Billy Butler was just a smokescreen, y'all. This is the real news right here. The Oakland Athletics have signed switch-pitcher Pat Venditte to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training. When I say "switch-pitcher," I mean that he can pitch with either hand and that he switches between them freely to gain the platoon advantage.
On a personal level, I've hoped Venditte would wind up in Oakland for years. He's just so ... interesting. You watch sports because sometimes something cool like Venditte comes around, and now we're one step closer to actually getting to watch him play. I think I'm more excited about him than about Butler, and I literally just wrote an article called "3 reasons to be excited about Billy Butler."
Who is Pat Venditte?
Alright, let's get to it. Venditte is a 29-year-old who is listed as a left-handed pitcher, but who can switch to his right hand whenever he wants. Here is what that looks like in action:
He was drafted by the Yankees in 2008 and has spent his entire career in their organization. He's also a switch-hitter, because of course he is, but that won't be relevant for us in the American League. He's made eight starts in his professional career, but he's primarily been a relief pitcher and that will surely continue to be the case. However, it appears that he can go multiple innings at a time given his 384⅔ frames in 242 outings. One reason behind his endurance is that, by using both arms, each one works less and stays fresh longer.
But is he any good?
Yes. Yes he is. In the minors, at least.
Before we look at his stats, note that Venditte has always been old for his leagues. He was in Single-A in his mid-20s, Double-A in his mid-to-late 20s, and he didn't hit Triple-A until age 27. But it's still tough to argue with these stats:
Venditte, career: 2.46 ERA, 384⅔ innings, 431 Ks, 103 BB, 21 HR, 310 hits
Venditte, AAA career: 3.25 ERA, 69⅓ innings, 65 Ks, 23 BB, 5 HR, 65 hits
Venditte, 2014 (AAA)*: 3.36 ERA, 56⅓ innings, 83 Ks, 17 BB, 4 HR, 54 hits
* also threw 22 innings in Double-A, 0.82 ERA, 30 Ks, 5 BB
He's not going to be an MLB closer anytime soon, but there's still a lot to like there. He strikes out a batter per inning in Triple-A, and for his career he's got over 10 K's per nine innings. At the same time, he keeps his walks down; his K:BB ratio is better than 4.0 for his career, and nearly 3.0 in Triple-A. Finally, he keeps the ball in the park. That's the holy trinity of pitcher stats right there, and he's good-to-great in all of them ... in the minors. Thing is, he's never been tested at the MLB level, because he's been stuck in an organization that is averse to taking risks with unknown players. The Yankees would rather sign yesterday's news to a bloated contract than give a guy like Venditte a shot.
Now, 8.4 Ks and 3.0 walks per nine innings in Triple-A can easily become 7.0 Ks and 4.0 walks in the Majors, but he's certainly earned a try. Some players make the jump to the bigs more gracefully than others.
Here's a more detailed profile of Venditte, from Howard Megdal of Sports On Earth:
Sure, righties have just a .550 OPS against him this year. But lefties... oh, a .465 OPS against him.
He's the kind of hard-working player managers love.
That (figuring out the right-handed arm slot) dovetails with what Venditte was already doing from the left side. It makes him a dual sidearmer, coming in around a mid-80s fastball, along with a slider and occasional changeup. What he's giving up in velocity from the right side, he's gaining in command and arm angle.
He also presents twice the stamina a normal reliever would.
I think that may be the single greatest barrier to entry for Venditte, why the Yankees haven't promoted him yet, why no other team took him in the Rule 5 draft, or traded for him. There's no comp.
You guys, he said sidearmer. This just got even better. Dual sidearmer. That's like baseball sci-fi.
Venditte explains his own pitching arsenal and style in this video:
So ... how does this work, exactly?
A pitcher must indicate visually to the umpire-in-chief, the batter and any runners the hand with which he intends to pitch, which may be done by wearing his glove on the other hand while touching the pitcher's plate. The pitcher is not permitted to pitch with the other hand until the batter is retired, the batter becomes a runner, the inning ends, the batter is substituted for by a pinch-hitter or the pitcher incurs an injury. In the event a pitcher switches pitching hands during an at-bat because he has suffered an injury, the pitcher may not, for the remainder of the game, pitch with the hand from which he has switched. The pitcher shall not be given the opportunity to throw any preparatory pitches after switching pitching hands. Any change of pitching hands must be indicated clearly to the umpire-in-chief.
To summarize, he has to pick a hand at the beginning of the at-bat, so the shenanigans in the above video won't be happening in Oakland. However, if the other team elects to pinch hit based on his choice of hand, he can switch for the pinch-hitter. So, the rules don't neutralize his unique skill except in the event of an opposing switch-hitter, and even then Venditte can at least pick his preferred side of the mismatch.
Has there ever been anyone like him before?
Yes, but just barely. According to Wikipedia, there were four guys in the 19th century who did it, but we mostly don't count things that happened before 1900. In the modern era, there is exactly one guy who's ever done this: Greg A. Harris. He pitched in the 80s and 90s as a right-hander, but in 1995, in the second-to-last game of his career, the Expos let him switch things up. From Wikipedia:
Harris is best known as the only switch pitcher in the modern era. A natural right-hander, by 1986 he could throw well enough left-handed that he felt he could pitch with either hand in a game, but the opportunity did not immediately arise. Harris wasn't allowed to throw lefty in a regular-season game until September 28, 1995, his penultimate game with the Expos. In the ninth inning, Harris retired Reggie Sanders pitching right-handed, then switched to his left hand for the next two hitters, Hal Morris and Ed Taubensee, who both batted lefty. Harris walked Morris but got Taubensee to ground out. He then went back to his right hand to retire Bret Boone to end the inning.
So, yes, this has happened before. In exactly one game of the entire modern era of Major League Baseball, spanning over 100 years. If Venditte appears in two games and does his thing in both, he will become unprecedented as a guy who switch-pitches as a consistent (and primary) strategy.
There is no guarantee that Venditte will pitch for the A's. They already have Doolittle, Cook, Otero, Abad, and O'Flaherty locked into five spots at the moment, so at best he's fighting for one of the last two roles unless someone gets traded. Furthermore, there are already three lefties in that group, and Venditte prefers to pitch left-handed when all things are equal. But beyond bringing a strong stat line to the table, he brings with him the ability to throw multiple innings because he has the strength of two arms to draw from, and he offers the chance to minimize further calls to the pen because he doesn't have to be lifted to gain a platoon advantage. He can be a long man, a LOOGY, and a ROOGY, all in the same appearance. In an ideal situation, a team would only need six relievers because Venditte could perform multiple roles simultaneously, though don't expect that to happen this year.
Venditte has awesome minor league numbers and is a weirdo. That's basically the definition of the Oakland A's. Welcome, Pat, and we hope to see you at the Coliseum next season!