Meet the Mississippi State switch-pitcher keeping batters on their toes

Jurrangelo Cijntje is a switch-pitcher for Mississippi State. ESPN

It always takes the brain a moment to digest what the eyes have just seen.

The Mississippi State pitcher fires off a wicked breaking ball from his left hand, generating a groundout to second. Then he returns to the mound, toes the rubber and does it again three pitches later, this time to shortstop. But ... wait ... did that second set of tosses come from ... his right hand?

In the Bulldogs baseball media guide, Jurrangelo Cijntje -- it's pronounced Jur-rainge-uh-lo Sain-ja -- or "Lo" for short, is listed as a 20-year-old sophomore pitcher, 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, and under "bats/throws" it reads: S/S for Switch/Switch.

An amphibious ... er, ambidextrous pitcher? On the mound in the SEC, college baseball's battle royal? Throwing lefty and righty and frequently doing so in alternating at-bats? It's odd to witness from the grandstand or on TV. Now imagine what it's like standing in the on-deck circle, wondering which side of the rubber he's going to throw it to you from? Heck, just imagine watching him warm up. How does that even work?

"I start in the short box from the left side, just to get some feel, and then do the same from the right," Cijntje explained. "Then I will just move back to 60 feet and then try to throw more from the left side, because I throw more from the right side in the game. When I'm on the mound and the batter's coming, I look to my coach and we've scouted where he's best and worst and how I'm feeling from each side, and he'll say, 'You decide which side you want to throw.'"

In that same media guide, Cijntje is also listed as being from Pembroke Pines, Florida, a graduate of Champagnat Catholic High School, where he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 18th round of the 2022 MLB draft. But his background hits a lot more dots on the map than just South Florida or Starkville. He was born in the Netherlands, the son of Mechangelo Cijntje, a native of Curaçao who moved to Europe to play professional baseball, also doing a stint with the Netherlands national team.

Mechangelo was a catcher and thus a righty. Jurrangelo was a natural lefty, a gift from the baseball gods for any baseball-loving parent, but when he was only 6 years old, he expressed to his father that he also wanted to throw like him, with his right hand. So, Mechangelo devised a rig to help his son learn how to throw both ways. He hammered nails into a baseball and hung a tire in the backyard. Jurrangelo would run throwing drills with his natural left hand... then with his newly learned right hand.

That probably seems like it would have looked a little wacky, and well, that's because it totally looked a little wacky.

"Yes, the sharp end of the nail was sticking out of the baseball and I was trying to throw it at the tire, not trying to throw it like in the middle," Jurrangelo said. "You're trying to actually hit a target. So, the ball is sticking to the tire by the nail. And I think it was helping me with my strength as well as control."

Strength built in the wrists and arm, not to mention fingers, so as to not end up with a nail stuck in them like that tire?

"Yeah," he replied, laughing. "That, too."

The family moved back to Curaçao after Mechangelo's playing career was over, and soon it was Jurrangelo who was drawing attention for his play both on the mound and at shortstop. The baseball-obsessed island, located 65 miles north of Venezuela, took notice. In 2016, so did the rest of the hardball world, when Jurrangelo electrified Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as a member of Curaçao's team at the Little League World Series. Normally, it's the team that brings smiles to everyone's faces during player introductions, because when other rosters from other nations are asked to name their favorite players, they provide a diverse list of MLB All-Stars. The kids from Curaçao just say, "Andruw Jones."

But this time around, the smiles in the bandboxes of Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums, as well as the ESPN television audience, were wowed by the kid who threw with both arms.

"I was 13 and I threw a bullpen session before we started the tournament and they were shooting video of it, so they could do a scouting report on you," Jurrangelo recalled about the ESPN crew in Williamsport. "At that time, I wasn't throwing a lot from the left side, but I threw a bullpen from both sides that day and it went really well. So, coach was like, 'I think you can play it from both sides in the game, too.' In the game, I started on the left side and wasn't great, so I switched and was right side dominant. I think I broke up like a record. It had been like 60 years since somebody threw with both arms and yeah, the media went a little crazy."

Three years later, the family made the decision to move Jurrangelo to the United States, where he lived with a cousin in the Miami suburbs and played for the Champagnat Catholic Lions. He was throwing exclusively righty and doing well. Then his cousin went to his high school coach and said, "You know he can throw it lefty, too?" When the Lions challenged Lo to try it, he responded by throwing harder from the left than he did from the right.

The summer after his senior year, he floored scouts at the MLB draft combine in San Diego. From the left, he threw a 96 mph fastball and an 80 mph breaking ball. From the right, he hurled a 92 mph heater and a 75 mph curve. He struck out five of the six batters he faced, three thrown as a lefty and three as a righty. The Brewers drafted him a month later. But unfortunately for Milwaukee and its vaunted pitching lab, the defending Men's College World Series champions had already won the kid over.

"I was careful not to mess with him during that process," MSU head coach Chris Lemonis recalled a year ago. "When I finally checked in with him, he said, 'Coach, they offered a lot of money, but I didn't sign. They want me to play shortstop and I want to pitch.' To me, that shows you how talented he is and how smart he is. His brain works differently than all of ours."

Yes, it does. So does his glove, which features two thumb slots on each side and a weirdly wide hybrid catcher's mitt-ish middle section that fans out into a "V" of fingers in both directions. That opening scene we described for you when he stealthily changes sides of the mound? In the middle of that transition, he swaps out hands, seamlessly, so fast you don't even notice, kind of like a Transformer.

As Jurrangelo steps to the rubber, he also has to make it known which hand he will be pitching with, and that can't be changed during an at-bat. That's called the Pat Venditte Rule, named for the last ambidextrous pitcher to make it to the big leagues.

Venditte played for six MLB teams from 2015 to 2020 (his final team was the Miami Marlins, just as Jurrangelo moved to the area), but before that, he knocked around the minors for seven years. At the start of his career, with the New York Yankees' Class A team on Staten Island, the switch-pitcher faced switch-hitter Ralph Henriquez. When Henriquez changed sides of the plate, Venditte changed arms. So, Henriquez switched back. So did Venditte. This went on for nearly 10 minutes. By the next morning, a new rule had been implemented that the pitcher must declare prior to the at-bat and, barring injury, stick with that hand.

"I have talked to him several times, the last time was just two weeks ago," Jurrangelo said of Venditte. "He just told me, 'Remember, you've just got to keep doing your thing.' But he's also really nice, like, I can't say much to you because you throw it way harder than me."

Venditte was just the second pitcher of the last half-century to throw from both arms in a big league game. The other was Greg Harris, who only tossed one inning of scoreless ambidextrous relief for the Montreal Expos in 1995 (teams and coaches never let him do it because Harris says he was told it would make a "mockery of the game"). Negro Leaguer Larry "Schoolboy" Kimbrough also used to regularly change it up.

College baseball has featured some switch-pitchers over the years, most notably Venditte as an all-conference selection at Creighton (though coach Ed Servais wouldn't allow him to do it as a freshman because he feared the "circus" it would create), Harvard's Matt Brunnig (2007) and Cape Cod League hero Ryan Perez of Judson University, who won the All-Star Game MVP in 2014 pitching with both arms.

In 2003, the Atlanta Braves signed switch-pitcher Brandon Berdoll out of a Texas junior college, but he never came close to the big leagues. Past that, one has to go digging through the Baseball Encyclopedia to guys from the 1890s named Count Mullane and Ice Box Chamberlain.

"You have to treat each arm different," Jurrangelo explained, shifting from mechanics to mindset as easily as he shifts from arm to arm. "Everything isn't the same. You've got to use different muscle memory from each side. Say if I throw my breaking ball better on the right side, that depends on which arm angle I want to throw it from. That angle won't work the same from the left. It's two totally different approaches to the same thing by the same person. That is not easy until you have just done it so much that it becomes normal. So, yes, your mind has to work differently, I believe, to do that."

It's a good thing Jurrangelo specializes in different, because Mississippi State baseball could use some different in its psychological mix right now. The Bulldogs have been a truly baffling case as the 2024 season plows through mid-April. At times, they have looked and played like a top-25 program that is only two years removed from a national title. But then they will turn around and resemble a squad that looks totally shellshocked amid the minefield of the SEC.

After starting conference play with a series win over reigning MCWS champs and then-second-ranked LSU, they stumbled to a 7-8 conference record. They dropped two of three to archrival Ole Miss last weekend and now face what feels like the beginning of a do-or-die postseason push when the Bulldogs host Auburn tonight (7 p.m. ET on SEC Network+) through Sunday, especially with looming road trips to juggernauts Vanderbilt and Arkansas.

Through those ups and downs, Jurrangelo, who leads the pitching staff with a 5-1 record and 64 strikeouts, has been one of the team's lone anchors. Unfortunately, he also leads the team in earned runs surrendered with 20. On Saturday, he started against Ole Miss before leaving the mound early with back tightness after three innings pitched. MSU wound up using six pitchers in a 12th-inning walk-off loss.

The good news is he will be ready to go for the stretch run. The bad news is that Jurrangelo and the rest of the Bulldogs have practically no margin of error remaining if they want to be playing postseason baseball in June.

"I don't think there's like a lot of things we have to change, but it's just the mindset of keep pounding the stone," Jurrangelo said. "Just stay locked in. I think we just kind of lack focus by the end of the game. We've lost a lot of close games. So, stay in the moment, stay in the game, get outs, not try to strike everybody out. Let our defense play behind us. Stay on target."

Like hitting a tire with a nail-spiked baseball in a backyard in Curaçao. With both hands.