Knuckleball Pitcher Jannis Is #6 on a Top-11 List; Steven Wright Is Released by Red Sox

Number Six on Steve Sypa’s list of 11 best Mets minor league pitchers this year is Mickey Jannis, the knuckleballer who recently improved his game with the help of a special camera to examine his pitching mechanics.

Sypa stresses that he hasn’t seen every game and every pitcher who played in the Mets organization during 2019. So we can’t take his ranking as gospel. But he’s seen a lot of Mets games, and Jannis of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies is on his list of guys to watch.

The knuckleball is his bread-and-butter pitch, of course, and like R.A. Dickey, Jannis has multiple variants of the pitch, with some as low as 75 MPH and some as high as 80 miles per hour, all featuring mesmerizing, unpredictable movement. He throws the knuckler most of the time but mixes in his other pitches enough to keep hitters on their toes…. As a result of his larger arsenal and continually developing knuckleball, Jannis has consistently been able to keep trimming his walk rate while increasing his strikeout rate.

Jannis has appeared in two Triple-A games over the two past years, and neither went well. In 2018, he allowed 13 earned runs over 8 innings with the Las Vegas 51s; in 2019, he allowed 17 earned runs over 6.2 innings with the Syracuse Mets. Meanwhile, he set the all-time Binghamton Mets/Rumble Ponies franchise record for most wins (28), and has a cumulative 4.02 ERA in 517.2 innings pitched in Double-A…. He should be given any and every opportunity to continue his journey as a pitcher and eventually make the majors….

No argument here.

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Pitcher Steven Wright’s knuckleball was good enough, after much patient effort, to get him to the major leagues. There he impressed everybody whenever he had a sustained opportunity to impress. But recurring injuries and other problems have kept Wright from being on the mound very often in the last few years. Injury has also sidelined him in the 2019 season. And now the team has let him go.

On October 18, the Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato reported:

The Red Sox today released pitcher Steven Wright, a knuckleballer with health problems who had also previously been suspended for violating MLB’s policies on domestic violence and performance enhancing substances.

He was expected to make $1.5 million in arbitration for the 2020 season and the release will clear some expected salary….

Teams typically have until the end of November to decide whether or not to tender contracts to their arbitration eligible players, and Wright is not the only arbitration-eligible player the Sox could non-tender to save money.

But according to an industry source, there’s new information regarding Wright’s health that led to his release at this time. He had dealt with a myriad of health issues over the past four years….

Wright’s career appeared to be blossoming in the 2016 season, when he made the All-Star team and threw 156 2/3 innings with a 3.33 ERA. But former manager John Farrell used him as a pinch runner at Dodger Stadium that August and Wright strained his throwing shoulder while sliding back into second base.

We hope and expect to see Wright on the field in 2020. Despite everything, we don’t think a sustained comeback improbable. Knuckleball pitchers are good at comebacks.

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In a late September installment, a Montgomery County, Indiana online paper called, concisely enough, The Paper, featured “Advice from a knuckleball pitcher” by John Dale, now mostly retired. Dale’s resume includes jobs as teacher, sheriff, artist, and local historian.

He was also once a pitcher. When he was a kid, his father signed him up with the Farm League, and he quickly discovered his preferred position, pitcher. He tried a variety of pitches before settling on the one he was pretty good at. “I had one pitch…the fastball, and I was pretty successful at it. When I pitched, we won most of our games.”

When the players on the other teams got used to his fastball, Dale had some success with a “roundhouse curve” edition of the curveball. However, three batters in particular were not as susceptible as others to either his fastball or his curveball. So John Dale looked for another pitch to add to his arsenal, and found it in Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball.

Hoyt WilhelmAfter studying a few more Major League pitchers, I discovered that one famous pitcher, Hoyt Wilhelm [pictured], threw a pitch called the knuckleball. The knuckleball is a slow pitch with no spin, and it travels in an erratic and unpredictable motion. A pitcher is supposed to hold the ball a certain way, but I developed another method which seemed more effective. I practiced this new pitch for hours, and I believed it would work…. I decided that was the pitch I would use against Ron Haffner in our next game against New Ross.

The Blue Jays [the New Ross Blue Jays, a high school team] were a tough team to beat, but I was confident I could strike them out…now with three pitches, my fastball, my curveball and my knuckleball.

I was wrong.

My arm was sore that day from baling hay all week. My fastball wasn’t so fast. There was no curve in my curveball. New Ross scored at will. It was embarrassing. The New Ross pitcher was having no luck either, so my team was keeping up in the run department, but I just could not prevent the Blue Jays from scoring runs.

Ron Haffner came up to the plate. It was time for my knuckleball pitch. He dug in the batter’s box with his spikes, waiting to hit my fastball or curveball. But I fooled him…I threw my knuckleball….

Ron Haffner hit that knuckleball pitch into orbit… As he rounded the bases, he looked at me and smiled the smile of pure contentment.

That the was first…and the only…knuckleball that this Darlington pitcher ever attempted. That afternoon I learned that sometimes things just don’t go as planned…. On that day 55 years ago, I learned that I was not a knuckleball pitcher…just a plain old knucklehead.

No, don’t say that. You weren’t a knucklehead, Mr. Dale (except in a good way). You were simply someone who didn’t find out whether you could be good at the knuckleball because you lacked adequate training. Also, next time, try pitching the knuckleball more than once in a game setting.