Position player Dan Johnson—”yes, that Dan Johnson, the one who hit two of the most dramatic homers in Rays history,” as Marc Tompkin of the Tampa Bay Times recalls him to readers—is getting a chance to make waves as a knuckleball pitcher with the Rays organization.
Johnson, who spent his career primarily as a first baseman and [designated hitter], has agreed to a minor-league deal and, assuming he passes his physical, will work with Rays pitching coordinator Charlie Haeger.
Johnson, 36, has played 15 pro seasons, including parts of 10 in the majors, inlcuding part of last season with the Cardinals.
He said he was been throwing a knuckleball since he was a kid and experimented with it before in pro ball but is now making a legit bid.
“It’s not the first time I’ve tried this out but this is the first time I feel like I can take it seriously,’’ he said. “This is the time. I’m 36 and ready to go on this.’’
Tampa Tribune’s Roger Mooney reminds us that that former pro knuckleball pitcher Charlie Haeger is now coaching for the Rays, so will be helping Johnson with the pitch.
Johnson has thrown a knuckleball all his life. He said he threw around 10 bullpens in 2013 while playing for the Yankees Triple A tam in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. There was talk, he said, of him pitching in a game.
Johnson said he had minor league offers this season as a first baseman/DH, but held off signing with a team because of the Rays interest in him as a pitcher.
“The Rays are not afraid to do things outside the box,” Johnson said.
The Rays hired former big league knuckleballer Charlie Haeger this offseason to be a minor league pitching coordinator. Haeger is currently working with Eddie Gamboa, a non-roster pitcher in camp who is trying to make his knuckleball major league-ready.
Few successful knuckleballers start out in baseball by specializing in the knuckleball. But many do spend years “fooling around” with it and knowing they have a knack for it before eventually deciding to hunker down and master it as best they can. Nor is it unheard of for players who never pitched professionally to one day ascend the mound because of an above-average facility with the knuckleball. USA Today’s Ted Berg (“Journeyman MLB infielder Dan Johnson is reinventing himself as a knuckleballer”) opines that although Johnson’s move “may sound like a last-ditch effort to revive a waning career,”
knuckleballers often follow courses about as strange and unpredictable as their signature pitch. Longtime Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield began his career as a minor-league infielder. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro secured 208 of his 318 career wins after his 35th birthday. R.A. Dickey spent more than 10 pro seasons trying to catch on as a conventional pitcher before committing to the knuckleball in his early 30s and going on to win the Cy Young Award at age 37 in 2012.
And, noting that Haeger is already working with the Rays’ Eddie Gamboa, Charlie Wilmoth of MLBTradeRumors.com suggests that if Johnson “were to return to the big leagues as a knuckleball pitcher at age 36 after years spent on the fringes of the Majors as a first baseman, it would be an extremely unusual twist in his career, perhaps rivaling that of pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel.”