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Monday, May 18, 2015

Both-hander battles at Pre-Draft

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – When Ryan Perez showed up at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex in Jupiter, Fla., in late October 2011 to pitch for the Chicago Scouts Association squad at the PG WWBA World Championship, he arrived as somewhat of a novelty.

Perez, who calls Hampshire, Ill., home and who was just a couple of months into his senior year at Westminster Christian High School, was listed in the event program as a BHP – a both-handed pitcher. The uninitiated may have indeed seen it as a novelty – maybe even a gimmick – but Perez was very serious about what he was doing.

“I’ll try to go as far with this as I can,” Perez told PG almost four years ago. “It gives a lot of the scouts an option. I can start or close both ways and do basically whatever they want.”

That steadfastness has paid off, and nothing Perez does these days is gimmicky. He was at Perfect Game Field-Veterans Memorial Stadium on Monday taking part in the Perfect Game Pre-Draft Showcase showing more than two dozen scouts that his ability to throw effectively with both his right and left arms might still be novel but is certainly no gimmick.

“I’m all done with college baseball for the season and time’s running out. Right now, it’s make it or break it for me,” Perez Monday from inside one of the dugouts at chilly and windy PG Field-Vets Stadium. “I wanted to come here and give the scouts what they want to see and go from there.”

Still listed at 6-foot, 190-pounds the same as when he was in high school, Perez just completed his junior year at Judson University, a 1,200-student NAIA school in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, Ill. Perez has been on quite a journey since he last spoke with PG down in Jupiter, but he’s stuck with the both-handed regimen and is regarded as a legitimate high-level draft prospect.

Juan Perez, Ryan’s father, was with his son here Monday; the two drove over from Chicago Sunday night. Juan explained on Monday that Ryan was born a natural right-hander and how Juan – who has four other sons and a daughter – had always hoped for a natural left-hander like himself (he played some semi-pro baseball as a youngster).

Juan made the decision to try to make Ryan a left-hander because southpaws have always been in such high demand in the professional ranks. It wasn’t, however, made without some trepidation. Juan worried that if he went against the natural grain and his son’s left arm didn’t develop that he would in turn mess up the development of his right arm. He ultimately decided to help Ryan develop both.

“People don’t realize how much work it takes; it was double the effort on everything,” Juan Perez said. “By the time he was seven (years old) you probably would have looked at him and you wouldn’t have been able to tell me which was his natural arm; that’s how much he had developed.”

The plan hit a bit of a snag during Perez’s senior year in 2012 when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He went undrafted out of high school and ended up at Judson U. where he felt right at home on the smaller stage. He threw only from the left-side his freshman year and now throws harder from that side than he does from the right-side. His fastball has reached 94 mph left-handed and is in the low-90s right-handed.

“I had a little bit of doubt when I first heard that I was going to need Tommy John,” Perez said. “The big decision for me was if I was just going to be left-handed or if I was just going to follow through with being ambidextrous. I had worked too long and too much for this so I thought, why stop now?”

Juan Perez speculated that his son might be the only pitcher anywhere that is throwing 90 mph with both arms. Oakland Athletics farmhand Pat Vindette – now pitching on the Triple-A level in his eighth minor league season – is a both-hander who generally throws in the mid- to high-80s.

Where Perez differs from Vindette is that he doesn’t do a whole lot of “switch-pitching.” If Perez starts an inning throwing left-handed he stays with it instead of going back-and-forth depending on what side of the plate the batter is standing. He is capable of doing that but feels like he gets added velocity by throwing from the same side to multiple batters.

Rich Benjamin, Perez’s coach at Judson, has enjoyed working with Perez the last three years and has been careful in bringing him back from the Tommy John surgery.

“He’s the electric from the left side,” Benjamin told Phil Rodgers from last Augusts. He’s getting better right-handed. And he’s one of the smartest, most dedicated kids I’ve been lucky to coach. He’s got a pretty detailed game plan laid out for him from the right side. It gives him a chance to grow.”

What scouts have always liked about Perez even during his prep days at Westminster Christian High School and his last two seasons at Judson has been his consistency from both sides. In high school he was throwing 91-92 from the right side and 88-89 from the left, and he had already developed an impressive curveball, cut fastball and changeup that he could throw with both arms.

Perez stayed the course and good things kept happening. Last summer, he received a last-minute invitation to pitch for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks in the prestigious Cape Cod League and after making the team the experience turned out to be a game-changer.

Perfect Game named him to the Cape’s Top Prospect List after a summer season in which he was named the Most Valuable Player in league’s All-Star Game. In his one inning of work at that event he decided to go the “switch-pitching” route and struck out the side – the first and third batters throwing left-handed and the second one from the right side.

The performance was eye-opening enough that Perfect Game named Perez the top prospect in the NAIA college ranks coming into the season.

“That really put him out there and got him a lot of attention from the scouts,” Juan Perez said of the Cape experience. He went on to say it was Ryan’s adviser who told him it would be a good idea to be at the PG Pre-Draft and get back out in front of the scouting community one more time now that Judson’s season is over.

“I feel good, I feel great and I’m ready to pitch,” Perez said. “The most important thing is just going out there and being yourself and you don’t want to change anything due to the circumstances.”

Perez was his reliable consistent self at the PG Pre-Draft, showing a low-90s fastball from both sides. It’s the kind of performance that he hopes will make an impression on the scouting community, especially with the MLB First-Year Player Draft just weeks away.

“It’s something I’m really looking forward to,” Perez said. “Right now I’m not really focused on it, I’m just focused on going out and pitching. I’m an aggressive pitcher and I’m always going to attack. I know I can get ahead in the count and throw strikes.”

Juan Perez does not regret sending his son down the path that resulted in him being a successful both-handed pitcher. At this point, Juan knows, it’s up to the scouts to decide if they want to look at one side more seriously than the other or if there are still teams interested in the intrigue that pitching from both sides brings.

“He definitely wants to get drafted,” Juan Perez said. “Nowadays you hope you get drafted high enough to where the team is going to value their investment and work with you and give you every opportunity to be successful for them.”

And looking back to that week in Jupiter, Fla., back in 2011, when Ryan Perez made it clear that he would stick with pitching from both sides for as long as he was able to remain effective, his father couldn’t help but smile at the progress that has been made.

“You sort of live through your child as he accomplishes some of the things that you wish you could have in your career,” Juan Perez said. “It’s really been a blessing to see him come as far as he’s come.”

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