Baseball folks have known for a long time that the platoon advantage is important. Even in the early days of the game, it was known that left-handed pitchers were more effective against left-handed batters, and vice versa.
Watch a game today and you’ll see the platoon advantage implemented frequently, as it influences the decisions made by managers in both dugouts. Even some of baseball’s greatest hitters have had a significant platoon differential. Carl Yastrzemski’s career average against LH pitching was .244 and his slugging percentage was only .371, well below his Hall of Fame figures. Among left-handed hitters of note, Duke Snider, Jim Thome, Eddie Mathews, and Tony Oliva performed well below their celebrated levels against “same-handed” pitchers. Still, those batters were great enough to receive acclaim.
A wise manager utilizes the platoon advantage to slow down the opposing offense. But there’s not always a steady supply of pitchers. What if a manager could call on a pitcher who could use either arm from the mound? It’s happened a few times in baseball history, though it’s highly unusual.
Ambidextrous pitchers in the 19th century
Baseball was different in the 19th century. It was still in its infancy, and experimentation was not uncommon. Left-handed catchers and infielders took to the diamond, and on more than one occasion spectators were welcomed to partake in a professional game. It was a different time, even if the rules of the game were remarkably similar to what we see today.
In the 1800s, at least four pitchers tossed the ball with both arms in a game, or what we would call being ambidextrous.
The first was bushy-haired, strong-chested Tony Mullane, a darling athlete beloved by fans and feared by enemy batters. Mullane should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, if only for his sensational nickname: “The Apollo of the Box.” In 1882 pitching for Louisville against Baltimore in the American Association, the 23-year old, who was normally a righty, tossed the final five innings of his game shifting between his left and right arm. He lost that game, but the feat was noted by newspapers across the east coast. Later that season, Mullane fired a no-hitter, relying solely on the lightning bolts that emanated from his right shoulder.
The next ambidextrous hurler was Tony Mullane, who was a natural right-hander. On June 16, 1884, pitching for the old Chicago White Stockings, Corcoran resorted to throwing left-handed when he developed a blister on his right hand. By most reports of that game, Corcoran alternated hands for four innings in a game the White Stockings lost. It’s not clear if he ever tried to throw from both ways again. Corcoran was a stellar performer in the Victorian Era, throwing three no-hitters. Some historians credit him with pioneering the use of using signals between himself and his catcher.
Elton “Ice Box” Chamberlain was the sort of man that only seemed to exist in the late 1800s. He was calm, a stoic gentleman with impeccable taste in cigars and collared shirts. He earned his nickname because he was a hero under pressure (“ice water in his veins”). During a single game in 1888, he tossed the first seven innings right-handed (his natural preference) and the final two as a southpaw. There might need to be an asterisk next to this one though, since the game was a rout for Chamberlain and the Louisville Colonels, and it seems ‘Ol Ice Box was having fun that afternoon.
The Philadelphia Phillies were pretty bad when George Wheeler was employed as one of their pitchers in the late 1890s. Wheeler was mediocre on the mound, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he tried to throw from both the left and right side at various times. Wheeler was a short, round pitcher, and he was apparently adept at using both sides of his roly-poly body: he is the only ambidextrous pitcher who was also a switch-hitter.
Giants sign young Japanese pitcher who throws with both hands
Thus far, we’ve discussed pitchers who dabbled in throwing with both arms. None of the four noted 19th century pitchers threw both left and right-handed consistently. That was not the case with a man named Shozo Yoshinari, a Japanese pitcher who gained fame in his island country for his novel pitching style.
In 1966, the San Francisco Giants signed Yoshinari to a minor league contract and invited him to their spring training complex in Casa Grande, Arizona. Immediately, the 20-year old Yoshinari realized his life would be different.
“In Japan, training starts at ten in the morning and goes on for seven hours, with only a short break for lunch. Daily exercises include miles of uphill hiking and as many as three solid hours of bunting practice.
“[In the United States], they put in a couple of hours, then take off and play golf.”
The man they called “Yoshi” had long sideburns and a slim build. When he went to the mound for his work, Yoshi brought two gloves, placing one on his non-pitching hand and tucking the other glove in his back pocket. He was unusual in that he tossed underhand from his right arm and overhand with his left. By some accounts, his left-handed slants were more difficult to pick up, diving down and in on lefty batters. Yoshinari was a natural left-hander, but in high school in Japan he suffered a sore arm. Not wishing to lose his place on the team, he taught himself to pitch right-handed while his left arm mended. After a stellar performance as a high school pitcher, his professional career in Japan was not newsworthy, and he was released. That’s when the Giants took note of him, through former pitcher Masanori Murakami, who pitched for the Giants in 1964 and 1965 before returning to Japan.
Yoshi enlisted Murakami’s advice after arriving in the U.S. to audition for the Giants.
“Learn English, it’s essential” Murakami advised his countryman. “More importantly, keep the ball down or those Americans will clout the ball out of the park on you.”
The Giants didn’t see enough in Yoshinari to hand onto him. Ultimately, his fastball wasn’t fast enough and his curves didn’t bend enough, and he was released. The Cubs scooped him up and assigned him to their low-level farm club in Lodi (California), where the “switch-pitcher” appeared in three games. It didn’t go well: in four innings, Yoshi surrendered ten hits, six earned runs, and a pair of long home runs. He was released quickly and returned to Japan, receding into history.
Pat Venditte and the future of specialized pitchers
More than 40 years later, the Yankees drafted Pat Venditte in the 2007 amateur draft. Venditte is a switch-pitcher who regularly shifts from left to right as needed. He ended up with Oakland and debuted in the major leagues in 2015. As recently as this season, Venditte appeared in three games for the Miami Marlins. He has yet to show consistent effectiveness with either his right or left shoulder, but he’s more than just a novelty.
Given the increased emphasis on specialization, shifts, and the use of “openers” as opposed to starting pitchers, it seems the current baseball climate would welcome a versatile two-way hurler to the mound. Maybe someday we’ll see a big league pitcher who can pitch well with both his left and right hands, but as of yet, Yoshinari and the others have failed to make a lasting impression as “switch pitchers.”