ELGIN, Ill. -- Wearing his Wilson glove on his left hand, Westminster Christian junior pitcher Ryan Perez stepped on the mound on a recent Saturday and began his practice throws before the fifth inning.
After a couple of warm-up pitches, one of the opposing fans noticed something different in Perez from the previous inning.
“He’s throwing right-handed,” the fan remarked. “He was left-handed last inning.”
The fan’s eyes weren’t deceiving him, and Perez doesn’t have a twin. Perez is a right-handed pitcher, and he’s a left-handed pitcher. In other words, he’s an ambidextrous pitcher, which is also known as a switch pitcher.
“To them, it’s so weird,” said Perez, who wears a Rawlings glove when he pitches left-handed. “To me, it’s natural.”
In the game of baseball, it’s considered extraordinary. Greg Harris is the only pitcher to throw both ways in a major league game in the modern era. He threw one inning -- right-handed to two hitters and left-handed to two others -- in 1995 for the Montreal Expos. Currently, Pat Venditte, who is in the New York Yankees farm system, is attempting to become the first consistent ambidextrous pitcher to reach the majors.
Following closely behind could be the 17-year-old Perez, who is the ESPNChicago.com/Muscle Milk Prep Player of the Week.
Trained by his father, Juan Perez, to use both arms since he was toddler, Perez is just as comfortable throwing with his natural right hand as he is with his left. He can throw a fastball, changeup, cutter and curveball with both arms. His cutter and changeup are more effective as a right-hander, and his curveball is better as a left-hander. He’s been clocked at 90 mph right-handed and at 87 mph left-handed.
Coming from a private school of 350 students in Chicago’s suburbs, the 6-foot, 185-pound Perez’s feats have been slow to garner national attention. He drew some press last season while using both his arms to help Westminster Christian to a Class 1A state title. He also opened some eyes in national tournaments over the summer.
The word has spread further, including to pro scouts, as his velocity has increased this season.
“If you got to win one game, I’m going to pick him,” one American League scout said. “He can really pitch. He’s a crafty, crafty guy. It’s not like he’s just hitting 82. I’ve seen him in a tryout camp where he was 87-88 from the left and around 91-92 from the right. That’s legit velocity.
“On his sheer ability of throwing strikes and commanding the strike zone, I definitely think teams will take a look at him. I think people will definitely have interest in him.”
Major League Baseball was Juan Perez’s goal with Ryan from the onset. He had already had three sons, and none of them were left-handed. He was hoping Ryan would be the exception, but he also proved to have a natural tendency to use his right hand.
Instead of accepting another right-handed pitcher in his family, Juan decided he was going to make Ryan both, increasing his odds of a major league future.
“In the back of my mind, I was thinking this thing hasn’t been done before,” said Juan, who is also Westminster Christian’s pitching coach.
Juan’s plan began with getting Ryan to use both hands. When Ryan was three years old, Juan had him take turns with each arm tossing rocks into a pond.
“A little three year old, he’ll do whatever looks fun doing,” Juan said. “I’d pick up a rock and throw it. I’d put a rock into his left hand and go through the motion. He learned how to let go. At that age, it’s more about brain memory. When they’re young, you can influence him.”
Ryan’s first memory of throwing with both hands is when he was five or six, and it took a few years after that before he realized his playing style wasn’t the same as his peers.
To get where Ryan is now with his velocity, accuracy, mechanics and fielding ability has taken thousands of hours of training over the last 14 years. He’d field a bucket of 50 groundballs as a left-hander and then as a right-hander. Then he would catch 50 fly balls both ways. He’d pitch three buckets with both arms. For a while, they even had him hitting both ways; he now just bats from the right side.
“When I was young, practice would be twice as long as the other kids,” Ryan said. “When I was a child, I liked it. There’s some points where it’s started to get tougher, but I’ve worked through it. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s paid off. It’s still fun.”
Juan stressed what his son is achieving has been done through training. He believes anyone is capable of the same if they put enough time into it.
“A lot of people say he’s gifted,” Juan said. “It has nothing to do with gifts. You work on something, and you become talented at it. If a kid became ambidextrous and he’s just OK on both sides, it’s the teaching. The roots are the training of the kid. I’ve often thought about writing a book. It’s worked. There’s no doubt about it.”
Perez’s numbers reflect his dominance. He has a 9-1 record with a 1.56 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 63 innings this season.
Because Perez also plays shortstop and third base when he’s not pitching, he throws predominately left-handed in games and saves his right arm for when he’s in the field. He’s pitched 44 innings left-handed and 19 right-handed this season. He’ll throw more consistently with both arms when he’s only a pitcher with his travel team and attending showcase events this summer.
Juan is still trying to figure out the best way to utilize Ryan’s ability moving forward.
Right now, Ryan can rotate innings pitching both ways, but his arm cools off too quickly to switch from batter to batter. There’s also the question of whether he’s best suited as a reliever or a starting pitcher. Venditte is a reliever in Class AA.
“We’ve received some feedback, and a Blue Jays scout said he was impressed, but asked, ‘How do I use it?’” Juan said. “That made me think. If Ryan gets his velocity to be at major league level and get hitters out both ways, can he be a starter both ways? Those are the questions that come up.”
Ryan doesn’t have a preference. He wants what any high school player at his age wants -- to play in the majors. He’s just trying to do it differently than most.
“The major leagues is what I’m shooting for,” Ryan said. “That would be awesome to get to the majors and pitch both ways and hit 90. I would be the first one to pitch 90 and consistently throwing left and right. It would be great for the show.”