Jannis on How He and His Knuckleball Got from There to Here; PLUS: the Benefits of Being Yourself

Persistent knuckleball pitcher Mickey Jannis has published a few more installments of “A Knuckleballer’s Journey” at MetsMerizedOnline. There are four in the series now. In order:

Part 1, published January 8.

My dad, Nick Jannis, was a baseball coach, and almost from the day I was born he introduced me to America’s pastime….

My college career finished at Cal State Bakersfield. It was the program’s first and second years, and we literally built it from the ground up—we would go out before class started and lay the grass for the outfield as a team. I earned the first start and threw the first pitch in program history. Ironically, knowing that I had a good knuckleball, teammates, family, and friends recommended that I throw a knuckleball as the first pitch in program history, I declined thinking that everyone was crazy. Years later, I still regret not throwing the knuckleball.

Part 2, published January 15.

I closed the last game of the season. I was feeling good about what I had accomplished that season and my growth as a pitcher, and the Renegade coaches seemed pleased in my exit interview…. Six weeks later, I got the phone call every baseball player dreads. It was the minor league director for the Rays, and he said: “You’ve done everything you could for us. You’ve pitched well, but we don’t have a spot for you going into the next season. We’re going to have to release you.” I was stunned.

It was a blow, of course. However, I wasn’t going to let it stop me. I immediately began calling every scout who had ever contacted me, letting them know I had more to offer.

I had my knuckleball.

Part 3, published on January 24.

Almost every single player has come up to me and said, “Check out my knuckleball.” I always say, “OK, now throw it 100 times in a row with a batter 60 feet, 6 inches away, knowing what pitch is coming.” It’s a fun pitch to mess around with. That’s what got me started with it originally…

Following the 2013 season came the opportunity to play winter ball in the Australian Baseball League for the Brisbane Bandits. This was really the turning point for me. I was consistently in the starting rotation and had nothing to lose. I was able to get into a groove, consistently finding the strike zone with the knuckleball and pitching deeper into games….

As I headed back to the Crushers for a third season, I had another new coach. He gave me the opportunity to start for them every fifth day. For the first half of the season I was pitching well but wasn’t getting the results I was looking for. I struggled to find consistent results.

As a veteran for the team, my coach approached me with a proposition. “The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs need someone for a spot start in the Atlantic League,” he said. “I wanted to ask you first to see if you were interested.” I jumped at the opportunity. Facing older hitters again was just what I needed. My first game, I threw seven shutout innings allowing two hits. They were hoping for one start, and I gave them my best 10 of the season.

I was finally getting the results I wanted. I felt a new opportunity was close, but I always wondered, would I ever get signed by a Major League Baseball Organization again?

In 2015, I got my answer.

Part 4, published on February 12.

[After the 2014 season,] I decided to head to the MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego and try to make connections and meet everyone I could. It turned out to be a great decision. I got connected to a pitching coach who wanted to work with me. He supported my decision to add the knuckleball to my repertoire.

With his help, I made one minor change in my mechanics that took me to the next level. With a little tinkering, I began keeping my glove arm up longer, which prevented me from flying open. It resulted in being more consistent in the strike zone….

It was midseason and the all-star break was approaching. I was throwing well up to this point, and my 1.19 ERA was proof. Again, I began thinking to myself, is this good enough to earn me a shot in affiliated ball again? Will a team take a chance on me?

Following a game, I was sitting in the clubhouse talking to the guys, eating my post-game meal. The manager came up to me, “Hey, Mickey, can I see you in the office?” The guys were starting to yell for me—”This has to be it.” The manager put a number on a piece of paper and gave it to me. It was the Mets’ Minor League Director of Player Development. I went outside and gave him a call, but he didn’t answer. Shortly after, he sent me a text saying he was in the subway. Ten minutes later, he calls me and said, “We’ve got an opening in High A, and it’s yours if you want it.” I’m pretty sure I said “yes” before he said hello.

So, the story so far: learn baseball as a kid; fool around with a pretty good knuckleball; start taking the knuckleball more seriously and work on improving it; adopt the “one minor change” in mechanics that takes the knuckleball to the next level; keep throwing it; open the door when opportunity knocks.

* * *

From the Department of On the One Hand, On the Other Hand, we have Matt Reed’s summing up of the knuckleball at InsideHigherEd.com (helmed by “a veteran of cultural studies seminars…”):

Knuckleball pitchers, and the pitches themselves, don’t look quite right. The textbook for baseball says that pitchers win with speed and precise location.  Knuckleballs are usually slow, and they’re kind of wobbly; most of the time, even the pitcher doesn’t know where the pitch is going.  A knuckleball pitcher can look more like a Dad playing catch than an actual pitcher. Many pitching coaches won’t look twice at a knuckleball pitcher, and knucklers look terrible on some of the basic statistics that coaches keep.

But the good ones still get batters out and win games.  Even though they don’t look the part, and violate several of the basic assumptions of the game, they work. The trick is in allowing knucklers to do what they do, and not to try to turn successful knuckleball pitchers into middling fastball pitchers.  You have to let them do what they do, and be willing to accept the occasional ugly game. Over time, they hold up well. If you can overlook dogma and focus on results, knucklers can be hidden gems.

This is all prelude to an analogy about doing your best the way you know how to do it, rather than allowing oneself to be squeezed into a Wrong Way.

As her dad, it’s hard to watch her walk away from something for which she has an obvious talent. But I can’t blame her. She has to choose between being the knuckleball pitcher [debater] she actually is, and trying to fake being the power pitcher the league [high school debating league] likes…. She likes to win, but on her own terms…. Keep on throwing that weird, wobbly stuff, TG…. Make those weird, wobbly throws, even if nobody else notices for a while that you’re making batters miss.

We accept the analogy and the moral.



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