On a Thursday night in June of 2008, fans of the Staten Island Yankees witnessed one of the more ridiculous exchanges ever to occur on a baseball diamond. The switch-pitching Pat Venditte was attempting to secure the game's final out against the Brooklyn Cyclones's Ralph Henriquez, only the batter couldn't decide which side of the box he wanted to hit from.
Switch hitters traditionally bat in the box opposite of the pitcher's throwing arm, offering the best angle to attack the ball, yet Venditte held his glove in limbo, clearly waiting for Henriquez to make up his mind – hilarity, and eventually anger, ensued. After several minutes of heated arguing from both sides, the umpires determined Henriquez would bat right-handed (thus allowing Venditte to throw righty). Henriquez eventually struck out, bringing an anticlimactic end to what was an otherwise standard night at a minor league ballpark. But if Henriquez's goofy, repeated switching of his shin guard taught professional baseball anything at all, it was that the sport wasn't ready for a switch-pitcher.
A couple weeks later, the Professional Baseball Umpire Corporation released the "The Pat Venditte Rule." In simple terms, a switch-pitcher must visibly indicate which hand he intends to pitch with for each batter, and cannot switch during that particular at-bat. However, if a team were to substitute the right-handed Mike Trout for the left-handed Bryce Harper, (that team sounds amazing), Venditte could change his throwing arm accordingly.
Venditte's very place in the bigs is nearly as improbable as his multi-armed throwing. A 29-year-old rookie, Venditte meddled around in the Yankees’ farm system for seven years before getting picked up by Billy Beane's unconventional Oakland Athletics, which have already pitched him in three games since calling him up. In his debut, Venditte pitched two innings of scoreless ball against Boston – he began his career with a quick out, and a double play, pitching lefty to Brock Holt, righty to Hanley Ramirez, and lefty to Mike Napoli.
Though Venditte makes it look surprisingly easy (at least since his stint began with the Athletics), there's a reason every team has half a dozen switch hitters on its roster – while a real switch-pitching regular hasn't been seen since the Deadball era in the days before Babe Ruth dominated. At the end of the 1995 season, in a meaningless game for the last place Montreal Expos, pitcher Greg Harris recorded outs with both arms, but even that effort was for just one inning. Venditte has made an entire career out of pitching with each arm. And he's not the only one who's tried. In 2003, switch-pitching Brandon Berdoll was selected in the 27th round of the amateur draft by the Atlanta Braves, and showed Major League promise, but never made it through the ruthless, gauntlet that is the Minor Leagues – an exhausting stretch of difficult baseball even for players pitching with one preferred arm.
Pitching with each arm requires consistency in velocity, command, and enough confidence to trust each side, for each at-bat, without having to worry about a glaring weakness. In a game in which even the best players fail to get a hit nearly 70 percent of the time, batters will study game film in order to jump on any pitching vulnerability. Where most pitchers have to worry about one arm to protect and foster, Venditte has two. Although one could argue that he could blow out one arm and still pitch with the other the next night, making him valuable in the Tommy John-era (and, also arguably, worth twice the money).
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As old and traditional as the National Pastime may be, it is always up to interpretation and invention. Though there were notable switch-hitters in the early 20th century, like Frankie Frisch, a Hall of Famer with a .316 lifetime batting average, and others who felt a need to defend against a pitcher's superior angle and release when pitching from the same side as the box, (curveballs are particularly difficult to hit with the sweet spot of the bat), it was really Mickey Mantle who championed the role of the switch-hitter. Arguably one of the greatest players to ever play the game, Mantle hit 372 homers left-handed and 164 right-handed. (Though he claimed to feel more comfortable from the right side of the plate). No one had ever hit that solidly from each individual box. In such a way, it was one player, a man who taught himself to hit from either side from a young age, who inspired scores of others to do the same. Pete Rose, Eddie Murray, Roberto Alomar, and Chipper Jones, to name a few of the best switch-hitters the game has seen, are all products of this revolution.
Pat Venditte is probably not the pitching equivalent of Mickey Mantle. But he could very well be the modern-day Bob Ferguson, who pioneered the first switch-hitting career professional baseball had ever seen, way back in the 1870s. Perhaps youngsters across the Americas will be inspired today to practice pitching with both arms like Pat Venditte, or perhaps this is just a temporary amusement, a lighthearted story to stretch the long summer.
Either way, it'll be fun to watch.