For many years, baseball fans of the National League have seen the scene play out time and time again.
Late in the game, an inning ends, a new pitcher enters the game, and the manager emerges from the dugout, lineup card and pen in hand ready to make a mess of the lineup card, and simultaneously confuse many fans in attendance.
That manager has just made a double switch.
So what is a double switch in baseball?
A double switch is a lineup change most commonly seen when a manager replaces a pitcher who is in the lineup and simultaneously replaces a position player. The players entering the game replace the players exiting the game in the lineup. This can also be performed with just position players.
The double switch is a relatively simple principle, though there are a few reasons why a manager does or does not make a double switch. We’ll dive into that here.
How Does a Double Switch Work?
In baseball, most substitutions are straight substitutions, meaning that one player replaces another in the same lineup spot. Simple, right? Well, double switches are a little bit different.
In a double switch, two players are replaced at once by two different players. However, the two replacements switch batting places corresponding to the original lineup, usually involving the movement of the pitcher’s spot in the lineup.
For example, if a pitcher is batting ninth, a manager may choose to substitute another batter, let’s say the shortstop batting sixth.
In a double switch, a new shortstop would enter at the same time and move into the number nine spot, while the new pitcher would be slotted into the sixth spot in the lineup.
Less common is a manager replacing two position players at once, which usually happens in the late innings of a blowout game.
Usually, in the case of mass substitutions, the replacements will bat in the corresponding lineup spots as the players they replace, but managers may slide players in different spots if they have a certain player they want to receive at-bats.
Because of the nature of this type of transaction, the manager must explicitly declare the nature of his substitutions to the home plate umpire, emphasizing the change in lineup spots to ensure clarity in future innings.
Now, let’s remember that when a substitution occurs in baseball, a player who has been substituted may not return to the game in any capacity. Additionally, baseball rules do not allow a player to change batting order positions.
With these restrictions placed by the rulebook, a double switch requires two simultaneous moves, two new players to enter the game, and two players leaving for the remainder of the game.
Because of the amount of maneuvering needed, it is not normal to see multiple double switches occur in one game.
Why Do Double Switches Occur?
Naturally, the second question that many have besides what a double switch is, is why do managers perform this maneuver anyways?
A double switch is usually performed so that managers can move the pitcher’s spot in the batting order farther away from the spot due up in the next inning, thus delaying the pitcher batting or a later substitution caused by the pitcher’s spot being due up.
This is the most common occurrence for the double switch. Because pitchers are notoriously poor hitters, managers will do whatever they can to avoid having them hit or being forced to remove a pitcher by pinch-hitting for him.
In essence, the double switch helps solve this issue by delaying the next at-bat by the pitcher’s spot for another inning or two.
Where this most commonly comes into play is when a manager was planning on a pitching change with the pitcher’s spot due up in the following inning.
For example, let’s say a team has their shortstop batting seventh and their pitcher ninth, with an inning-ending with the shortstop making the final out.
In this scenario, the manager may choose to try to have his current pitcher finish another inning, then pinch-hit for him an inning later. However, if the manager winds upbringing in a new pitcher instead, he’ll likely perform a double switch.
In that case, the manager would most likely bring in his new pitcher, and place him in seventh spot in the order, replacing his shortstop. In that case, a new shortstop would enter and bat ninth. Now, the rules do not stipulate that the new substitution enters at the same position.
In our hypothetical situation, a player already in the lineup, let’s say a second baseman, could slide over to shortstop, and then the new player could instead enter at second base.
With a double switch, managers are allowed, and in many cases are forced to be creative with positional flexibility.
How Does the DH Affect the Double Switch?
In our hypothetical scenarios we laid out, the double switch is used for replacing a pitcher who is also in the batting order.
However, most professional baseball leagues in the world (plus all levels of college baseball, and the National Federation of High Schools) employ the designated hitter (DH), eliminating this problem.
So is the double switch only dependent on the DH?
The double switch is widely considered a National League phenomenon, though American League teams have been known to employ the double switch. However, it’s most notable in the National League, where the designated hitter was not employed before 2020.
Now remember, a double switch is possible in the American League.
American League teams can and will use double switches in interleague games at National League ballparks, but at times, they will also use them in games just to bring in two position players at once, with no pitcher involved.
This is less common because most AL teams only carry three or four bench players, meaning that managers are less willing to burn two of those players at once unless it is late in a game that is already decided.
However, data suggests that in recent years, American League teams use the double switch as much, and occasionally more, then their National League counterparts, with an American League team, the Los Angeles Angels, using the double switch more than any other team over a three-year span from 2014-16, with an average of over 60 per season.
That said, the double switch predates the designated hitter by nearly 70 years. Box scores showing a double switch go back to at least 1902, with the intent even then being to avoid pitchers in the order.
To reference, after a 12-inning game between the Florida Marlins and New York Yankees in 1997, Marlins manager Jim Leyland remarked that he made two double switches—which removed his two best hitters—for the sole purpose of not running out of players, whether it be hitters or pitchers.
Question it or not, the Marlins won that game 2-1, so the strategy paid off. That said, with the universal designated hitter arriving in Major League Baseball in 2020—possibly for good—the double switch as we commonly know it may soon join flannel uniforms in the dustbin of baseball history.