On Friday, June 5, a matchup of last-place teams took place between the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. With the home team leading by two runs in the seventh, we got to see the debut or a 29-year-old relief pitcher for Oakland. By that description alone, we might not get much excitement or interest. However, check out the Baseball Reference entry for said pitcher:
“Venditte typically throws with the hand needed to gain the platoon advantage”. That is why when Venditte faced Brock Holt, he pitched with his left hand, and when it was turn to pitch to Hanley Ramirez and Mike Napoli, Venditte used his right hand. Hanley was befuddled, to say the least, as were many at the stadium and watching on TV. Venditte ended up throwing an additional inning to end his night with 2 blank frames, 1 hit, and 1 strikeout - officially becoming MLB's first switch (or ambidextrous, if you are a spelling bee fan) pitcher in over a century.
In a game in which you are taught to expect anything on any given night, the sight of Pat Venditte using both of his hands to pitch was still as shocking as it comes, and more so that he was able to do it effectively. Anyone who has ever tried so much as writing with your non-regular hand knows how hard it is to do and the poor results it regularly brings, so imagine how hard it must be for a guy to be doing this at the highest level of his sport.
Baseball historians have already pointed out that switch-pitching was a more common practice in the 19th Century, with at least 4 hurlers being on record as capable of throwing with both hands. However, this practice went almost completely out of style for a long time, as it can be considered as nothing more than an impractical sideshow. The latest incarnation of a pitcher using both hands in an official game had come in 1995, when Montreal's Greg Harris decided to try out his tricks against the Reds. He worked the ninth inning by throwing twice lefty and twice righty, allowing a hit and zero runs. Harris had reportedly mastered this task as early as in 1986, but he never had the courage to use it in a real game.
Venditte's story is quite a bit different, as he was taught to throw with both hands by his father starting at the tender age of three. Despite the challenge posed by having to control a baseball similarly with both hands, the Omaha native has never shied away from his unique ability. His path to the majors started as a 20th round pick in 2008, signing with the Yankees a year after he had been drafted in the 45th round by the same franchise. The thing about Venditte is that he was never much of a prospect, despite his built-in platoon advantage.
His repertoire profiles him as a finesse pitcher who can top out at around 86-88mph with his fastball, while featuring a slurve-like curveball as his primary out pitch. These limitations in velocity probably kept him back in the Yankees minor league system despite the solid numbers posted at every stop. Counting his stats from class A, AA, AAA, and the Mexican League, Venditte accrued a 2.37 ERA in 417.2 career innings, with only 22 homers allowed, and an even 4 strikeouts per every walk. Venditte's big strikeout numbers were always paired with an above-average ground ball rate, which should bode well for his chances against major-league caliber hitting.
After never receiving the call from the Yankees, Venditte was granted free agency and quickly signed with Oakland, which is nothing but innovative in terms of roster construction. With the A's having (by far) the worst bullpen ERA in the league, it was understandable that Venditte would be given a chance to join the big club. His limited performance has been encouraging, so far, as he projects to be the ultimate situational guy that can repel the platoon advantage from any kind of non-switch hitter.
Despite his minor league track record, projection systems are not exactly wowed by his potential, as any kind of pitcher with his speed and debuting at his age are practically guaranteed to have short careers in MLB. However, the same caveats have applied for outliers like Jim Abbott and Jose Altuve, and they went on to have productive careers. And yet even if Venditte is figured out by the league and flames out quickly, he can take still take solace in being a unique aspect of a sport full of weirdness and unpredictability.
His short career has already spawned an official rule named after him (and we know just how cool name-related baseball terms are), which was born after the first time he had to face a switch hitter in the minors. The Pat Venditte Rule states that the pitcher must always show to the umpire and batter which hand he will use to pitch in any given at-bat, and cannot switch hands in the middle of said at-bat. While it could sound unfair for Venditte in this case, he also gets to pick the weaker batting side from the hitter, so it is almost a wash in the end.
With the A's looking more and more toast as the season advances, the team could continue to see what it has with Venditte as a situation reliever, just as he becomes one of 2015´s best feel-good stories. Rangers beat writers have come out to say that Yu Darvish regularly pitches as a lefty in practice, and that he is pretty good, but until he decides to give it a try in real action, Venditte will be a special part of MLB. Next time that he uses his switch-glove and pitches from the other side of the rubber, don't be surprised, just enjoy the show.