Sports writer Rob Piersall of MetsMerizedOnline.com recently got a chance to talk to Mickey Jannis (profiled a little earlier at MLB.com/Cut4). Jannis decided to become a fulltime knuckleball pitcher in 2012, after two seasons in the minors with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Piersall: How did you come to throw the knuckleball and what is the process you undertook in becoming a knuckleball pitcher?
Jannis: I always messed around with it as a kid and I always had a good one. So I just kind of kept it in my back pocket in case I needed it at some point in my career. I think the process is just throwing it all the time. That’s the only way to develop it. Especially to hitters and off the mound almost everyday to get the right feel for it and keep the feel of it.
Piersall: I’m sure you’ve seen the Knuckleball documentary. It seems as though knuckleballers are such a tight knit because you guys throw such a unique pitch. Have you ever sought advice from Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey or any other successful MLB knuckleballers?
Jannis: Not too much actually. It’s pretty much been trial and error on my own in my career. I’ve talked a little to Charlie Hough at the beginning of the process. Towards the end of this Fall League Tom Candiotti reached out to me on his own so that was really cool to talk to him.
Jannis differs from some other knuckleballers in his perception that he could still have continued his career productively without revving up his knuckleball. By contrast, practitioners like Dickey and Wakefield are pretty sure that the knuckleball saved them from mediocrity if not also premature retirement. As Wakefield once put it (and as we quote on the IKA home page): “I never thought the knuckleball would be a tool to get the Major Leagues….” After 19 years in the MLB, 17 of them with the Red Sox, Wakefield was 45 when he finally retired.
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After becoming a knuckleball specialist as a late career move, can one revert to conventional pitching as an even-later career move? An article by published in The Guardian (UK) last year suggests not, given the adjustments required to become adept in the knuckleball’s oddball mechanics.
For one, in order to throw the knuckleball, you have to completely overhaul the mechanics of your pitching motion. Instead of placing one’s fingers flat along the baseball to grip it naturally, a knuckleballer digs the nails of his index and middle fingers into the smooth part of the baseball. He keeps his hand behind the ball rather than on top of it. Instead of snapping his wrist on release to create movement, he keeps it locked. The motion toward home plate is more like pushing the baseball than throwing it. All of these factors combine to remove the spin and the rotation from the ball. The pitch gains its unpredictable movement from the friction of the air currents as they catch on to the seams of a non-rotating baseball. Whereas conventional pitchers rely on a full-body motion and “maximum effort,” a knuckleball pitcher uses mainly his upper body and puts forth only a fraction of his strength. As Pucetas said: “It’s a process of literally changing everything you’ve done since you were five.”
These adjustments are so drastic that there is no coming back from them. “Once you go exclusive,” the Texas Rangers’ pitching coordinator Danny Clark told me, “your fastball does back up [lose its velocity].” Conventional pitchers can convert to the knuckleball, but no knuckleballer has ever converted back into a conventional pitcher.
The flat statement that the adjustments “are so drastic that there is no coming back from them” seems not exactly right. Even the most dedicated knuckleball pitchers do not rely on the knuckleball exclusively, and can flip from throwing the ball one way to a radically different way a few seconds later, with the same batter at bat. What probably cannot be gainsaid is the fact that as a committed knuckler, you have relinquished the possibility of throwing the fastball as well as you might have done had you not elected to devote so much time and energy finding your best knuckleball.
On the plus side of the trade-off, you now have something that the fastest fastball pitchers will never have. And a good shot at a substantially longer career.