March 18, 2017
CLEARWATER, Fla. – The final innings of Grapefruit League games are usually uneventful – closers generally pitch earlier in spring games, starting position players are often long gone from each team’s lineup – but Friday afternoon was, well, different for the largest crowd at Spectrum Field this year.
Pat Venditte, a 31-year-old non-roster pitcher and former teammate of Darin Ruf at Creighton University, took the mound in a Phillies uniform for the first time. He struck out all three Toronto Blue Jays batters he faced in a perfect frame.
Now the novelty of that shutout inning: he struck out the first and third batters as a right-handed pitcher, but the second batter as a left-handed pitcher. Venditte, acquired a week ago to compete for one of two openings in the Phillies bullpen, is baseball’s only official switch pitcher (he’s listed as “SHP” on the Phillies roster card).
Venditte said he began throwing with both arms from the time he first picked up a baseball at 3- or 4-years-old. Since throwing from both sides stuck, Venditte’s dad traced his ambidextrous son’s hands before his Little League career began to get a custom-made glove from Mizuno.
"He was thinking outside the box a little bit,” said Venditte, a 20th round pick by the Yankees who has appeared in 41 big league games with the Athletics, Blue Jays, and Mariners. “He thought if there could be switch-hitters, why not a switch-pitcher?”
Vince Velasquez wasn’t looking that far ahead when he stared into a mirror and began mimicking his throwing mechanics with his left arm as a kid.
But Velasquez was stubborn, so he continued to use that mirror until his left arm’s motion looked like his right arm’s motion. And then he began throwing with both arms somewhat regularly.
Velasquez’s side project came in … handy … eight years ago.
“My junior year I was a (left-handed throwing) center fielder,” Velasquez said. “I had bone spurs in my (right) elbow and I was in a cast for a little bit. At that time, I was already pretty accurate with my left hand, so I didn’t want to miss out on a whole year of a baseball. I was just trying to stay active.”
Velasquez said there was some discussion whether he should play at all during his junior season at Garey High School (Garey, Calif.), but once his doctor cleared him for any activity that didn’t involve throwing with his right arm, he knew his ability to throw left-handed would keep his switch-hitting (naturally) bat in the lineup.
Velasquez remembers throwing out a couple of base runners (at second and third, but not at home) during his spring as a 15-year-old, left-handed throwing outfielder.
“The arm strength was there, the accuracy was just off a little bit,” he said. “Again, it was just to be involved. I didn’t want to miss out on a whole year. I wanted to be there, I wanted to be able to take part.”
The left-handed Velasquez even got on the mound for a game. He pitched two innings in a scrimmage.
“I think I hit 87 or 88 (miles per hour),” Velasquez said.
While that might sound like hyperbole, Velasquez did continue to throw with both arms regularly while growing up. And he still keeps a left-handed glove in his Phillies equipment bag. During pregame batting practice, he often shags with his left-hander’s glove on his right hand.
Chicago White Sox closer David Robertson does the same thing – shagging as a left-hander – and has said he can hit the mid-80s on the gun left-handed, too. Must be nice for all of us wannabes that can’t hit 80 with our dominant arms, right?
But even Velasquez, Robertson, and others that play around with their non-dominant arm have to have a special kind of respect for Venditte, who is taking on the best hitters in the world two arms at a time.
“It’s really fun to watch,” Velasquez said. “I saw his glove today in practice – that thing is pretty amazing. It’s interesting to look at. To have a guy on the staff that does that on the regular, as a profession, that just shows that he’s very dedicated. He has options, it’s good to have. The fact that he can switch-pitch, it’s awesome.”
Venditte, who has spent the majority of his nine years of a pro in the minor leagues, is attempting to become baseball’s first full-time switch-pitcher. Former Phillies pitcher Greg Harris, a natural right-hander, had a 15-year career-long wish fulfilled in his penultimate big league game in September of 1995 while with the Montreal Expos, when he pitched from both the right and left side in the ninth inning of a 9-7 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.