TRENTON, N.J. -- Pat Venditte, successful right-handed and left-handed pitcher for the Double-A Trenton Thunder, presents a significant matchup problem for any opposing manager in the late innings of a game.
His lefty hitters face a difficult sidearming lefty who throws in the mid-80s, featuring a fastball/slider combo. His righty hitters need to hit a versatile righty who's begun dropping down more, throwing a fastball up around 90 miles per hour, paired with a slider. Both versions of Venditte have begun mixing in a changeup as well.
But if he confounds opposing managers, Venditte's own pitching coach in Trenton, Tommy Phelps, has a much easier solution to instructing the switch-pitcher. He just treats coaching Venditte like coaching two separate pitchers.
"Exactly," Phelps told me as we spoke just outside the Thunder video room Tuesday afternoon, prior to Trenton's game against New Britain. "I treat it as two different deliveries, two different pitchers. You know, in his case, his keys for one side may be different than the other side. So I treat them both totally different."
The question is whether Venditte himself, who has succeeded at every level of the minor leagues but at age 28, has yet to receive a chance at the major league level, is being treated differently than a relief pitcher with a career strikeout rate in the minors of 10.2 per nine, a walk rate of just 2.4 per nine and the opposite of a platoon split problem ought to be.
Right now, he's busy proving that he's healthy again, after missing most of the 2013 season with labrum surgery on his right shoulder. The rehab was intensive enough that simply pitching with his left hand throughout the season wasn't wise, though he did so this spring for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.
He's back to his old self, though. On Sunday night, Venditte entered a game against Portland with two outs in the seventh. As a lefty, he struck out Garin Cecchini to end the inning. He retired Michael Almanzar and Christian Vazquez, two righties, as a righty, and then back as a lefty, got Travis Shaw to pop out to end the inning.
For his part, Venditte believes all he needs to do is keep on pitching well, and his chance will come, though he is aware that at age 28, his time as a prospect is rapidly dwindling.
"I think, more than anything, it's about getting the opportunity," Venditte said as we spoke just outside the Thunder clubhouse Tuesday night. He's an engaging man with close-cropped black hair, seemingly at peace with being close to making history as the first full-time switch-pitcher in the major leagues, but so far, having topped out at Triple-A. "For me, it's about getting better every day. It's always at the back of your mind, where you want to be. Obviously, Double-A isn't ideal, but for me, it's an opportunity, I can still play this game with an organization like the Yankees, and I still have that opportunity. As long as I take care of business, I'll get my chance. If I don't, I won't. It's that simple."
If you loudly objected to the last paragraph by citing Greg A. Harris, notice I wrote "full-time switch-pitcher." Harris pitched nearly his entire career as a right-handed pitcher. But on September 28, 1995, Harris managed to retire Reggie Harris right-handed, then pitched lefty to Hal Morris and Eddie Taubensee, getting Taubensee out, before finishing the inning right-handed and getting Bret Boone.
One outing later, his career was over. He's managed to achieve a goal he'd sought for many years, at one point forbidden to try by the Red Sox. But he only started pitching with both hands midway through his major league career. It wasn't the basis for his professional career, just a footnote.
It certainly made an impression on Venditte, then doing precisely the same thing as a 10-year-old in Little League.
"I do remember watching the highlight," Venditte said. "I believe he was pitching for the Expos at the time, and it's still a recollection that I have, even though it was over 15 years ago."
Venditte, though, has been throwing with both hands since he was three years old, his father teaching the natural righty the proper technique. To put this in perspective, Harris sent his ambidextrous glove from that one appearance to the Hall of Fame. Venditte uses a similar glove every time he pitches, and has since Little League. And growing up just outside of Omaha, NE, he says his coaches through the years embraced his ability, rather than trying to force him to pick a side.
"I was very fortunate, all the way up through Little League, and high school, even college, I never had a coach that hindered the right- and left-handed work," Venditte said. "Every coach that I had encouraged it."
His manager, Tony Franklin, spoke about what a luxury it is to utilize a relief pitcher without wondering whether he should save him for the right hitter, be it lefty or righty.
"No challenges, no challenges at all," Franklin told me as we sat in his office, after he'd regaled the half-dozen reporters with stories from his minor league career. "From injury, that's the only challenge he has. First of all, a great kid. There's never any issue with Pat. He does a great job getting ready to play.
"A lot of people, when they first hear about him and want to come see him, they think it's a circus act. But it isn't. It's all business. He puts his time in, and he's ready to pitch."
But before Venditte got the chance to regularly practice his switch-pitching craft, he needed to prove to the Yankees, who drafted him in the 20th round out of Creighton University in 2007, that he could get professional hitters out with both hands.
"The Yankees, when they drafted me, they drafted me as a righty," Venditte said. "The understanding when they signed me was that they were going to give me the opportunity to pitch left-handed, and if I could do it, could get people out, they were going to allow me to keep doing it."
Venditte certainly succeeded. He pitched to a 0.82 ERA, with 42 strikeouts and just ten walks in 33 innings. Righties hit .136 against him, pitching righty. Lefties hit .089 against him, pitching lefty.
The experiment was on.
And the success continued with low ERAs, great control and plenty of strikeouts, throwing in the mid-80s lefty, around 90 righty. In Charleston, his first full-season A-ball stop, his ERA was 1.47, and he walked two in 30 2/3 innings, striking out 40. In high-A Tampa in 2010, his ERA was 1.93, with 14 walks and 85 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings. He made the often-tough leap for pitching prospects, pitching to a 3.40 ERA for Double-A Trenton in 2011, with 31 walks and 88 strikeouts in 90 innings. He began 2012 at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, just one injury or trade from a call to the major leagues. But just 13 innings in, along came the labrum injury. He tried to rehab it, but eventually decided on surgery. It knocked him out for the rest of his 2012, and deep into 2013.
One thing that's changed for Venditte is how often he drops down sidearm from the right side now, in part, his pitching coach Phelps says, to reduce stress on his repaired arm, but also to force hitters to deal with a more deceptive delivery, something that could bridge the gap between his average fastball velocity and the often harder throwers who end up in big league bullpens.
"With those two arms, and the way he throws, it's more like a situational guy, being a lower-slot guy versus righthanders, a lower-slot guy versus lefthanders," Phelps explained.
Consider the implications of this. Many relievers have gone to a sidearm delivery, and succeeded against their own kind -- lefties owning lefties, like Pedro Feliciano and Clay Rapada, righties like Terry Leach or Chad Bradford, the latter of whom got righties out with a low-80s fastball far less impressive than Venditte's offering.
A team employing Venditte would inherit all of the upside of this approach, with almost none of the downside.
The "almost" in that last sentence comes because of the Pat Venditte Rule, created to address just how often -- and when -- he can switch between pitching arms. It says that Venditte needs to choose first, declaring righty or lefty, and then the batter can choose which side to hit from. Had it been the other way around, Venditte could have enjoyed the platoon advantage over all hitters, even switch-hitters, rather than just most hitters.
"It's still the same hitters either way," Venditte said. "But it [would have] presented a big advantage for me, for the simple fact that switch-hitters never see a breaking ball, right-on-right. They're always seeing something sweeping in towards them. So to have that advantage would be huge for me, for the simple fact that hitters never see it. I wish that rule wasn't the way it was, but there's nothing I can do about it."
He heads to Omaha most offseasons to work with his father, who still catches Venditte's bullpens. Whether he'll do so this winter, or head to winter ball to show off his ability, he said he's still deciding with the Yankees. He's already been excelling in his return to pitching in 2013, with 27 strikeouts and seven walks over 26 2/3 innings at three levels, with his velocity and command of his drop-down pitches improving even over the past few weeks, according to Venditte and the coaching staff.
But come this winter, it's unlikely the Yankees will add him to their 40-man roster, which means Venditte can be picked by any of 29 other teams in the Rule 5 draft this winter, should 29 other teams decide they'd like to have a platoon advantage out of the bullpen almost all the time. And that is why it's worth wondering: Are there teams out there who could benefit from Venditte, but are afraid to try something different?
"You know, any time you're different, you have to prove yourself," Venditte said. "And you're looked at a different way, because people aren't used to seeing that. But if you go out there, and take care of business, it'll almost be forgotten about that you do things differently. It just depends on how I handle my opportunities."