Knuckleball Pitchers’ “Wonderfully Weird” Path to Success

DuckKnuckleball pitcher Mickey Jannis of the Long Island Ducks told Newsday this Sunday that the pitch that was once just something to fool around with. That changed in 2012 after he was released from the Tampa Bay Rays and decided he must do something radical to give his career a boost. Jannis says that with the help of supportive coaches he has gained confidence in the pitch.

It took a lot of trust from myself and my coaches because it’s such an unpredictable pitch. It’s hard to let somebody go out and throw it who hasn’t established themselves as a knuckleball pitcher. It’s been a long process…. But it feels good coming out of my hand right now. I’m throwing it well. It’s still unpredictable. It changes from batter to batter and pitch to pitch. It’s such a feel pitch. I might have it one inning and the next inning I may not….

[Asked what he is doing well on the mound:] I’m just getting ahead of hitters and mixing my speed on my knuckleball really effectively and mixing my other pitches in when I need to. It’s a combination of a lot of things, too many to name. It’s just been a good run and hopefully we can keep it going.

His teammates help him succeed: “Knowing that you can challenge a hitter, no matter who it is, and your defense is going to make the play behind you makes a huge difference.”

We first noted the Duck’s knuckleball in a June 8 IKA post, when he was in the news for pitching many hit-less innings against the York Revolution.

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One baseball player who “reinvent[ed] himself as a knuckleball pitcher” is Justin Aldridge, a former catcher who took up the pitch late in his  pro ball career before becoming a coach at Olympia High School. There he encouraged James Holle to take up the pitch.

Holle PitchingIt is Holle who is the focus of Steven Ryzewski’s West Orange Times Observer profile. But Aldridge “gets credit as the coach who encouraged Holle to take the knuckleball and go all in on it…. Then there are coaches who don’t believe in the pitch, don’t like the pitch or simply are not confident enough in it to lean on a knuckleball pitcher in a high-stakes environment.”

“He is a wonderfully weird kid,” said Justin Aldridge, who coached Holle during his junior year for the Olympia Titans junior varsity team. “He wears his jean jackets and wears his hair like he’s in the 80s — and that’s how he pitches… It’s a weird pitch, and it’s not impressive if you’re not catching it or you’re not hitting against it.”…

“What I told him is, ‘If you’re going to throw it, you’ve got to throw it,’” Aldridge said. “‘Your first pitch is a knuckleball.’ When it started, it was rough, but the more you throw it, the better it gets.”…

After arriving in Florida, James realized quickly that, although there were talented baseball players up north, there was a far greater density of them here. Once his fastball began to top out at a speed that wouldn’t allow him to be competitive, he began to look at the knuckler—which he used mostly with two strikes against a hitter—as a way to differentiate himself.

It took a lot of practice, but eventually, he became comfortable throwing it up to 100% of the time, if needed. That’s where the confidence came in—whether it’s to zone out fans in the stands wondering why he is throwing so slowly or opposing players who would not so subtly suggest he learn a “real” pitch.

“Really, whenever I’m throwing it, I’m really not thinking about it,” James Holle said. “When I first started, it took a lot of confidence to throw this really slow pitch…. I can control the spin on it, but I can’t really control what it does.”

Holle will soon be pitching for South Florida State, an opportunity he found after “email[ing] every single junior college coach” that he could. Aldridge says his protege just needs a shot: “If the right person sees it and the right person believes in it, he can go as far as he wants to.”

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