, because finding Chipper Jones this high up, and 27th overall among all hitters, might surprise some. You might have been prepared to discount him because he starred during the Boom-Boom ‘90s and early Aughties, and the special circumstances attached to an amped-up era. However, I don’t think there’s much of an argument over whether Jones is Hall-worthy, come the day -- much of the case against him rests on the uncertain merits of the various advanced defensive metrics available to us.

Then there’s Pete Rose, baseball’s answer to Lot’s wife, a pillar of salt to leave standing in the wastelands for doing the one thing he was asked not to.

George Davis was a tremendous shortstop from the 19th and early 20th century. A posthumous case for his election to the Hall of Fame was duly conducted by various sabermetricians and historians, and he was eventually voted in by the Veterans Committee back in 1998. He was the aging shortstop on the 1906 Hitless Wonders -- the White Sox team that beat the Cubs in their lone World Series against each other.

Alomar, like Jones, might surprise you for rating this high, but his all-around value as a hitter rested on his superb balance of power, speed and defense. To skip a slot for a moment, Alomar’s superiority over Frisch, another second baseman -- and a star from the ‘20s and ‘30s -- should help put to rest any complaints over whether he belongs. To step away from switch-hitters for a moment and stick with second basemen, it’s worth noting that Lou Whitaker outclassed Frisch with a 62.0 career OWAR -- and he isn’t even eligible for Hall voting thanks to the current rules of deleting players from the ballot.

Which is not to say that Tim Raines or Eddie Murray don’t belong as well. Maybe 60 OWAR is the imaginary line that helps distinguish between who is and isn’t in. Raines hasn’t been elected yet, but if Bert Blyleven’s selection is any indication of the creeping sway of quality analysis over the electorate, by statheads like Rich Lederer and Jay Jaffe, he will. Murray’s selection on the basis of a long, distinguished career, which included 500 homers, was well earned.

It’s when we drop into this next group that things get really interesting. Bernie Williams, Ted Simmons and Reggie Smith all belong in anybody’s Hall of the Really, Really Good. If you want to get hung up on arguments over how Player X is better than Player Y who’s already in, then all three deserve to be Hall of Famers by the standards set by players like Earle Combs or Rick Ferrell or Lloyd Waner. Simmons gets dinged for not being the best-throwing catcher, but his value as a power source from behind the plate sustained him into a late-career switch to DH and finally pinch-hitting. Smith’s career might seem abbreviated despite its excellence, but he put in a couple of seasons in Japan before retiring at 39.

Bernie Williams’ career makes for a fascinating case to test how far the purported “New York effect” extends, because he was an excellent player and a key to their last dynasty, and if this electorate’s voting in players like Andre Dawson and Jim Rice -- two men with much lower OWAR tallies -- then perhaps Williams has a case on the basis of his broad base of skills.

Can Berkman make a move up this list? Of course he can, because this year’s early-season renaissance says he has plenty left in the tank in the immediate future. PECOTA’s projected long-term picture for him is pretty good through 2013 before plummeting in his age-38 season in 2014, which ought to put him close to 60 OWAR and more than 400 career homers. The question is whether, like Smith or Williams, he tails off badly enough toward the end of his 30s and winds up in Cooperstown’s annex, consigned to the Hall of the Really, Really Good.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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