Maybe it’s inaccurate to say Riley Unroe was born to be a switch-hitter, but the evidence was pretty clear by age 2.
There are videos of the Desert Ridge senior shortstop all those years back in the family basement, swinging his miniature bat both left- and right-handed.
Unroe has carried it on to present day, but is one of the rare East Valley high school baseball players who still hits from each side of the plate. According to Perfect Game, he is the only Division I-college committed senior from Arizona who is a switch-hitter.
The Mountain Pointe duo of Cole Tucker and Jake Alexander are two of the more high-profile juniors who do so, but that list is also small.
Alexander said he was comfortable with it by the age 10, while Tucker didn’t attempt to switch hit in an actual game until his freshman year.
Tucker said the Pride coaching staff has done a good job of making sure they stay sharp on both sides of the plate.
“Coach (Paul) Mather has really helped us stay on it,” Tucker said. “We get equal swings from both sides in practice.”
Through the first 17 games of the season Alexander was hitting .500 and Tucker was at .415.
Desert Vista coach Stan Luketich said the Thunder hasn’t had many switch hitters over the years, and that continues in 2013 with no one.
Many think it is a trend throughout the amateur game.
“I think it’s definitely less common,” Valley Christian coach Kyle Smith said. “I’m not sure why exactly, but it seems to me that the ‘glamour’ of switch-hitting has worn off. In the past it was a point of pride for players. Now, no one really seems to care. We have a player who is capable of switch-hitting. Truth be told, he’s probably better from his ‘unnatural’ side, but since he is uncomfortable from that side he balks at the idea of switch-hitting.”
It’s a tough sell for players who haven’t practiced the skill from a young age.
With the increasingly high stakes of college scholarships and possible Major League Baseball draft consideration on the line, more batters are interested in fine-tuning their present strengths rather than experimenting with switch-hitting.
“Many players do not like the failure-success ratio and time commitment it takes to be good from both sides,” Corona del Sol coach David Webb said. “I think when the big league game became infatuated with power guys, switch-hitting dropped in popularity. The days of the crafty switch-hitter who was valued for his on-base percentage has given way to the big bopper. Most major power guys are definitely not doing it from both sides of the plate.”
The time element is a sticking point.
Desert Ridge coach Pat Herrera, for instance, had his players take 45 minutes worth of batting practice on Monday afternoon. For Unroe, it was actually 90 minutes.
“Riley came up as a freshman and I didn’t like him from the right side because I had so much confidence in the left,” Herrera said. “So (hitting coach Dennis) Warner said, ‘If you’re going to switch, you have to get equal amount of cuts.’ And he did. He was willing to put in the work. ”
For those who can do it successfully, the advantage is clear.
Players like Unroe and Tucker never have to see a breaking ball dart away from them at the plate.
“I love the advantage of being a switch-hitter,” Unroe said. “I think it’s the best. I can always count on that ball tailing in.”
Not everyone is sold, and there is an alternate decision being made by parents. Instead of turning their young sons into switch-hitters, many natural right-handed batters will be flipped to left. With the majority of pitchers throwing from the right side, it is often an advantage.
Former Red Mountain shortstop Aaron Smith was a natural right-hander, started switch-hitting, and eventually settled in as a lefty because that’s how he hit best. It seems to be a common theme.
“It seemed that when I grew up in the ’80s that everyone except a rare player hit right,” Gilbert Christian coach Kevin Foote said. “I have coached three players now who have thrown right but hit left. I asked their parents and they told me that they trained their kid as a 2-year-old to hit left because it is a more natural swing and the majority of pitchers will be right-handers, as well as they get down the line faster to first.”
Unroe is hitting .561 with nine homers and 50 RBIs in 22 games, and does most of his damage as a left-hander. He isn’t interested in ditching the right-handed part of his game. An injury forced him into a lefty-vs.-lefty matchup once in his career, and that was enough.
“I got a walk, but it was an interesting experience,” he said. “I don’t want to do that again.”
It’s just as true for non-switch-hitters. By the time they reach high school, the results-oriented nature of the game makes it tough for any added wrinkles.
“I believe kids are not beginning early enough experimenting with switch-hitting,” Cactus Shadows coach Gaetano Gianni said. “If they try to pick it up in the high school years they will spend (and) waste at-bats trying to gain experience. With the competitiveness between players, college scholarships, and possible draft (implications), players just cannot take a chance on not doing their best to showcase their talents.”
• Reach Kyle Odegard at (480) 898-6834 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his blog at http://blogs.evtrib.com/varsityxtra, or find him on Twitter @Kyle_Odegard. Staff writer Jason P. Skoda contributed to this story.