Ryan Perez might look back someday and say having Tommy John surgery on his right arm was the best thing that could have happened to his left.
That’s right, his left.
The 20-year-old from tiny Judson University in Illinois is one of baseball’s rare ambidextrous pitchers. He’s been all the rage in the prestigious Cape Cod League since he touched the low 90s on the radar gun — with both arms — in last week’s All-Star game.
He came on in the third inning and struck out the first batter left-handed, the second right-handed and the third left-handed.
“Didn’t see that coming,” Perez said.
Neither did the announcers on the regional telecast, fans in the stands and even some of his teammates who were doing double-takes in the field as he flipped his custom-made, six-fingered glove from one hand to the other. The 18-pitch performance earned him the West team’s MVP and left all to ask themselves, “Did he really just do that?”
As entertaining as Perez was that one inning, he’s worked almost exclusively as a left-hander this summer and blossomed into a potential high-round 2015 draft pick.
No doubt, the Tommy John surgery he had in fall 2011 came with a silver lining. The operation left him unable to pitch with his right arm his senior year in high school. He tweaked the right arm again early in his freshman season at Judson and pitched almost all his innings as a lefty.
While his right arm was shut down almost entirely for two seasons, he worked his left-handed fastball up to 93 mph. He also developed a devastating breaking pitch to go with his changeup. This summer he’s struck out 38 in 26 1-3 innings, almost all as a lefty, and has a 2.05 ERA for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks.
“I think his left arm is going to be the one that makes him a lot of money,” Hyannis manager Chad Gassman said.
Aaron Fitt, who covers college baseball for Baseball America, said scouts are impressed with Perez’s work from the right side as well.
“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,” Fitt said. “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.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound Perez said he’s happy to pitch with either arm.
“But 90 right-handed is not special in the major leagues. Everyone throws 90,” he said. “As a lefty you can get away with it because it’s more a rarity.”
Baseball’s best-known ambidextrous pitcher was Greg Harris, who pitched with both arms during one inning of scoreless relief for the Montreal Expos in 1995. The switch pitcher at the highest level of the sport this season is Pat Venditte, who’s in Triple-A in the New York Yankees’ organization.
Perez was 5 when he started throwing left-handed during long training sessions with his father, Juan. Perez went on to become one of the top pitchers in the Illinois high school ranks and attracted attention from schools such as Stanford, Michigan and Creighton.
But he didn’t meet NCAA academic standards and ended up at NAIA Judson, a 1,000-student school in Elgin, Illinois. He was 12-3 with a 2.43 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 111 innings as a sophomore this past season, all but 29 from the left side.
Judson coach Rich Benjamin is friends with Gassman and persuaded him to give Perez a shot in the Cape Cod League. The Massachusetts league is the summer home for many of the nation’s top college players, and 257 of its alumni were on major league rosters last year.
“It’s pretty great that I’ve done well here,” Perez said. “It’s helped me because a lot of scouts have seen me. I’ve gone from being a guy who might not even be drafted to a guy who has a pretty good chance.”