The first time a batter saw Westminster (Ill.) Christian High pitcher Ryan Perez stop warming up right-handed, pick up another glove and start warming up left-handed, the hitter's jaw dropped with a wide-eyed reaction. The man outside the batter's box had good reason for the reaction, too: Perez is a top flight pitcher with either hand, one of the few -- if not the only -- legitimate ambidextrous pitching prospects in the United States.
Perez, who is one of the top pitchers in the Chicagoland area, is no simple novelty act. His right-handed fastball has been clocked at 91 mph, and his lefty heater hit 86 mph on the gun before the season. He continues to build strength in both arms in a personal quest to reach more than 90 mph with either hand.
If that speed wasn't impressive enough, Perez also throws three other pitches with both arms, with his cut fastball, curveball and change-up making his fastball even more effective by keeping batters off balance ... as if the ability to pitch with either arm didn't do that already.
In his second year as a starting pitcher, Perez continues to turn heads. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Perez's big breakthrough came in 2010, when he went 9-0 with a 1.15 ERA (weighing in both right- and left-handed performances) while leading Westminster Christian to the Illinois Class 1A state title. In 2011, the junior has been even better. On April 5, Perez threw a no-hitter against Rockford (Ill.) East High while pitching left-handed, then came back and threw four innings of relief in a victory against Aurora Christian, pitching right-handed and allowing just two hits and no runs.
While his teammates have become accustomed to Perez's unique dual-handed warmup, and the unique, six-fingered ambidextrous glove he uses, their coach said that other teams are still left in awe watching the dual-threat fireballer.
"The whole other team was in the dugout, going, 'Did you see that?'" Westminster coach Jeff Moeller told the Sun-Times of his team's 2010 sectional playoff opponent Eastland. "It was like they were getting psyched out before the game started."
Perez's father, Juan Perez, is Westminster's pitching coach and the impetus behind his son's ambidexterity. A left-handed pitcher himself, the elder Perez taught his youngest son to throw with both hands by having him skip stones with alternating hands. While he was open to ending Ryan Perez's quest to pitch with both hands at any point in his development, Juan Perez said that -- aside from some minor issues with confusing which foot to stride forward with on some deliveries as an 8-year-old -- there have been few hiccups in Ryan Perez's rapid rise up the ranks of pitching prospects, regardless of which hand father and son focus on developing at any given time.
Now father and son are trying to maintain Ryan Perez's impressively consistent defense, all while continuing to build more strength and accuracy in both pitching arms. Whenever he isn't on the mound, Perez serves as either a right-handed infielder or left-handed first baseman, avoiding errors with aplomb despite he and his father's struggles to find him more practice time during the hectic baseball season.
"You start thinking about it, 'How does he deal with that? How does he deal with this?'" Juan Perez said. "At the same time, you've got to keep him healthy. He works out during the offseason; during the season, you want to keep your strength. We're trying to figure out a way to get into the gym and work out and just maintain his strength. You get five or six games a week, it's hard."
When he does get time, the younger Perez has begun communicating with Yankees pitching prospect Pat Venditte, the only ambidextrous pitcher affiliated with any major league club. Venditte encouraged Perez to throw more long toss with his left arm, a trick which the younger prospect said has improved his arm strength.
All that extra work is made worthwhile whenever Perez steps on the mound, warms up and leaves onlooking opponents shaking their heads trying to deciper how they can handle batting against him.
"I just kind of smile and try to get focused," Perez told the Chicago Sun-Times. "That's an advantage to me. They're thinking about that up at the plate."