Harvard's Matt Brunnig could become second pro in modern era to pitch from both sides.
By BRUCE LOWITT
Published July 8, 2003
Okay, here's a scenario that occurs just about every day during baseball season: The other guys send up a right-handed batter to pinch hit against your left-hander ... which you counter by bringing in a right-handed pitcher ... which they counter by sending up a left-handed batter to pinch hit for their right-handed pinch-hitter.
You can't change pitchers again.
Wouldn't it be nice if there were switch-pitchers so you could just turn your pitcher around and make him a southpaw?
Meet Matt Brunnig, Harvard, Class of '06, a both-handed pitcher (oh, and a switch-hitter, too). He grew up in DeLand, was home-schooled and pitched for Warner Christian Academy in South Daytona. He's 6 feet 7, 185 pounds, and he's almost as rare as Halley's Comet, which comes around every 76 years.
Almost as rare. Last month the Atlanta Braves drafted ambidextrous pitcher-first baseman Brandon Berdoll out of Temple (Texas) Junior College in the 27th round.
On most rosters you'll find B/T, an abbreviation for bats/throws. You'll find plenty of S/L or S/R players, switch-hitters who throw left-handed (as Berdoll is listed) or right-handed. Brunnig is listed on Harvard's roster as S/S. "Just to see that on a roster, that in itself is worth the price of admission," Harvard coach Joe Walsh said. "Someday, Matt could be our No. 1 starter - and our No. 3, too."
The only ambidextrous modern era major-league pitcher was Greg Harris, in 1995. Three did it in the 1800s and, according to Jerome Holtzman, official historian for Major League Baseball, perhaps a half-dozen pitchers - Tug McGraw, Cal McLish and Boo Ferriss among them - threw right- and left-handed but never in a game.
Brunnig had never heard of Harris, "but I've learned a lot about him since this started happening." Brunnig also insists he is not unique. "It's not like I was born this way," he said. "It's the circumstances that have put me in this position."
The circumstance is his father, John, a chiropractor. He said he worked on his son's switch-pitching for two reasons: to keep Matt's body in as perfect balance as possible; and because he would be coveted by major-league teams.
"If you throw right-handed correctly, you're going to build up a lot of strength in your right arm," John said. "The muscles pull the shoulder forward and to the right; that can cause the spine to rotate slightly to the right side. If you have the same strength on both sides, it'll keep your spine straight, and the spine is where the nerves that control your body are."
Walsh said he'd seen Brunnig pitch right-handed one inning for the Central Florida Renegades of the summer Florida Space Coast Baseball League. Some time later, Walsh called a friend, Mariners scout Mark Leavitt, for more details. "He goes, "He was all right, around 84-85 (mph).' I was like, "We heard he was an 88-90 guy,' and Mark goes, "Yeah, but this was from the left side. I'm going back tomorrow; he's supposed to throw right-handed.' "
That intrigued Walsh. He invited Brunnig to visit Harvard in January 2002.
"Bringing up kids from Florida in the winter wasn't the smartest thing to do," Walsh said. Actually, it was. Colleges can't work out players on recruiting visits. But it had snowed. "I was walking with an assistant coach," Brunnig said, "and I made a snowball and threw it at a tree and hit it and the coach asked if I could do it left-handed, so I made another one and threw it that way and hit it again."
Matt was about 5 when John began coaching him to throw both ways. "People who try to throw with the other hand decide after three or four throws there's no way it can work, so they give up," John said. "But if you take three weeks, a lot more people can do it." It took Matt "a couple of years before I felt halfway comfortable throwing both ways, partly because I didn't work very hard at it."
Brunnig is playing this summer with the Torrington Twisters of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, the last step for players who will try to turn pro. In four games (112/3 innings) he is 0-0 with a 2.31 ERA.
He is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering and would prefer to receive less attention at this point in his baseball career. "I haven't really done anything yet," he said.
As a freshman, Brunnig was 4-3 with a 3.55 ERA in nine games (six starts, three complete games) and played rightfield in one game (0-for-1). He is a natural right-hander and pitched that way as a starter, but he was a left-hander in relief twice. "On a good day I can get the ball up to 87-88 mph from the left and top out at 90 from the right."
No, he hasn't thrown with each hand in one game. And, yes, he has a glove for each hand.
"Good for the game'
Harris went him one better. Mizuno designed a custom six-fingered glove he could wear on either hand. It's in the Hall of Fame.
Harris runs a pitching school for ages 7 through college in suburban Anaheim, Calif. He thinks Brunnig pitching from both sides is a great idea, whether in one inning or different games.
"Say there's a left-handed hitter who bats .320 against righties and .220 against lefties," Harris said. "Pick your hand. Easy choice."
There is no rule prohibiting a pitcher from switching hands from batter to batter. But under major-league regulations, he can't do it pitch to pitch; once he "declares" which hand he'll use for that batter, he has to stick to it.
Also, there are no rules prohibiting a hitter from moving from one batter's box to the other between pitches except, according to Rule 6.06(b), "while the pitcher is in position ready to pitch."
Unlike major-league baseball's rules, its regulations aren't carved in stone, said Dennis Bingham, former chairman of the rules committee for the Society for American Baseball Research.
"It takes an act of Congress to change a rule," Bingham said. "Regulations make it easier for umpires to get together and deal with unique situations. They anticipated it when Greg Harris said he'd pitch both ways. Otherwise Harris could have the ball in his right hand, the batter would get into the left box, Harris could switch hands, the batter could switch boxes. ... You'd never get anything done."
Harris and John Brunnig believe switch-pitching in a game wouldn't harm either arm and, with a couple of days off to rest his body, Matt could be two starters in the rotation, alternating left- to right-handed.
Harris pitched, mostly as a reliever (74-90, 3.69 ERA, 54 saves), from 1981-95 with the Mets, Reds, Expos (twice), Padres, Rangers, Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees. He toyed with it with Texas in 1987, but until his second stint with the Expos he never got the chance to switch-pitch in a game.
"I wasn't going to do it as a joke or anything. I was hoping to enhance my career," he said.
"(Expos manager) Felipe Alou wanted to see it. He said it'd be good for the game. It was the first time I'd heard that."
On Sept. 28, 1995, Montreal was en route to a last-place finish. Cincinnati had clinched its division. In the ninth inning, wearing his special glove, Harris retired Reggie Sanders on a grounder as a right-hander, switched to the left hand, walked Hal Morris, got Eddie Taubensee on a grounder, then reverted to his right and got Bret Boone to ground out.
"I waited nine years to do it," Harris said.
It came too late to enhance his career. The 1995 season was his last.
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from Jerome Holtzman's "A lesson in switch-pitching," posted on March 3, 2000, on www.mlb.com