March 31, 2010
Switch-Pitcher in Pinstripes
It was only one inning and change in an exhibition game, but on Tuesday the Yankees finally got a good look at Pat Venditte, the ambidextrous reliever who has pitched for three of their lower minor league affiliates over the last two years. Drafted out of Creighton in the 20th round in 2008, Venditte has been regarded by the media simply as a curiosity, and even his own organization has treated him more as a suspect than a prospect. Nonetheless, He's done nothing but deliver the goods when asked, compiling dominating numbers — 1.53 ERA, 11.6 strikeouts per nine and 6.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, against just 6.7 hits per nine — in an even 100 innings. Intrigued, manager Joe Girardi requested that the Yankees bring him along to the Braves camp for a command performance in a split-squad game. "I've wanted to see it all spring," said the Yankee skipper.
Venditte entered the game in the fifth inning in relief of CC Sabathia, and after warming up with four pitches as a lefty, threw four more as a righty, switching his six-fingered mitt to the opposite hand as he did (alas, MLB.com's video edit fails to capture it). The book on him is that he throws harder from the right, with a four-pitch arsenal which includes an 87-89 mph fastball, and scraps his curveball when throwing sidearm from the left, topping out in the low 80s.
He started auspiciously, retiring righty Yunel Escobar on two pitches, the second a grounder. Returning for the sixth, he faced six more hitters, three from the left side and three from the right side, with limited success. Venditte yielded two hits, a walk and a run, but escaped further damage when he induced switch-hitter Brooks Conrad to ground out. Prior to the at-bat, home plate umpire Mark Reilly informed Conrad of the so-called "Pat Venditte Rules," which mandate that a pitcher declare his handedness for the duration of the plate appearance, lest the opponents dance around both sides of the plate until the cows come home, as they did the first time such an occurrence happened in the New York-Penn League.
Venditte's Yankees teammates were puzzled but intrigued. "It freaked me out a little bit," said Sabathia "When I came out of the game, I was looking and I was like, 'Oh, they brought a lefty in.' The batter gets up there and he's throwing right-handed. It was a little weird." Batterymate Jorge Posada called the spectacle "entertaining," adding, "I think it's interesting that he can switch in between hitters. We saw that — he saw a lefty on deck and switched it right away. He's got an idea. He throws strikes, throws harder from the right side probably, with some breaking balls and stuff."
Venditte will likely return to the Yankees' High-A Tampa affiliate to start the year, and he's still a longshot to reach the majors. Nonetheless, in honor of his spring debut, I've dug up a piece I wrote for my Futility Infielder site back in 2002 (yes, I've been at this a long time) chronicling the history of switch-pitching, which at the big league level remains substantially intact from what was written here. Where possible, I've updated links, and I've made minor edits for content as well. Enjoy!
Update: so long as we're performing archaeology, here's a pointer to David Laurila's 2008 interview with Venditte.
My father, who has long deferred to me on matters of baseball history, asked a question the other night. Namely, if there are switch-hitters, are there (or have there been) any switch-pitchers? Since my recall of the facts was a bit fuzzy (uh, Greg Harris a few years back and.. um... Double-Duty Radcliffe?), I promised him I would do a bit of research and report back.
According to the various sources I checked, four major-league pitchers have pitched both left- and right-handed in a single game. The first and most famous was Tony Mullane. Mullane, a natural righty born in Cork, Ireland, played without a glove and would face the batter with both hands on the ball, then throw it with either one. Though he gained some renown for doing this, accounts differ as to how often it actually occurred. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James wrote this about Mullane (who he ranked 82nd in his Top 100 Pitchers):
"Thirty years ago, when historical research about baseball was in a sorry state, there were widely differing accounts about how much Mullane pitched left-handed, with some sources sayhing that he did so regularly, and others questioning whether he ever did so at all. There is now a consensus that Mullane did pitch to a few batters left-handed on July 18, 1882, and did so in some exhibition games, and may have done so on other occasions, but never more than a few times."
BaseballLibrary.com lists two dates in which Mullane did pitch ambidextrously, the aforementioned 1882 date (for the Louisville Eclipse of the American Association) and again in 1893 (for the Baltimore Orioles of the National League). Here are the two accounts:
• July 18, 1882: "Switch pitching Louisville hurler Tony Mullane pitches both right- and left-handed in an AA game against Baltimore‚ the first time the feat is performed in the major leagues. Starting in the 4th inning he pitches lefthanded whenever Baltimore's lefty hitters are at bat‚ while continuing to pitch right-handed to right-handed hitters. It works until the 9th when‚ with 2 outs‚ Charlie Householder hits his only HR of the year to beat Mullane 9-8. One newspaper account labeled the move a 'novelty‚' though the gloveless Mullane‚ who faced the batter squarely‚ evidently had a devastating pickoff move to 1B or 3B."
• July 14, 1893: "Right-handed P Tony Mullane, losing to Chicago, pitches the 9th inning lefthanded. Chicago adds 3 more runs to their total and whips Baltimore 10-2."
Novelty aside, Mullane was a pretty good pitcher who won 30 games or more in five consecutive seasons. Of course, pitching in those days wasn't pitching in the way that we think of it. The pitching box was located only 45 or 50 feet away from home plate; it wasn't moved to 60-foot-6 until 1893. A pitcher could take a short run before throwing. And a batter could call for a high pitch or a low pitch up until 1887. The number of strikes for a strikeout or balls for a walk varied from year to year; it was seven balls to a walk in 1882. Pitchers didn't throw nearly so hard and they racked up a lot more innings; Mullane pitched as many as 567 innings but never led the league, though he did finish in the top 10 eight times. His lifetime total of 284 wins is the fourth-highest of any eligible non-Hall of Fame pitcher. He was also a decent enough hitter and fielder to play every position except catcher, and he appeared in over 200 games in the field, mostly as an outfielder. And yes, he was a switch-hitter.
The next pitcher to perform the ol' righty-lefty in a game was Larry Corcoran of the Chicago White Stockings, who did so against Buffalo in 1884, pitching four innings of middle relief (apparently the longest stint of switch-pitching). Corcoran was a very good pitcher from 1880 through 1884 for Chicago, pitching his team to three consecutive first-place finishes in his first three years, winning 163 games and tossing three no-hitters. But he fell victim to a kidney disease and his health deteriorated; he won only 14 more games in the bigs after that five year stretch, was done by age 27, and dead at 32. Still, his spot in baseball history is secure; he's credited with being the first pitcher to work out a set of signals with his catcher — Corcoran would shift his tobacoo chaw when he wanted to throw a curve.
After Corcoran came yet another 1880s hurler. On May 9, 1888, Louisville Colonels righty Elton "Icebox" Chamberlain (don't you love that name?) threw the last two innings of an 18-6 rout lefthanded, holding Kansas City scoreless. Chamberlain was a solid pitcher for several teams in the AA and NL from 1886 to 1896, winning 157 games, but the best thing about him seems to have been his nickname. Bill James wrote that he was called "Icebox" because he was because he was "cool and collected on the mound." But Gene "Two-Finger" Carney, who writes a weblog called Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown [and who passed away in 2009], has another explanation: Chamberlain discovered in 1890 that baseballs frozen overnight worked to a pitcher's advantage. Either way, you'd have to say, he was pretty cool.
After Mullane's second stint in 1893, no major-leaguer performed the ambidextrous feat in a game for over 100 years. But according to Jerome Holtzman, the official historian of Major League Baseball, several warmed up on the sidelines, including Cal McLish (whose real name is Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish; I dare you to look it up); Brooklyn's Ed Head, Boston Red Sox pitcher Dave (Boo) Ferris, Tug McGraw of the Mets, and Jeff Schwarz of the White Sox.
On September 28, 1995, ambidexterity returned to the major league mound in the form of Montreal Expo reliever Greg Harris. In the 9th inning of a 9-7 loss, Harris retired the first batter (Reggie Sanders) right-handed, then switched over to lefty and walked Hal Morris. Still lefty, he got Eddie Taubensee to ground out, then switched back to righty, to retire Brett Boone. Harris, who had wanted to do this for 10 years, was well-prepared for the occasion, and used a special six-fingered glove which has been sent to the Hall of Fame. At 39, his career was at its tail end; he pitched only once more in the majors before retiring.
A couple of other major leaguers did the switcheroo earlier in their careers. Bert Campaneris, a star shortstop for the Kansas City and Oakland A's who once played all nine positions in the same game, pitched with both hands in a Florida State League game in 1962. And Paul Richards, a big-league catcher and manager, was said to have pitched both ends of a double-header ambidextrously during his high-school days in Waxahachie, Texas and been featured in Ripley's Believe It Or Not for doing so. Waxahachie?
Oh, and as for Double Duty Radcliffe, I was waaaay off. Ted Radcliffe was a very popular Negro League star who earned his nickname from Damon Runyon by pitching a shutout in the second game of a Negro League World Series doubleheader after catching Satchel Paige in the first. But that's an entirely different story...
Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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