Perez exercises right to relearn lefty swing
Cubs outfielder working to return to switch-hitting ways
MESA, Ariz. -- If you meet Fernando Perez, try to remember to shake hands with your left hand, not your right. Lately, Perez has been brushing his teeth with his left hand. He's eating with his left.
After taking a year off from switch-hitting, the right-handed Perez is trying to relearn being a lefty.
Cubs bench coach Pat Listach said his manager Chris Bando suggested he become a switch-hitter during his third year at the Class A level. Listach was against it. In his first game of the 1990 Minor League season, he got hits in his first two at-bats from the right side. The other team brought in a right-hander, Bando told Listach to try it, and he got a hit.
"It was the right call," said Listach, who made it to the big leagues in '92 and won National League Rookie of the Year.
When he was in high school, infielder Bobby Scales taught himself to switch-hit by taking a traffic cone and creating his own batting tee at home, using a painter's drop cloth as the screen for him to hit balls into.
Perez was not a switch-hitter in college. He didn't even consider it. He never had a problem batting from the right side. But if Perez could hit from the left side, he could take advantage of his speed, which is what the Rays were thinking during a tryout camp in 2004 at Tropicana Field. One of the scouts asked him to take a few swings from the other side.
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"I thought it was a joke," Perez said Wednesday. "I'm in the 'Trop' in a pre-Draft workout. I thought he was kidding. I was not hip to the whole trying-out-for-a-team thing. I didn't know what was going on. He said, 'Why don't you get in there left-handed?'
"I'm thinking, maybe he wants me to do this so people think I'm a left-handed hitter and I look bad. Really, he just wanted to see what my baseline aptitude would be. I could fake it pretty well. I'm a pretty good athlete. The first ball I hit in the air and he was like, 'All right. You're probably going to [switch-hit].'"
And that was it. The Rays selected Perez in the seventh round and let him bat right-handed in 2005. He hit .289 and stole 57 bases in Class A. However, once a week, he would take batting practice from the left side and occasionally hit off a tee.
The next year at high Class A Visalia, the then 24-year-old Perez was told to switch-hit, and he batted .307 overall.
"Everybody said, 'Be patient, be patient,'" Perez said.
As a right-handed hitter, he could handle offspeed pitches. He didn't strike out much. The Rays could afford to take their time and experiment. They had Rocco Baldelli in center field, Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes in the Minor Leagues, B.J. Upton was playing shortstop, and another speedster, Carl Crawford, was in the outfield.
"There were always people who said, 'Man, you should stop it,' and there were people who said, 'Man, you should do it,'" Perez said. "It was about 50-50.
"In my head, I tried to be facilitative, I tried to be open," he said. "I thought it was fun. I thought it was a great challenge. In the end, I'm not here to just make things harder for myself. If I wanted to do that, I'd play in a weight vest or something like that."
Last season, Perez abandoned hitting from the left side. In March 2009, he dislocated his left wrist in a Spring Training game and had surgery that month. In October that year, he underwent surgery on his left shoulder to repair the labrum.
"I couldn't hold the bat," Perez said. "Spring was really rough last year. I didn't start swinging until Spring Training began. I'd have a good day and then a bad day, and then maybe two good days and two bad days. It was difficult and I hung with it as long as I could.
"Toward the end of spring, I literally felt I would hurt myself worse if I continued to hit left-handed. I thought, 'I'll just go out there all right-handed.' I don't know if it was the best decision, but I'd already made it."
On Jan. 8, the Rays traded Perez to the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. Before he arrived at camp, he told the Cubs' staff that he wanted to switch-hit again. They didn't expect that. As far as everyone was concerned, he was a right-handed hitter.
"It probably sounds crazy," Perez said.
Is he comfortable from the left side?
"Yes, but comfort is very relative," he said. "You're comfortable when you're hitting .300. It's a weird thing -- I could go 4-for-5 and I get three hits left-handed, and I get out right-handed. I would probably still feel more comfortable in my right-handed at-bat.
"I'm never ever going to be totally comfortable [from the left side]," he said. "That's not to say I can't have good results on that side. If you told me I needed to split a log, I'd grab it [with my right hand] and it'll always be like that."
Perez is in the batting cages early and late this spring to work with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. He will swing a heavy bat from the left to build up strength and sometimes swing a fungo to be more precise.
He's not quite ready to celebrate Left-Handers Day, which comes on Aug. 13, but he's working on his ambidexterity. It's just not easy being a lefty.
"For me, I didn't want to give it up," Perez said. "I put so much work in and so much sacrifice learning it, I've got to milk something from it. There's certainly some pride there.
"If in the end, it's just not right, I'll do what's best for myself or the team. I would really like to do it. I felt that after having a very good year as just a right-handed hitter, I disappeared a little."
It may end up being the right thing to do.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.