After his successful spring training debut on Tuesday, can switch-pitcher and minor league veteran Pat Venditte find a spot in a crowded Oakland bullpen?
Twenty-seven years ago in Omaha, Nebraska, Pat Venditte Sr., a former college catcher, had a crazy idea. He was going to teach his three-year-old son, Pat Jr., to throw with both arms, hoping to increase the boy's chances of making the major leagues. That dream is now tantalizingly close for Venditte, who after seven years in the Yankees' organization signed a minor league deal with the Athletics this winter and was invited to major league camp for the first time in his professional career.
Venditte had appeared in major league exhibition games for the Yankees, but never as an official invitee, and his career has thus far topped out at Triple A. On Tuesday, however, he made his first appearance as a major league camper and did what he does best: get hitters out with both arms. Venditte's appearance came early in Oakland's 9-4 win over the defending world champion Giants, at the end of the third inning. Entering with two outs and a man on third, Venditte, throwing righthanded, got righty Justin Maxwell to ground to shortstop. Coming back to start the next inning lefthanded, he struck out lefty Brandon Belt looking with a slider on the outside corner.
This is nothing new for Venditte, who has been getting hitters out with both arms in the minor leagues since the Yankees drafted him out of Creighton University in the 20th round of the 2008 draft. Venditte made waves instantly upon his arrival in the pros, and his first appearance for the Staten Island Yankees in June '08 resulted in a now infamous showdown with then-Brooklyn Cyclones switch-hitter Ralph Henriquez. With no rule to govern confrontations between switch-hitters and switch-pitchers, Venditte and Henriquez took turns switching sides before home plate umpire Shaylor Smith, after speaking to both managers, finally forced Henriquez to remain in the righthanded batters box and face Venditte throwing righthanded. Venditte struck Henriquez out swinging.
Before Staten Island's next game, MLB created what immediately became known as the Pat Venditte rule, requiring the pitcher to pick first and preventing him from switching arms in the middle of the at-bat. That might seem to put Venditte and his team at a disadvantage in those matchups, as it prevents him from throwing with the same-side arm to switch-hitters, but the consolation is that he can always make switch-hitters hit from their weaker side.
Early in his minor league career, Venditte was like two completely different pitchers, throwing overhand in the low-90s from the right side, his natural side, and tossing softer sidearm stuff as a southpaw. Since tearing the labrum in his right shoulder in early 2012, however, his two deliveries and repertoires have converged. Venditte isn't a pitcher who is going to strike fear into batters. He throws sidearm with a fastball that tops out in the mid-80s, a mid-70s changeup and a slider which can dip into the 60s but is nonetheless his out pitch. That may not sound impressive, but when you always have the platoon advantage, throwing sidearm Frisbees can be awfully effective. Just ask Brandon Belt.
Indeed, in parts of seven minor league seasons dating back to that notable debut, Venditte has posted a 2.46 ERA and 1.07 WHIP and struck out 10.1 men per nine innings with a 4.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last year, in a season split between Double A and Triple A, he posted a 2.64 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, striking out 83 men in 78 1/3 innings with a 3.77 K/BB.
Venditte appeared to be close to forcing his way to the majors in 2012 before his labrum injury, which was located in his right shoulder but prevented him from pitching at all until the following season. He opened that season in Triple A, but because of the injury, suffered that April, he didn't return to that level until May of last year. Now he's in major league camp hoping to become just the second full-time switch-pitcher in MLB history.
Yes, several major leaguers have switch-pitched before. Most famously, Expos righty Greg Harris threw lefthanded to two batters in the penultimate game of his career in September 1995. In fact, the six-fingered, ambidextrous glove that Harris had Mizuno build in the mid '80s is the model Venditte has used on the field since he was seven years old. Prior to Harris, however, no pitcher had switched arms in a major league game since the 19th century, when a handful of hurlers, including Elton "Icebox" Chamberlain, George Wheeler, and Larry Corcoran (no relation) did so. Even those three only did so in passing. Corcoran, the ace of Cap Anson's great Chicago White Stockings and now best known, if at all, for being the first major leaguer to throw three no-hitters, switch-pitched for just four innings in 1884. The righthanded Chamberlain pitched just two innings lefthanded in 1882.
The only major leaguer to date believed to have switch-pitched with any regularity was Tony Mullane, who pitched for seven teams from 1881 to '94, most extensively for the Cincinnati Reds both before and after they joined the National League in '90. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, Mullane solved the glove problem by simply not wearing one. He would instead hold the ball in both hands and the batter wouldn't know which arm he was going to deliver with until he began his windup. Mullane, who was born in Ireland and bore a striking resemblance to Ryan Braun, also switch-hit (posting a career OPS+ of 87), played every position other than catcher and finished his career with a JAWS score close to the Hall of Fame standard for starting pitchers (59.2 to 61.8). One could argue he deserves induction for the combination of his on-field success (284 career wins) and unique place in the game's history.
Venditte has no designs on Mullane's level of major league accomplishment. He just wants to make it to the Show, and it's difficult to imagine anyone rooting against him. Venditte's only obstacles are time and roster space. He'll turn 30 at the end of June, and as effective as he has been throughout his professional career, he's not likely to emerge as a high-leverage setup man or closer. That said, his ability to maintain the platoon advantage over the course of multiple batters could make him very valuable as a middle-inning or even secondary setup reliever. In the minors, he has averaged nearly 1 2/3 innings per appearance. He even picked up a pair of starts in Triple A last year, allowing just one run in seven total innings across those two outings.
Looking at the Athletics' roster, with Sean Doolittle likely to open the season on the disabled list due to a partial rotator cuff tear, Venditte's primary competition in camp would seem to be lefty Eury De La Rosa, who is on the 40-man roster but no lock to make the team as the third lefty in the bullpen behind Fernando Abad and Eric O'Flaherty. An Opening Day bullpen of righties Tyler Clippard, Ryan Cook and Dan Otero, lefties Abad and O'Flaherty, and human Swiss-Army Knife Venditte would still have room for a seventh arm, who could then be bumped by Doolittle's return.
That's the optimistic view, of course. The A's, in part as a result of their offseason housecleaning, are a team with significant bullpen depth both on and off the 40-man roster. Venditte, who faces the additional hurdle of not currently occupying a spot on the 40-man, is ultimately just another high number in camp trying to prove he's something other than a Quadruple A middle reliever.
Of course, we already know Venditte is more than that. He's one of the most fascinating players in the game, and a pitcher who, if the baseball gods have any say, will indeed make it to the major leagues at some point this season, completing the long journey Pat Sr. started 27 years ago.