By Rob Ficiur
The word ambidextrous means to be able to do task equally well with both left and right hand. Two websites I looked at suggested that around 1% of us are ambidextrous. Most are left handed people who, for whatever reason, have learned to use their right hand as effectively as their left hand. Many of this 1% of ambidextrous population are better with one hand than the other. [The question of whether they are truly ambidextrous if they are better with one hand than the other is a discussion for another day.]
In Major League Baseball history there have been six ambidextrous pitchers. Four of them pitched in the 1880’s and 1890’s. The latest of those 19 century switch pitchers was Tony Mullanne. Mullanne, who broke in with the Detroit Wolverines in the 1881 season, has 284 major league wins as a pitcher.
Mulanne was originally a right handed pitcher. After he suffered an arm injury he taught himself pitch left handed. When the injury healed he was able to pitch with either hand during a game. Mulanne had one advantage that modern ambidextrous pitchers don’t have. Mulanne did not need a different ball glove because no one wore ball gloves in those days. After he retired from the Cleveland Spiders in 1894 it would be over one hundred years before a true ambidextrous pitcher threw a ball in the Major Leagues.
Major League Baseball’s only ambidextrous pitcher between 1894 and 2015 was Greg Harris. In 1986, the right handed pitcher Greg Harris threw to two batters with his left hand. He walked the first batter and got the second batter to hit into an inning ending double play. In his career 15 year career Harris pitched 1467 innings in 703 games. He only threw left handed to two batters in that time. Harris’ specially designed glove is in the Baseball Hall of Fame to remember the 2/3 of an inning he was a leftie. I find it hard to consider him a true ambidextrous pitcher when he did not even throw one inning left handed.
When Pat Venditte made his Major League debut with Oakland one June 2 2015, his ambidextrous pitching was a bit of a circus show. He threw equally well from both sides. Since most of us were not around in the 1890’s the chance to see someone switch arms at this level of play was unique.
In the last 51 weeks Venditte has stayed a Major League pitcher because he can get batters out. In 2015 he pitched 28 innings with the Oakland A’s with a respectable 4.40 ERA. So far in 2015 the Blue Jays reliever has pitched six innings in six games with a 4.50 earned run average.
His numbers in the minor leagues have been impressive the last two years. In 2015 he had a 1.77 Earned run average with the minor league team in Nashville. In 2016 Venditte began the season in the minors where he pitched nine games with a 3.86 earned run average. In spring training (2016) Pat pitched 8.1 innings in 8 games and had an earned run average of 0.00. (That is not a typing error – he let up no runs in pre-season). While we know that success in the minors or pre-season does not guarantee success in regular season. Having success in the minors has given Venditte a chance to do something not done in 120 years.
Pat has grown up as an ambidextrous pitcher. His father, a pitching coach, believed his son could pitch with both hands. Pat grew up eating, writing, and otherwise using both hands in all that he did.
Unlike the 1890’s Pat had a problem with the ball glove. Umpires did not want him having both a right and left glove out there on the mound. Pat alternated pitching right one day then left the next day. Eventually his father found a glove manufacturer who created a six finger glove that allowed him to use it no matter which way he was pitching.
The Venditte rule had to be developed because of his switch pitching. In Major league baseball about 13% of batters are switch hitters. They prefer to bat left against a right handed pitcher and vice versa. When Venditte encountered his first switch hitter, he would switch gloves when the batter switch from batting position. Eventually a universal rule was developed that at the beginning of the at bat the pitcher would choose which arm he would pitch with for that batter. It is called the Venditte rule, because right now, it only applies to one pitcher, Pat Venditte.
When Venditte made his Toronto Blue Jays debut, manager John Gibbons walked out to the mound and instead of raising his left hand to call for a left handed reliever, or a right hand for a right handed reliever, Gibbons raised both hands. With only one ambidextrous pitcher in the bull pen, Pat Venditte became the Blue Jays first switch pitcher.
I have watched Pat Venditte pitch three times. What is more unusual about his pitching is that it is not unusual. When he is pitching left handed he is a normal left handed pitcher. When the batter switches he becomes a normal right handed pitcher. In the end Pat Venditte is just a pitcher with a unique pitch. Because he is a capable pitcher we may be watching him switch pitching for many seasons to come.