Mike Delos and Jerome Peña haven’t played against each other, don’t know one another, live on opposite sides of the East Valley, and may never cross paths in what’s left of their high school careers.
They do, however, share an anomaly as high school baseball players.
Both are switch-hitters — Delos at Phoenix Desert Vista, Peña at Cave Creek Cactus Shadows. Both are nearly equally adept at swinging from either side of the plate.
In a sporting age of specialization and distractions not involving work ethic, pulling the ol’ switcheroo on opposing pitchers is a rarity these days. And getting rarer.
Hitting from one side of the plate takes years of repetition and muscle development, so if double-dipping isn’t groomed early in life, players and coaches agree that muscles and hand-eye coordination won’t be consistent from each side.
“It’s awkward,” said Peña, an exception to the rule in that he didn’t start switch-hitting until the age of 14. “I kept trying to duplicate my right-handed swing. I felt like I had picked up a bat for the first time, like I didn’t know what baseball was.”
Mesa Westwood coach Brian Stephenson hasn’t seen a switch-hitter in 14 years of coaching in Arizona or Michigan. Mesa Red Mountain’s Henry Faccio has seen three switch hitters in his 17-year coaching career with the Mountain Lions, including one of his own in Josh Rodriguez from 2004-2006.
Delos is the third for coach Stan Luketich at Desert Vista. Peña and his younger brother, Anthony, have followed older brother Frankie, as switch-hitting Peñas at Cactus Shadows.
“You have to start and fully get into it,” said Delos, a senior outfielder. “I was decent enough really young to want to keep doing it, but my friends got into other stuff besides baseball, and they’d mess around with it but never wanted to work at it.
“A lot of people wish they were (switch hitters) but it’s so late to start, it would take a long time to get used to it.”
Both Delos and Peña have batting cages in the backyard, and fathers who were keen on experimenting with the idea.
Delos started at age 6, and was good enough early on, and willing to log the extra swings and batting cage hours needed to become fluid from his nondominant (right) side.
He’s evolved into a line-drive, .350 hitter.
“I was so young I got used to it pretty quick,” he said.
Peña, even though he started at a later age, had a slight advantage because he eats and writes left-handed.
But there were also hundreds of hours in the backyard with a tee and a father, Frank, throwing soft toss for batting practice.
At least 100 swings in the cage per night.
Peña is hitting .531 with eight home runs and 35 RBIs. In last year’s 4A Division II state title game against Phoenix Arcadia, he had hits from both sides of the plate in the same inning. During the Patriot Classic in early March, he hit home runs from both sides of the plate against Glendale Independence.
“(In the past) if there was a right-hand pitcher throwing, I was like, 'Aw crap,’” he said. “This year is the most confidence I’ve had from the left side.”
Younger brother Anthony is next, and there’s already talk the sophomore could be better than his older brothers.
But the Peñas may be among the last of a breed.
Jerry Dawson has coached baseball for 36 years, 34 of those at Scottsdale Chaparral.
In 1974, Dawson had four switch hitters on the team. The Firebirds played a doubleheader against Yuma that season. In game one, Yuma started a right-handed pitcher, and Dawson had seven left-handed hitters in the lineup.
In game two, Yuma started a lefty, and Dawson batted nine righties. He’s had three switch hitters in 33 years since.
“It’s certainly an advantage at any level, but I don’t think it’s for everybody,” Luketich said. “If you haven’t mastered one side of the plate, why do both?”
Coaches say the amount of time and repetitions spent training muscles often means only those who can afford a batting cage in the backyard or private instruction have a chance to develop fundamentals.
And with equipment and individual instruction costing hundreds or thousands of dollars, coaches say most families can’t afford it, and they don’t see younger kids being taught early enough. By the time they get to high school, coaches have to be the bearer of bad news and tell kids they should stick to one side of the plate.
As a 15-year scout for the Chicago White Sox, it’s John Kazanas’ job to watch hundreds and thousands of amateur baseball games and players in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, west Texas and Arizona.
So far, he’s seen one quality switch hitter in Utah this year.
“Try to throw with your left hand. It’s awkward, horrible and a struggle,” Kazanas said. “Same thing for hitting because everything is totally backwards with mechanics, body movement and using muscles you normally haven’t for years. It takes a lot of work to do it right, because you have to overcome everything physically natural to you.”
Most of a dozen area coaches said they’d encourage kids to learn how to switch hit at a young age, but without exponential amounts of time and years of labor, baseball may become a one-sided sport.
“Maybe it’s a cycle, maybe they’ll come back,” Dawson said. “But I doubt it.”