Eddie Gamboa Picked Up by Rangers; Brian Wilson, Out of MLB Since 2014, Says He’ll Also Pitch Knuckleball Full-Time

Gamboa on knuckleball gripOne of the baseball players who has made the switch to full-time knuckleball pitcher in recent years is Eddie Gamboa. He pitched seven games in the MLB last year for Tampa and is now being picked up by the Texas Rangers.

The transaction-a-day Rangers are right on their game as spring training begins.

On Tuesday, as pitchers and catchers were reporting, the Rangers acquired right-hander Eddie Gamboa from Tampa Bay for a player to be named later or future considerations. Gamboa, 32, was designated for assignment earlier Tuesday.

He made his major league debut last year, appearing in seven games for Tampa Bay and compiling a 1.35 ERA in 132/3 innings. He walked eight and struck out 11. Gamboa, who was drafted in 2008, learned to throw the knuckleball in 2013 and has moved to the trick pitch as his primary weapon. He also averaged 86 mph with his occasional fastball during his brief major league stint.

“If you’re average, then you have to find something to make you not average,” Gamboa told MiLB.com [“The official site of minor league baseball”] in 2013. “For me, that’s the knuckleball, something that might put me on a whole different level.”

When he voiced that ambition in 2013, Gamboa was in his fifth season with the Double-A Bowie Baysox, of the Baltimore Orioles organization. Without the knuckleball, it’s unlikely that Gamboa would have made it to the MLB last year or been picked up by the Rangers this year. As he noted four years ago, his career had hit a wall before he decided to try his luck as a knuckleball pitcher.

The Dallas News calls signing Gamboa taking a gamble. But he is no more a gamble than any other player who has successfully worked to improve and prove himself and is being given a chance.

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Brian Wilson with and without beardGetting more play in the news lately is the story of another aspiring knuckleball pitcher, one who has just decided to try making a comeback with the pitch: the famously if formerly bearded Brian Wilson. He has long had a knuckleball. In fact, when with the Giants he was asked not to use his knuckleball. According to Tim Brown’s widely noticed report for Yahoo! Sports:

[Brian] Wilson is nearly two and a half years removed from his last professional pitch, thrown for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of the 2014 season, when they released him in spite of owing him $9.5 million for 2015. He continued to throw while also taking on real estate projects in Los Angeles, content in a career that spanned nine seasons and netted 172 saves, three All-Star appearances and two World Series titles, mostly with the San Francisco Giants.

He hadn’t, however, intended to retire. His elbow—saved twice by Tommy John surgery—felt strong. His shoulder, too. And several months ago he decided to spend more time with the knuckleball, a pitch he taught himself as a 12-year-old and toyed with ever since. In San Francisco, he said, coaches had asked him to refrain from the knuckleball in deference to the health of catchers Mike Matheny, Bengie Molina and Buster Posey. The pitch can be savage on a catcher. Besides, Wilson was pushing triple digits with his fastball and his slider was borderline unhittable. A 74-mph knuckler seemed, to the Giants, unnecessary….

R.A. Dickey, who came to the knuckleball when he was about 30, is 42 and will make $8 million pitching for the Atlanta Braves in 2017. Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox turned to the knuckleball in his mid-20s and had a breakout 2016, when, at 32, he won 13 games. Noted recent knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and Tom Candiotti pitched well into their 40s.

A reliever for nearly all his professional career, when he was fastball-slider reliant, Wilson likely would focus on being a starter as a knuckleballer. What’s left to determine is whether the knuckleball is good enough for the big leagues….

“I always said that once my career was over I was coming back as a knuckleballer,” he said. “I’m good with it. Man, I get to play a game. It’s going to be pretty fun.”

We talked about Wilson’s knuckleball in a few IKA posts in 2014. At that time, when he was still with the Dodgers, his idea was that he would use the knuckleball to become a starter.

“I’m just letting the league know that in case one day they’re interested in a starter, I can throw a knuckleball,” [Wilson] said. “Not to be funny or as a joke—it’s a real pitch. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind starting one day, try that routine out at the professional level. I did it in the minors—I mean, it’s similar, ot to the stakes of Major League competition.

“A knuckleball does nothing to your arm, so I could do it tomorrow—provided everything works out. You still have to get outs—it’s not like, ‘Oh, he throws a knuckleball, he’s going to play for 10 years.’ That’s still got to be a competitive pitch.”

Now, however, it’s not about advancing in the club; it’s about getting back into the club.

So will Wilson be able to baffle batters without the help of the beard? At least as much as any other knuckleball pitcher….

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