Mickey Jannis thinks he can be the next Orioles' knuckleballer - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Rich Dubroff

Mickey Jannis thinks he can be the next Orioles’ knuckleballer

Mickey Jannis Headshot
Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles

Mickey Jannis was drafted in the 44th round, a round that hasn’t existed in the major league draft for nine years. Now, at the age of 33, he’s trying to pitch in the big leagues for the first time, throwing a pitch that’s basically extinct.

His professional baseball story began in 2010 when the Tampa Bay Rays picked him and then sent him away after two seasons.

Jannis, a 5-foot-9 right-hander, got by in his first two years in pro ball by throwing sinkers and sliders that ranged from 88-92 mph. He then found himself in the backwaters of independent ball.

Playing for the Lake Erie Crushers in Avon, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, Jannis felt free to experiment. He’d always fooled around with a knuckleball, but his previous pitching coaches had discouraged him from throwing it.

“If you throw a knuckleball, that’s all you’re going to do,” Jannis said they told him. With little to lose, Jannis decided the knuckler was his destiny.

“When I got released, I wanted to stand out from the crowd,” Jannis said. “I wanted to do something different from anybody else. I thought that was a good time to start throwing the knuckleball or showcasing it, show that I had it in my back pocket my whole career playing baseball since I was young. I always knew I had a good one. I thought that was a good chance to take a time on it.”

Jannis didn’t think he’d need the knuckleball when he was with the Rays’ organization, but the release changed his mind. “I’ve got to do something different,” he said.

Jannis’ knuckleball odyssey took him to Australia, where coaches unfamiliar with his relatively hard butterfly pitch allowed him the latitude to the throw it.

Two more years in independent ball followed, and Jannis considered trying to find something else to do, but then the New York Mets signed him for the 2015 season.

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Three years before, when Jannis was first learning the pitch, the Mets had great success with R.A. Dickey, who won the Cy Young Award by throwing the knuckler harder than others had in the past.

“When they first see me throw it, I throw it pretty hard,” Jannis said. “I was getting it up in the low 80s in 2019. They see me throw it, and they’re like, ‘You throw it pretty hard. You don’t just lob it in there at 65 mph’ because that’s what people expect a knuckleball to look like, and I think R.A. Dickey really changed the way people viewed that pitch as this ball that floats up there and moves, and that’s it. He started throwing it into the 80s.”

In the midst of two successful seasons in Double-A Binghamton, Jannis got four starts in 2018 and 2019 in Triple-A, and lost all of them with a horrible 18.41 ERA.

After the 2019 season, Jannis signed with the Orioles as a minor league free agent and got to throw some bullpen sessions as an extra arm in Grapefruit League games.

He quickly re-signed with the Orioles after losing the minor league season to the pandemic because he felt they were interested in him.

“I feel like the Orioles were the first organization that tried to learn about the knuckleball with me,” he said.

Chris Holt, the director of pitching who’s now the major league pitching coach, was encouraging. So were Holt’s predecessor, Doug Brocail, and bullpen coach Darren Holmes, who’s now assistant pitching coach .

“Hey, how do you throw it?” Jannis said they asked. “What do you do with it when you’re ahead in the count or behind in the count?’ Instead of, “Oh, you’re a knuckleball pitcher, you go over there and throw. [With other teams], they watch you throw your bullpen, and it’s like, ‘bring the next guy in so I can actually help somebody.’”

There wasn’t a knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues in 2020, and the only knuckleballs thrown were by three position players, including the Orioles’ third-string catcher ,Bryan Holaday.

Steven Wright, who last pitched for Boston in 2019, and Dickey were the pitchers Jannis patterned himself after.

It’s not only hard finding coaches who can teach the knuckleball, it’s difficult finding someone to catch Jannis in the offseason.

Over the years, he’d had good advice from Charlie Hough, who spent 25 years in the major leagues and threw his final knuckleball for Texas in 1994 at age 46. Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster Tom Candiotti has mentored him, too. Candiotti threw the knuckler until he was 41.

If Jannis wants to do that, he’ll need to find a good catcher.

“Playing catch is probably the toughest part because I do throw the knuckleball,” he said. “When I play long toss, I still throw my fastball for arm strength. “When I work my way in is when I start throwing the knuckleball, and that’s when guys are like, ‘I don’t want to play catch with you anymore.’

“Guys usually like catching me in the game. They just don’t want to deal with me in the bullpen.”

Over the years, he’s had coaches who tried to make him into a clone of Dickey, and that didn’t work.

“I think it’s just finding an organization that believes in it because it’s not everybody’s cup of tea,” Jannis said. “There are some coaches who are like, ‘the knuckleball, I don’t want anything to do with that.’ One coach I had said, ‘If you want to throw a knuckleball, you can go home and throw it.’”

Last month’s death of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, the winningest knuckleball pitcher of all-time, meant another authority on the strange pitch was gone.

Niekro briefly coached Eddie Gamboa, who tried to make the Orioles in 2013. Gamboa frustrated manager Buck Showalter because he wouldn’t throw the knuckleball enough. When he managed the Texas Rangers, Showalter insisted that Dickey, who was floundering in the majors, learn the knuckleball or be released.

There aren’t many in baseball who care about the knuckleball, but the Orioles have some history.

Hoyt Wilhelm pitched five seasons with the Orioles from 1958-1962 with a 2.42 ERA, making three All-Star teams and pitching a no-hitter.

They also had Eddie Fisher, who helped the Orioles win the pennant in 1966 with a 5-3 record, 13 saves and a 2.64 ERA in 71.2 innings.

The Orioles last had a knuckleball pitcher in 1990 when Daniel Boone, who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 1982, pitched in four late-season games.

Jannis is hoping he can be next.

“It’s just so hard to develop the pitch and gain trust in it,” he said. “Most of our careers are later, what would probably be after the prime of a regular pitcher. It’s just hard to develop a guy for so long to get good enough where [you say], ‘Let him throw it.’

“It’s hard for managers, general managers, owners, whatever to believe in the pitch. You can go out and give up one hit one game, nobody will make solid contact and then the next day  you have the exact same knuckleball, and guys are hitting it off the wall like it’s no big deal. It’s so unpredictable it’s so hard for people to believe in it.”

Call for questions: If you have questions about the 2021 Orioles, I’ll be answering some next week. Please leave your questions in the comment section below or email them to: [email protected].

Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

27 Comments

27 Comments

  1. CalsPals

    January 8, 2021 at 7:29 am

    If he’s gonna make it to the majors it’ll be here, they’ll try anyone that can throw, best of luck…go O’s…

    • BarstoolSleeper

      January 8, 2021 at 8:19 am

      Haha calspals! He’ll develop an awesome knuckleball and then our pitching coaches won’t let him throw his best pitch, he’ll get shelled, go somewhere else and have great success when he’s allowed to throw that pitch again. Tell me if you’ve heard this story before…

    • Boog Robinson Robinson

      January 8, 2021 at 11:38 am

      Give him to Mikey. Mikey likes everything.

    • CalsPals

      January 8, 2021 at 1:10 pm

      Hey Mikey, he likes it…LMAO…go O’s…

  2. Boog Robinson Robinson

    January 8, 2021 at 8:57 am

    I’ve always wondered why more players didn’t throw this pitch, and have been a big fan of it my entire life. I actually queried Mr. Dubroff on this site a time or two regarding knucklers.

    The best thing about a quality knuckleball pitcher, is how he constrasts to the rest of the staff. I contend that contrast actually benefits other members of the staff from one day to the next.

    I’d love to see Jannis make it in Baltimore.

    • Boog Robinson Robinson

      January 8, 2021 at 11:28 am

      I’d like to add one more comment … this guy needs to ditch the shiny sales, as well as all other branding and/or price tags on the underside of the bill of that cap. Bush league. Makes him look like he bought that cap at the mall rather than it being team issued. Of course, considering the frugality of our ownership … that may not be such far fetched possibility.

      • willmiranda

        January 8, 2021 at 11:48 am

        C’mon, Boog, the Minnie Pearl look is making a comeback!

    • CalsPals

      January 8, 2021 at 1:11 pm

      Not sure which is worse, hanging price tag or shiny stickers…lol…go O’s…

  3. Tony Paparella

    January 8, 2021 at 9:05 am

    Gotta say,if nothing else, he got one hell of an introduction here on this page. Nothing I see or hear gives out much optimism for either him or the Orioles but I guess you never know. I do have to wish the guy luck though as he isn’t giving up on his dream yet at this point.

  4. Bancells Moustache

    January 8, 2021 at 9:12 am

    Good luck guy I never knew existed until five minutes ago. (You guys should watch the documentary “Knuckleball”, which streams on Prime, if you haven’t done so)

    Another non-mega market franchise tosses one of the best players it’s ever developed aside for monetary reasons. Is MLB approaching critical mass with this stuff? I mean, this sucks. Does anyone really believe that if Mountcastle or Rutschman becomes a perennial MVP candidate and superstar, he isn’t gone in 4-5 years?

    • Boog Robinson Robinson

      January 9, 2021 at 7:23 pm

      Watched it last night. Pretty interesting. Loved seeing the older guys.

  5. Bhoffman1

    January 8, 2021 at 9:25 am

    A 18.41ERA and two catchers who can’t catch fastballs sounds like a great signing. Oh well we sign hitters with a 151 batting average and other teams sign Linder when we can’t even keep Iglesias for one more year at 3.5 mil

    • Phil770

      January 8, 2021 at 9:52 am

      Actually, Lindor was traded, because Cleveland could not or would not pay him. Cleveland is not viewed to have gotten fair value, but did the best they could.

      • Boog Robinson Robinson

        January 8, 2021 at 11:24 am

        Makes the Machado trade look a bit better ‘eh?

    • ctevans

      January 8, 2021 at 11:33 am

      No way the Machado trade EVER looks good. The Angelos boys could have paid him but wouldn’t

      • Jersery O

        January 9, 2021 at 3:01 pm

        They paid Crash instead. That cleaned out the their back account.

    • CalsPals

      January 8, 2021 at 11:40 am

      Can you say salary cap…the union won’t allow it, but baseball needs one, and while we’re at it, they should have a minimum payroll threshold, at least look like they’re trying to win…go O’s…

    • willmiranda

      January 8, 2021 at 11:46 am

      Maybe the plan is to put Jannis in the shortstop mix. A few knucklers from deep short might thin out the logjam at first base. Seriously, good luck to a guy with determination and a dream.

    • ctevans

      January 8, 2021 at 5:55 pm

      CalsPals a salary cap would be nice but it won’t ever happen. But the Angelos Boys could have a payroll like NY or Boston because they have the money. They just don’t want to spend it. If they were willing to break even with the O’s and MASN rather than insist on a huge profit , making money on their real estate and other business interests , they could do a nice payroll. But they’re cheap and greedy. And we all thought Eli Jacobs was bad!!

      • Boog Robinson Robinson

        January 8, 2021 at 8:25 pm

        I dunno CTEVANS … I’d put a few duckets on a salary cap being put in place eventually. Maybe a lot sooner than we all expect. This sport is suffering and it’s not because of the Covid. Baseball has lost it’s luster with the younger generations and has also lost ground to other sports and entertainment options.

    • Bhoffman1

      January 9, 2021 at 5:03 pm

      Yes thats true but Iglesias 3.5 is peanuts to what Lindor will get. We have two guys and losers eating up the whole payroll the average of everybody else is probably the lowest in the league

  6. WorldlyView

    January 8, 2021 at 5:34 pm

    Rich, I have two questions that I hope you will answer. First, the Jannis story of perpetual under-performance and a zany knuckleball could be interpreted by some as a script outline for a movie comedy. Could it be that today’s article is a put-on to see if our expectations regarding Orioles’ signings of free agents have gotten so low that we would believe anything about the unveiling of our next potential star?

    My second question relates to the recent string of free agent signings of players with little or no MLB experience, batting ave.s below .200, and stomach-turningly high ERAs (see, e.g., Ashton Goudeau who has zero MLB wins and a 7.6 ERA). Last December, we quietly signed free agent catcher Nicholas Anthony Ciuffo. His eight year career shines brightly with 43 MLB at bats and .142 BA. So the question is this: would you highlight some or all of the players in the past two years whose stats are SO BAD that Oriole management REJECTED their requests to be signed (assuming, of course, that there have been any such refusals). Thanks.

    • ClayDal

      January 8, 2021 at 5:51 pm

      Goudea had very good numbers in the minor leagues in 2019. Good strikeouts to innings pitched. He was a waiver claim and the Orioles took Austin Wynns off the 40 man roster to make room for him. Wynns cleared waivers and is still with the Orioles. As for Ciuffo, teams always sign catchers to minor league contracts with Spring Training invites. Someone has to catch all the pitchers who show up in Sarasota. He’s not taking up a spot on the roster. As far as free agents, none of the big ones (Bauer, Realamuto, Springer, LeMahieu) have signed yet. Once the big names sign, the dominoes will fall in place

  7. ctevans

    January 8, 2021 at 5:48 pm

    At least a knuckle baller will be interesting to watch! And we get to count passed balls!

    • CalsPals

      January 8, 2021 at 5:54 pm

      Especially if Severino is behind the plate…go O’s…

  8. VICTORTEE

    January 11, 2021 at 8:19 am

    He looks like a killer clown in that photo with that insane grin.

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