Switch hitting is commonplace in the Major Leagues, but why aren’t there any switch pitchers? Teams are often constructed around potential matchups so this oddity of baseball could come in handy. Cheryl Wright takes a look at a history of switch pitching to find out how effective they could be.
I always experience a sense of childlike wonder when I walk into a baseball stadium. I love the idea that anything can happen, and I hope to see something special: a no-hitter, a triple play, or a batter hitting for the cycle. But one of the most unusual sights in baseball is the appearance of a switch-pitcher. Just imagine: a right-handed hitter comes up to bat and the right-handed reliever retires him. Then up comes a lefty. The pitcher switches his glove to the other hand and faces the batter as a left-hander. What a versatile weapon for a team to have at its disposal! What an incredible feat to witness!
Although about 8% of major leaguers are switch-hitters, there have been only five pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball who have attempted to switch-pitch. Here is a brief look at the pitchers who performed this rare feat.
The Brave Pioneers
The first person known to have switch-pitched in the majors was Mullane, nicknamed “Count” and “The Apollo of the Box” for his striking good looks and regal demeanor. Mullane, a right-handed pitcher, played with seven organizations in the National League and the American Association between 1881 and 1894. Despite becoming the all-time career leader in wild pitches, he quickly built an impressive resume. During the first five full seasons of his career, he averaged 487 innings per season with a 2.72 ERA, a 1.115 WHIP, and an ERA+ of 126. The Count also averaged 53 complete games per year and won at least 30 games in those five seasons. Mullane is also known for pitching the first no-hitter in American Association history on September 11, 1882 against the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
The Count’s switch-pitching debut came July 18, 1882, while pitching for the Louisville Eclipse against the Lord Baltimores. After the Baltimores built up a third-inning 7-1 lead, “Mullane, of the Eclipse club, changed hands in the fourth inning and pitched with his left,” the Baltimore Sun reported. Throughout the rest of the game, Mullane kept the hitters off-balance by switching back and forth between hands. Ultimately, he lost the game 9-8 after giving up a home run in the bottom of the ninth. The loss seemed to deter Mullane from switch-pitching for quite a few years, although he told the Washington Post he reserved his left-handed pitching for exhibitions: “I was a ambidextrous pitcher, but as a rule I never called on my left hand unless we were playing an exhibition game or in practice for the amusement of a few friends.”
Mullane used his skills as a switch-pitcher twice more in his career, on July 5, 1892 and again on July 14, 1893. On the latter date, he threw left-handed in the final inning of a loss to the Chicago Colts. The Count used his ambidextrous throwing skills more frequently against baserunners. Since he wore no fielder’s glove, Mullane was able to stand on the mound with both hands holding the ball, and then deliver it with either hand.
In 1894, the mound was moved back five feet (from 55 to 60 feet, 6 inches). Mullane was never able to adjust to the new rules, and he retired that season after seeing his ERA balloon to 6.59.
Elton P. Chamberlain pitched for six teams between 1886 and 1896, throwing more than 2,521 innings and compiling a record of 157-120. According to most reports, he earned the “Ice Box” nickname from his ability to stay cool under pressure. Teammate Charles Comiskey was quoted in 1892 saying, “Elton Chamberlain is the coolest pitcher in the profession. … Whenever Chamberlain perspires, his shirt freezes to his skin and he has to take a warm bath before he can get it off.”
Ice Box made his American Association debut with the Louisville Colonels in 1886. He was not a switch-pitcher by trade, but did spend four innings alternating arms June 16, 1884 while in the minor leagues. His first major league switch-pitching appearance came May 9, 1888, when he threw the first seven innings right-handed and the final two left-handed (giving up four hits and no runs) in an 18-6 blowout win over the Kansas City Cowboys. Like Tony Mullane, Chamberlain was known for using his ambidextrous talents to pick off runners. Since he did not wear a glove, Chamberlain could fire the ball toward a base with either hand.
Like the Count, Ice Box never recovered from the league’s decision to move the mound to 60 feet, 6 inches. He pitched poorly for the next few seasons before ending his career in 1896.
Lawrence J. Corcoran began his major league career in 1880 with the Chicago White Stockings, and quickly established himself as a workhorse. Over his first five seasons, Corcoran pitched 2,279 innings, compiling a 170-83 record and a 2.23 ERA (which was good for a 129 ERA+). Corcoran also threw three no-hitters during those years, a record that lasted until Sandy Koufax threw his fourth in 1965. Corcoran became a part of history’s first pitching rotation in 1880, when Cap Anson decided to alternate him with Fred Goldsmith.
When Corcoran signed with the White Stockings in 1880, the Chicago Times reported the team “has secured an ambidextrous pitcher – a man who can send them in hot with either hand.” However, Corcoran switch-pitched only once in his career, on June 16, 1884, making him the first to do so in the National League. Dealing with inflammation in his right index finger, Corcoran alternated pitching hands to alleviate the pain. He lasted only four innings, and played the rest of the game at shortstop, getting three hits and two triples (in a game Chicago lost 20-9).
By the start of the 1885 season, overuse had caught up to Corcoran. With his right arm so badly strained that he couldn’t throw, the pitcher attempted a left-handed comeback. However, he soon injured his left arm as well. Over the next four seasons, Corcoran won only seven games before finally hanging up his spikes in 1888.
From 1896 to 1899, George Louis Wheeler pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies. Wheeler started his career in 1892 in the New England League. After several seasons there, he joined the Phillies in September, 1896. During his short four-year major league career, Wheeler appeared in 50 games, compiling a 21-20 record with a 4.24 ERA (92 ERA+). Wheeler was also a switch-hitter, though he provided little value from either side of the plate at .196/.237/.277 (41 OPS+). Not much is known about his career, but there are unconfirmed reports that Wheeler, a natural right-hander, pitched left-handed on occasion while in the major leagues.
Greg Allen Harris is the only player to have switch-pitched in the major leagues in the modern era. Harris played for eight major league teams from 1981 to 1995, appearing in 703 games (mostly as a reliever) with a 3.69 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. He began his career as a starter with the Mets, but was converted to a reliever after being traded to Cincinnati in 1982.
A natural righty, Harris began throwing batting practice and warm-ups with both arms while with Texas in 1986, hoping to keep his arm fresh. To make this process easier, Harris designed a six-finger mitt with two thumbs, and brought his design to Mizuno, the Japanese glove manufacturer. Mizuno produced the special glove immediately, and Harris wore it for the rest of his career. Harris’s manager in Texas, Bobby Valentine, never allowed him to switch-pitch in a game. “Bobby said he’d let me if I could master three things: Being able to throw 25 strikes in 30 pitches, which I could do, having a curveball, which I already had, and throwing 80-plus-mph, which I could.” However, Valentine refused to give Harris a chance to showcase his skills, calling the idea “a great distraction.”
After leaving Texas and having a stop with Philadelphia, Harris joined the Red Sox in September 1989. He stayed with Boston until 1994, and reportedly made constant pleas to be allowed to switch-pitch while with the Sox. However, the Red Sox flatly refused his requests: “(General manager) Lou Gorman said it would be a mockery of the game,” Harris said. “I told him it was typical Boston – too conservative and nobody ever wants to try anything new.”
Harris finally had a chance to showcase his skills in Montreal during his final season. On September 28, 1995, the second-to-last game of Harris’s career, manager Felipe Alou directed Harris to warm up with both arms. Alou brought the pitcher into the ninth inning, with the Expos trailing 9-3. Said Alou, “I had tremendous liberty to do it because we had a bad season that year, so that wasn’t going to turn anything or damage anything, so I said ‘Do it.’ ” And Harris did. He retired the side, facing two left-handed and two right-handed hitters, after allowing only a one-out walk to the first batter he faced as a left-hander.
“Moxie” Manuel (Mark Garfield Manuel) appeared in 21 major league games between 1905 and 1908. While pitching in the minors for the Vicksburg Hill Billies and New Orleans Pelicans, Moxie sometimes pitched both ends of a doubleheader – one right-handed and one left-handed.
Charley Freine pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics during spring training in 1910 and 1911. “When Connie Mack and his Athletics play in Greenville on the afternoon of March 28, he will have on his team an ambidextrous pitcher. This young man answers to the name of Charley Friene and can deliver a ball to the batter as good with his left hand as he can with his right.”
Cal McLish (Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish) was a switch pitcher when he signed with the Dodgers in 1944, but only used his right hand while in the major leagues. “I never tried to pitch left-handed,” McLish said, “but I’ve been thinking about it and decided to practice real hard every spare minute. I always could throw hard southpaw.”
Ulysses Grant “Double Duty” Greene pitched for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues during the 1950s. “A sensation with the Indianapolis Clowns, the six-foot, 165-pounder from Tobaccoville, N.C., often pitches as a lefty, then comes back the next day as a right-hander.”
The Next Generation
Patrick Michael Venditte, Jr. was drafted by the New York Yankees after graduating from Creighton University in 2008. A natural right-hander, Venditte began playing catch with both arms at the age of 3, at the urging of his father: “He thought that if there could be switch-hitters, why not a switch-pitcher?” During his seven years in the Yankees organization, Venditte pitched 384 2/3 innings with a 2.84 ERA and 1.074 WHIP, including a 3.36 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 2014 in AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He also acquired the nickname “El Pulpo,” or “The Octopus,” from his Dominican teammates.
Perhaps Venditte’s most notable accomplishment in baseball is his role in the development or Rule 8.01, a.k.a. the Pat Venditte Rule. During Venditte’s pro debut for the Class-A Short Season Staten Island Yankees on June 19, 2008, chaos ensued when he faced switch-hitter Ralph Henriquez of the Brooklyn Cyclones. When he set up to pitch right-handed, the batter switched to his left side, and vice versa. This process continued for several minutes, until the umpire finally stepped in and decided for them. Major League Baseball has since altered the rulebook to prevent this from happening again.
Rule 8.01 states: “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 also not allowed to switch arms during an at-bat, and is not allowed more warm-up throws when changing arms.
In November, Venditte signed a minor league deal with the Oakland Athletics. Although he did not make the opening day roster, Venditte has little left to prove at the minor league level after averaging more than a strikeout per inning and 4.18 strikeouts per walk throughout his career. Fans of the obscure hope he gets a chance in the show.
From the age of 3, Ryan Perez was urged by his father to throw left-handed, despite being a natural righty. As he began playing organized baseball, Perez continued to practice both left-handed and right-handed throwing. By his junior year of high school, Perez had become an outstanding switch-pitcher. Not even a devastating injury could derail his progress: after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, Perez threw exclusively left-handed during his senior season.
The 20-year-old is a now a junior at Judson University, a small Christian school in Elgin, Illinois. Perez has vaulted up prospect lists after a standout performance in the Cape Cod League last summer, highlighted by the All-Star Game MVP honors. Perez can reach the low-90s left-handed, sometimes touching 94-mph. As a right-hander, he does not have the same velocity, but still reaches the low 90s. Perez’s coach at Judson, Rich Benjamin, believes Perez has an excellent chance to play professional baseball. “He’s electric from the left side. He’s getting better right-handed. And he’s one of the smartest, most dedicated kids I’ve been lucky to coach.”
Perez will be draft-eligible this June, after his junior year at Judson. One scout told Benjamin that Perez could go as high as the second round if he builds off last summer’s breakout performance. Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt has this take:
“Ultimately, I think someone still drafts him as a left-hander, but he’s starting to show people that he is good enough to have a real shot to contribute as an ambidextrous pitcher, which obviously gives him additional value. I think he could get drafted in the top 10 rounds next year, although he profiles as a reliever, so he could slip a little lower than that.”
Perez is not picky; he simply wants a chance to realize his dream and reach the major leagues. “They can use me however it fits the team the best,” he said. “I’m a very flexible pitcher.”
Thank you to www.baseball-reference.com for providing all statistics used in this article.