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April 9, 2012

Out of Left Field

How to Stop a Baseball Game in its Tracks

by Matthew Kory

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Baseball’s norms are 150 years old. Because of the reverence that comes with age, we don’t challenge them. But by violating certain norms, a player could, in theory, put the game into an indefinite holding pattern. The pitcher could throw to first base forever. There is no rule to prevent it. With a runner on base, a pitcher could walk in circles around the mound, pick at his spikes, fix his hat, step on the rubber, and then repeat the whole thing all without throwing a pitch. A catcher could refuse to put down the sign his pitcher is waiting for, cycling endlessly through a series of pinkies, index and perhaps middle fingers. These things don’t happen, because there is inherent understanding that the game must go on. The players have an obligation to that effect.

However, there are some situations where that social obligation doesn’t yet exist, because nothing has happened to ever create it in the first place. Take, for example, Pat Venditte.

Venditte was drafted by the Yankees in both 2007 and 2008, but never higher than the 20th round. Before that, he attended Creighton University, and in the three seasons since, Venditte has graduated to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Most fans—even fans serious enough about baseball (and smart and handsome and/or pretty) that they subscribe to Baseball Prospectus—don’t know much about 27-year-old minor-league relievers with underwhelming stuff. In his Triple-A debut Friday, Venditte gave up four runs in two innings. So, yeah. Pat Venditte. So what?

Here are two pictures of him pitching. Here is Pat Venditte:

 

And this is also Pat Venditte:

The astute reader will note that the first picture features a left-handed pitcher while the second features a right-handed pitcher and yet I have labeled both as Pat Venditte.

There’s only one reason you should know Pat Venditte. Pat Venditte is an ambidextrous pitcher. But I’m not sure even that word does justice to what Pat Venditte can do. Ambidextrous means you can use both hands with equal ease. If you are ambidextrous you can eat yogurt using a spoon with both your right and left hands without spilling it down your front. You can cut paper with scissors with both hands without chopping fingers off. Skills like those are fine and good and I can’t do any of them. But what Pat Venditte can do is different, better, than that. What Pat Venditte can do is get professional hitters out by throwing a baseball using either arm. That’s called impressive. Also, weird.

He has a specially made glove that he can transfer from one hand to the next. When he comes out to warm up he throws half his warm-up pitches from the right side and half from the left. If a left-handed batter is coming up, he puts the glove on the right hand steps on the rubber with his left foot and throws lefty. If a right-hander is coming up, he simply switches the glove, turns his body 180 degrees, and regains the platoon advantage. Freakish dexterity is the new market inefficiency.

I came across Pat Venditte the way most people who aren’t Yankee prospect hounds do: this YouTube video. The video is eight minutes and 15 seconds long, so I’ll summarize: it was shot in 2008 during Pat Venditte’s first professional appearance. It shows Venditte pitching to two batters with two outs in the ninth inning of a 7-2 game. The first batter takes 40 seconds of that time, leaving the remaining seven and a half minutes for the next batter. Why seven and a half minutes? Because the next batter, Ralph Henriquez, is, of course, a switch-hitter.

This is a 15-second portion of what happens next:

 

In just those 15 seconds, Venditte and his adversary change sides three times, though the beauty of the GIF is that they’ll keep changing sides forever. Back and forth, back and forth, with every third switch being accompanied by Venditte leaning backwards as if to say, “Oh, come on!” as Henriquez switches sides again. Ah, delicious eternity.

In real life, the only thing that lasts forever is that smell you get deep in your nose after you snarf milk. It quickly became clear that further attempts at out-foxing each other weren’t going to work. The only way the switch-hitter and the ambidextrous pitcher can decide this for themselves is if one of them gets his cleat caught in the dirt in the act of switching sides and pulls a muscle. Short of that, the authorities will have to be notified.

The home plate umpire, both managers, players from both teams, other coaches, and eventually the other umpires all hold a six-minute conference which features more than the USDA-recommended weekly allowance of finger pointing, head shaking, and eye rolling. All this is going on with two outs in the ninth inning of a 7-2 game.

The upshot was that there was no rule covering the situation because, to everyone’s knowledge, it had never happened before. Resolution eventually took place, though it’s hard to say exactly why. Either the umpires ruled for the pitcher or Henriquez got fed up. Either way Venditte got the platoon advantage and struck Henriquez out on four pitches.

While the virtual world marveled at the oddity of a switch-pitcher, the baseball world remained nonplussed. Venditte isn’t that great a pitcher from either side, a fact he freely acknowledges. "I know I wouldn't be this far without it. I don't have dominating stuff from one side or the other. I need both," he says. Our own supreme prospect guru Kevin Goldstein agrees. Venditte’s stuff isn’t overwhelming and neither is his velocity from either side. Pitchers who can’t break 90 mph need all the help they can get, and having the platoon advantage against just about every hitter is a huge factor in his success. 

Whether Venditte has a future as a major leaguer is uncertain. Opinions vary on that, thought nobody seems to give Venditte much of a shot for more than a minor role as a big-leaguer. That is a shame, because if Venditte did make the majors he would become the first modern-day ambidextrous pitcher.

Did you say “modern day,” Matt?

Yes I did, italicized voice. A pitcher named Tony Mullane, who won 284 games for such teams as the Cleveland Spiders, the Detroit Wolverines, and the Toledo Blue Stockings, threw with both hands. As you can tell from those team names, this was the 1880s. Ambidextrous pitching was easier, in a sense, because Mullane played before baseball gloves. Some sources say he would stand on the mound and hold the ball with both hands so that the batter wouldn’t know which arm he was about to throw with. It’s unclear to what extent Mullane threw with both arms. Some sites list the ability first among his deeds, making it seem it was a frequent part of his arsenal, but Baseball-Reference says that Mullane “threw left-handed a handful of times.”

Mullane retired after the 1884 season. Between then and the present time there has been one inning where a pitcher has thrown the ball with both arms in a major-league game. That inning was the ninth inning of a Reds/Expos game on Sept. 28, 1995. The pitcher  was Greg A. Harris, not to be confused with Greg W. Harris, whose career confusingly coincided. Pitching for the Expos, Harris faced Reggie Sanders right handed, then Hal Morris and Eddie Taubensee as a lefty, then switched back to his right for Bret Boone. That was it. The Expos lost, and a game later Harris would be done as a big-league pitcher.

The encyclopedia of ambidextrous major-league pitchers is a short one. Pat Venditte may or may not add his name to the list, but he has already made a small mark on professional baseball. By facing Ralph Henriquez for eight minutes, he single-handedly (I’m sorry) created the need for this rule, appropriately called the Pat Venditte Rule. It puts the onus on the pitcher to choose sides first. Created by the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation, the ruling body of minor-league umpires, the rule provides guidance in the event an ambidextrous pitcher takes the mound in a professional game.

In other words, if it weren’t for Pat Venditte, this might go on forever:

 

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Pat Venditte

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