To switch-hit or not? Even on a day when he played his first game of 2014, batting exclusively from the right side, Shane Victorino wasn't ready to answer the question.
"There’s no answer," Victorino told reporters of whether he was giving up switch-hitting. "I feel like you guys all are trying to get an answer. There’s no answer yet. If I had known, I would have answered it. If [Red Sox manager John Farrell] had known, he would have answered it. I think you guys keep beating that drum. For me, that’s the part where I’m just like, 'OK, it’s something that I don’t even know.' I'm working through the process."
On the one hand, it seems hard to fathom that with the benefit of an offseason to think about his 2013 performance, Victorino has yet to make up his mind. After all, he excelled after switching almost exclusively to hitting right-handed (an injury-driven decision) last year, posting a .300/.386/.510 line with six homers in 115 plate appearances as a right-handed hitter facing right-handed pitching. Those marks were considerably better than what he produced (.274/.317/.389 with three homers in 229 plate appearances) batting left-handed. In the postseason, Victorino became the first player in big league history with the game-winning RBI in three different clinchers, accomplishing the feat in each instance while batting right-handed against a righty.
Those performances alone would suggest an easy decision. Yet to view Victorino's decision solely through the lens of one season -- or even based on his career statistics -- does a disservice to the 33-year-old's career and the place switch-hitting holds in it.
It wasn't until his first full season of pro ball that Victorino was introduced to switch-hitting in 2000. He's experienced a history of organizational reversals regarding whether or not he should continue to cultivate the skill -- with the Dodgers showing greater indecision over a period of multiple seasons about whether he should or should not switch-hit than the outfielder is now showing. He fought through that uncertainty to embrace the art and imagine it as a central part of his baseball identity and a critical factor in his career success.
"I always think about switch-hitting being a big part of my success and why I'm here today. It's not something I want to give up on," Victorino explained late last year. "People are going to start questioning it. … This is something I'm going to ride out and work hard on each and every day."
A FALSE START
It was as a 19-year-old, coming off a solid but hardly dazzling performance (.280/.335/.391, 2 homers, 20 steals) in Rookie Ball in 1999 that Victorino commenced the experiment. A great deal was being thrown at him -- the Dodgers asked him both to start switch-hitting and to move to second base -- but the fearless Hawaiian was open to the challenge.
"Shane at the time was a tremendous athlete, a lot of raw ability, and his speed just made a good fit for him attempting switch-hitting," recalled Damon Farmar, Victorino's hitting coach for Short-Season Single-A Yakima in 2000. "I think he was dealing with a lot of frustration at the time. They were trying to make him a second baseman. He was playing out of position.
"And I just looked at him and said, 'Look, if you want to be, you can be an everyday center fielder, switch-hitter and productive in this league. That's what I see for you. But you have to make up your mind, commit to that and decide that's what you want. You can't decide because someone else wants it, they think that's best for you. That has to really be in your heart. It's going to be tough. It's not an easy thing, especially having hit right-handed your whole life and then making that transition as a professional and using to learn a wood bat.' ... But being a competitive guy, he was willing to take that on."
Farmar saw what the Dodgers saw. Victorino had tremendous speed, something that could be a significant asset to a left-handed hitter whose starting point was a few feet closer to first base in the batter's box. At the time, he hadn't shown much power, and so the calculus about whether to be a full-time right-handed hitter wasn't the same as it was by 2013.
"I just believe you're more of an asset as a switch-hitter," said Farmer -- who, in an odd coincidence, was introduced to switch-hitting at the start of his pro career but, after a brief experiment, was told to go back to hitting exclusively right-handed in a pro career that topped out in Double-A. "Situationally, being on the left side, there are times when he can pull balls and advance runners. If he comes up in at-bats later in the game, it forces pitching changes. It's just much more of an asset to the team and to himself as being a switch-hitter."
Farmar apprised Victorino of the fact that he willingly would have to embrace short-term struggles in order to add left-handed hitting to his skill set. But he also made clear that the 1999 sixth-rounder had the natural ability to succeed if he remained committed to switch-hitting.
"He had tremendous bat speed from both sides of the plate even then," said Farmar. "I knew at some point he would figure it out. He's a smart kid, he was determined, he was willing to work at it and I guess that's half the battle. Good for him. He stuck with it, people believed in him."
That wasn't entirely true. The Dodgers told the prospect go back to hitting right-handed full-time in 2001, with improved performance across two levels of full-season A-ball. Victorino, who went back to playing outfield full time that year, hit .281 with a .346 OBP and .397 slugging mark in 2001.
Still, he hardly represented the eventual five-tool All-Star he'd one day become. It was with that in mind that in 2002, his Double-A hitting coach, Gene Richards, suggested he pursue the undertaking again.
"I thought he had a much better shot at making it to the major leagues as a switch-hitter with the tools that he had and everything. I thought it would play very, very favorably," said Richards. "Sometimes you can see things down the line. You've got to project. I felt it was gong to be a little tougher at that time to make it as a right-handed hitter. You've got a lot of right-handed players that, at that time, I felt could play with Shane. He had to do something to separate himself from the competition. With that, I thought it would give him that extra tool, that ingredient to project him higher.
"He met the criteria, a guy that in my opinion had a little bit of a struggle with breaking balls," Richards added. "At that level, I saw him with the right-handers throwing breaking pitches giving him a little bit of trouble, and I thought hitting from the left side would alleviate that problem."
It would have been understandable had Victorino become exasperated at a time when it seemed like he was chasing his tail. The number of reversals in a short period of time were startling: Right-handed (1999) to switch-hitting (2000) to right-handed (2001) to switch-hitting (2002); outfield (1999) to second base (2000) to outfield (2001 and forward).
But through the potentially disorienting ordeal, Victorino remained mindful of the bigger picture.
"I never ever thought about what are these guys doing? Why are they doing this to me?" Victorino recalled. "I was 20, 21 years old and happy to be playing, grew up in Hawaii and never thought I would have an opportunity in pro ball. I never looked at those kinds of things. Now, looking back on it, it's like, 'Wow,' the transition, the things that went on where it was one year do that, one year do that, it was like four straight years of flipping, flopping. But it was all part of the process of being where I am today and who I am today. It challenged me in the minor leagues to be who I am today as a player. Those things helped mold me."
Richards praised Victorino's willingness to embrace the challenge. Still, he noted that there were times when the 21-year-old required some prodding.
"I know there were times when he became frustrated. He would ramble and talk as if he wanted to stop it. I would just tell him to shut up," said Richards. "He understood I wasn't going to give in. I wasn't going to give him that opportunity to quit so fast until he had given it his all."
Richards made the young protégée accept that the payoff for his conversion to switch-hitting would come several years down the road. At a young age, Victorino was forced to understand that the decision about whether or not to switch-hit required him to think beyond the immediate term -- a form of perspective worth considering as Victorino wrestles now with the issue of whether or not to switch-hit going forward.
"[Richards] would always tell me, Shane, it's probably going to take you 3-5 years to really understand, really figure it out," said Victorino. "He was right."
While Victorino came to understand that it would take him some years to find his form while batting from the left side of the plate, his decision received almost immediate validation following that 2002 season with Richards. Victorino's performance was very similar to what he'd done under Farmar in Yakima.
He hit .258 with a .328 OBP but a microscopic .318 slugging mark with just four homers that season in Double-A. Yet the tools -- switch-hitting outfielder capable of playing strong defense and impacting the game on the bases (Victorino swiped 45 bases that year) -- were promising enough that he was taken after that season by the Padres in the Rule 5 draft, giving him his first opportunity to play in the big leagues.
Victorino couldn't stick at the time. He hit just .151/.232/.178 in 36 games with San Diego before getting returned to the Dodgers. But once back in Los Angeles' system, Victorino's career commenced the upward trend that eventually laid the foundation for his big league success. He hit .296/.347/.397 in 2003, then saw power come to his game as a 23-year-old in 2004, swatting 19 homers between Double-A and Triple-A (more than he'd hit in his first five pro seasons combined). That performance, in turn, led the Phillies to acquire him in the Rule 5 draft after the '04 campaign and to make a trade to retain his rights for the 2005 season.
Thus it was that Victorino had the opportunity in 2005 to receive extensive personal instruction from Sal Rende, the hitting coach in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The batting cage in Lackawanna County Stadium was located at an inconvenient distance down the right field line, necessitating a trek to get there. As a result, a number of Victorino's teammates would filter down to the cages close to game time. Victorino would arrive early to work with Rende, both to hone his mechanics and to talk through his process as a hitter.
"The biggest thing mechanically left-handed is he couldn't get his stride right," said Rende. "Right-handed was unbelievable. He wouldn't face a lefty for a week, a guy would come in, he'd turn around right-handed and just clobber it. It was unbelievable. I couldn't believe he could do that. You try to mimic, a little bit, the same swing for both guys. But most guys aren't able to do that. With Shane, we just kind of forced him to let the ball travel and catch it deeper left-handed than right-handed. Right-handed, he had a real good idea of his contact point and left-handed he did not. That's what we worked on."
The work appeared to pay off. Victorino posted outrageous numbers against lefties (.403/.472/.685), but more than at any other point in his switch-hitting career, he also showed the ability to impact the game from the left side of the plate. Victorino hit .278/.344/.484 from the left side of the plate, with 11 of his 18 homers coming left-handed.
He was hardly a finished product, but he'd shown enough to make clear that he was ready to be a major league switch-hitter. He was named the International League MVP in his fourth season of renewed switch-hitting -- the midpoint of Richards' predicted timetable for Victorino's skills to develop from both sides of the plate.
"I remember thinking, 'Gene was damn right when he said 3-5 years,' " said Victorino.
He made his debut with the Phillies that September, had 17 of his 19 plate appearances from the left side of the plate and never looked back, emerging as an everyday player and two-time All-Star anchor of the Phillies starting in 2006.
BUT WHAT IF ... ?
Given all the work that went into developing his skills as a switch-hitter, it was fascinating for Victorino's former hitting coaches to see his success down the stretch as a full-time right-handed hitter in 2013. Rende, Victorino's Triple-A hitting coach, glimpsed snippets of a Sunday night game in which Victorino batted right-handed against Dodgers righty Chris Withrow.
"I saw the highlight and said, 'What the heck is he doing?' " Rende recalled.
"I sent him a text," Rende said. "'Why did you ever bother hitting left-handed?' "
In retrospect, at a time when Victorino is deciding what his future relationship with batting from the left side of the plate should be, that question resonates. Yet while Victorino is now questioning whether he should or should not hit exclusively from the right side going forward, it's noteworthy that no one seems to believe it was a mistake for him to adopt the practice in the first place.
Indeed, Victorino and his minor league hitting coaches remain convinced that his eventual big league accomplishments would have been impossible had Victorino not become a switch-hitter. And if he hadn't?
"I hate to say this, but I think he would be at home doing another job. That's the way I feel," said Richards. "Switch-hitting allowed him to be an elite major league ballplayer. It put him in a position to do that. If he hadn't done that, he would have been an average ballplayer at the minor league level who would probably have been playing Triple-A ball for a long time, and would have eventually been released. He would have been a journeyman, with a call-up here and there. Switch-hitting made him a major league ballplayer in my opinion.
"If you watched his track, they were moving him all over the place. He was in a grouping with a lot of ballplayers. There was nothing separating him from the competition. With him being able to switch-hit, with speed and all those other things, a little bit of power coming, that made him [something of value]. And then he got over to the Phillies, endeared himself and they let him know they loved him and appreciated what he was doing, and then he took off."
Indeed, the fact that Victorino batted almost exclusively from the left side in 2005 when in the big leagues with the Phillies further underscores the point. His big league opportunity came in no small part because of his ability to hit from the left side.
"I think as I recall that our organization felt that if he was going to be a major league player, he was going to have to switch-hit," said Rende. "At this point, you say right or wrong, you don't know, but looking at his numbers from the past, it was probably the thing that had to happen. But obviously, now when you see him, he's a much better hitter. He has a better idea of his swing and pitchers, so now he can probably go right-handed and have some success as he's doing. But could he have done that back in 2006 or 2007? Probably not. I think at that point, we said if this guy is going to help us at the major league level, he's got to hit left-handed."
Victorino recalls pinch-hitting for the right-handed hitting Aaron Rowand in Philadephia in echoing the notion that his ability to switch-hit played a considerable part in his career development.
"You look back on that moment and ask if I would have been where I am today if I was just a right-handed hitter? Who knows?" said Victorino. "I think being a switch-hitter definitely added a different element and helped my career."
If anything, Victorino's primary regret appears not whether he should have switch-hit, but why he didn't commit to it full-time at an earlier point in his career.
"Kids always ask me, when did you become a switch-hitter?" he relayed. "I say, 'I started at 22. Don't start when I did. Start now if you want to do it.' "
Yet the undertaking, Victorino insists, has made him a better, stronger hitter.
"You fight demons on both sides," said Victorino. "There's an element that you have to think, work through and think about how to be a better overall hitter."
That outlook, in turn, likely plays into his reluctance to make a definitive declaration about whether he will resume switch-hitting going forward. For not only has the 33-year-old seen his career take shape as a switch-hitter, but he's also been taught a powerful lesson when it comes to his handedness: Never say never.
A man who has switched multiple times from batting right-handed to switch-hitting is in no rush to make a definitive, irreversible declaration about his future now. Nor, given the value that he's seen switch-hitting add to his career, is he about to dismiss the potential value of the craft going forward.
Victorino's history with batting from both sides of the plate is complex and rich. Given that past, it should hardly seem surprising that his current stance is hardly a black-and-white matter.