Photo Credit: John Lott
In the winter following the 2014 season, Pat Venditte adopted the weighted-ball conditioning program popularized by former Blue Jays pitcher Steve Delabar. Part of the shoulder-strengthening regimen involves throwing a football.
“I had forgotten how to throw a football left-handed,” Venditte recalls.
The knack came back because Venditte threw a football left-handed as a kid. He threw it right-handed too. Mostly, when he threw anything, with either hand, it was a baseball, and when he was three years old, his father started teaching him the art of ambidexterity – in eating and writing as well as throwing.
Venditte loved to throw, and his dad – “he thinks outside the box,” Venditte says – got the notion that the kid might enjoy throwing with either hand. Maybe he might even become good at it.
He did. As he started playing on teams back home in Omaha, he was never a star but always an attraction – and always better when he threw right-handed, his natural side.
His dad, Pat Sr., continued to believe that professional baseball might find a place for a switch-pitcher.
“But that thought comes and goes as you get older,” Venditte said during a spring-training interview. “When you’re 12 years old and you’re nowhere near the best, that thought is gone. Then it becomes, ‘How can we play in high school?’ And then in high school was when I developed a true passion for the game. And then it became, ‘What can I do to play in college?’ So I walked on at Creighton (University), and I had success. Then professional baseball became a possibility.”
This is Venditte’s ninth professional season, and on Tuesday, he made it to the big leagues for the second time. The Blue Jays need a second left-hander in their bullpen, so they recalled Venditte from Triple-A Buffalo to fill that role, figuring that his right arm would be a bonus.
It was, and quickly. Pitching the ninth inning of the Jays’ 7-2 win over the Yankees, Venditte retired all three batters he faced. He pitched left-handed to the first, switch-hitter Chase Headley, who batted right-handed. Venditte then went right-on-right to the last two hitters. Afterward, his six-fingered glove lay in his locker, the game ball nestled inside.
A side-arm pitcher from both sides, Venditte had impressed the Blue Jays in spring training, allowing no earned runs in eight appearances. In several exhibition games, he switched his unique glove from one hand to the other between batters to create righty-righty and lefty-lefty matchups. (If a switch-hitter like Headley comes up, Venditte must declare which arm he will use ahead of time, and he cannot switch during an at-bat. It’s called the Venditte Rule.)
After signing a minor-league contract with the Jays, Venditte arrived at spring training and found a familiar face a couple of locker stalls to his left in the Dunedin clubhouse. Veteran right-hander Jesse Chavez had come over in an off-season trade with Oakland, where the two had been teammates for Venditte’s eight weeks in the majors last season. And although he downplays his influence, Chavez may have helped to boost Venditte’s chances of getting back to The Show.
Venditte mentioned to Chavez that he was struggling with his slider from the right side. Chavez, who used to be a side-armer too, offered some advice.
“The slider was something I threw when I was throwing from the side,” Chavez says. “I just thought he was really beating himself up about trying to get that consistency. I just told him, ‘Relax. It’s a pitch that you just can’t manipulate. You just have to stay out in front with it.’ We just had a little conversation. He did all the work. He ran with it. It was just something that I just gave him a little opinion about.”
Venditte smiles when told what Chavez said.
“He can downplay it as much as he wants, but he was a big help,” Venditte says.
“He changed my grip. He had me riding the seams with my grip, whereas before I was taking it off of my middle finger. Now I straddle the seams and take it more off of my index finger. For some reason, right-handed that helped me. Left-handed, it doesn’t translate.”
When Venditte makes mechanical adjustments to one of his deliveries, it neither helps nor hinders the other.
“It’s a completely different mindset from one side to the other,” he says. “My deliveries are a little bit different. From the left side, I’m a little taller and from the start point I have a little higher balance. From the right side, I use a little bit more of my lower half. My release point I try to get the same, but the deliveries are a little bit different.”
He pauses. It is not easy to describe the distinctions.
“It’s like it’s two different people,” he says.
Photo Credit: John Lott
The Yankees picked Venditte in the 20th round of the 2008 draft. By 2011, he finally escaped A-ball. But he was almost 27, he was pitching poorly and he was scared of what might come next.
“It’s such a what-have-you-done-lately business,” he said. “Every time I go through a tough time, there are always those thoughts in the back of your mind: is this it?
“The last time I experienced that was in 2011. I had serious doubts. It was the first time I got to Double-A and about a month into the season I was pitching awfully, to a six or a seven ERA. I remember calling my dad. I said, ‘I’ve tried everything I can. I can’t find a way to get these guys out.’ It was equally bad from both sides. It wasn’t like I was dominating lefties. Lefties were getting hits off me and righties were getting hits off me.
“I don’t know what I was expecting out of my dad, whether he was going to tell me to come home, I don’t know. But he just said, ‘Until they tell you to stop, you’ve got to stick it out. Just keep going.’ ”
The Yankees’ minor-league coaches stuck by him, this double-barreled pitcher whose bullpen sessions are twice as long as everyone else’s. Finally, he had a couple of good outings, and then, 25 consecutive scoreless innings.
He can’t remember a specific mechanical change or a moment of epiphany.
“It was a matter of sticking to routines, sticking to the process,” he said.
“For the majority of the guys in this clubhouse, I think they’ve have had that moment where they say, ‘Am I going to be able to get through this?’ Except for the pitchers with absolutely electric stuff, I think all the guys in here have had to overcome that.”
That breakthrough in 2011 was no catapult to the majors for Venditte. He made it to Triple-A in 2012, but tore the labrum in his right shoulder in 2013, going back to the low minors to rehab the injury while continuing to pitch left-handed. By the end of 2014, the Yankees gave up on him. He did not throw hard with either arm, topping out in the mid-80s. He was not a prospect.
For 2015, he signed with Oakland, spending most of the season in Triple-A. But he also made it to the majors for the first time, pitching to a 4.40 ERA in 26 relief appearances. He was at his best in lefty-lefty situations (.191 opponents’ average, .447 OPS), and at his worst when circumstances forced him to pitch right-handed to left-handed batters (.391, 1.271).
Now he is back as a Blue Jay, 2 ½ months shy of his 31st birthday, the duration of his stay to be determined. He arrives as a novelty – he always does – and with a specific mission, to help settle a bullpen painfully shy of left-handers. (Aaron Loup and Franklin Morales are hurt, and Brett Cecil, once a bulwark, had been alarmingly ineffective until he threw a perfect inning in Wednesday’s win.)
Upon his arrival Wednesday, Venditte got his usual media scrum out of the way after batting practice. In each new town, he cheerfully answers the same old questions. He is, after all, one of a kind.
“To get to this level,” manager John Gibbons said, “it’s pretty amazing.”
It is pretty amazing at any level, of course. And especially if you haven’t seen him pitch before, you won’t soon forget watching Venditte calmly switch hands in the same inning and fire away with that whiplash motion and then switch again, as if there were nothing to it.
“I understand I’m different,” he says. “It’s like when I come to a new clubhouse and guys want to see my glove. Anytime you’re different people want to understand a little bit better. I’ve come to understand that and be patient with it.”
He has had plenty of practice, from those days as a kid when he started throwing baseballs and footballs with both hands, and kicking footballs left-footed to help develop his left side, and using his fork and pencil left-handed, a habit he gave up when he got to high school and it just didn’t seem very cool.
His dad, the inspiration for all that, the kindly outside-the-box thinker who helped his son get to the big leagues, remains his coach and baseball confidante.
“He’s 70 years old,” Venditte says, “and he still catches me in the off-season. He’s a baseball nut.”
Meanwhile, Venditte continues to do what long ago came naturally.
“Anytime you start at that age,” he says, “the main thing is, you don’t think about it. It’s just something that you do.”