Mickey Jannis was warming up as an extra arm in the Orioles bullpen earlier this month when, as anyone looking to make an impression would, he listened to his coaches.
Justin Ramsey, the pitching coach at Double-A Bowie, had a baseball with one full panel colored in Sharpie — a visual aid to show a pitch’s spin. Bullpen coach Darren Holmes practically begged Jannis to throw a few pitches with it.
When he obliged, the result was a representation of why the Orioles added the 32-year-old Jannis as a minor league free agent. The pitch floated to bullpen catcher Ben Carhart without spin. Another chance to show off the knuckleball, another set of converts created.
“My uncle always says when I pitch in a game, put on a show,” Jannis said. “It’s so different, everyone likes to see it.”
Though Jannis was summoned to the Orioles’ major league games many times this spring, and warmed up a few times, he didn’t get into a game before the coronavirus pandemic shut things down. It could be a while before he gets a chance to show his knuckleball off a game. But whether it’s a bullpen session or live batting practice at minor league camp, he knows those opportunities are valuable.
“It’s been good being out here being seen by these guys,” Jannis said.
The knuckleball is a unique offering in which a pitcher purposefully throws the ball so it doesn’t spin, allowing the seams to guide it in any direction on a whim. Jannis said he threw it when he was younger, even as he was reaching professional baseball after a college career as a traditional pitcher, leading to the Tampa Bay Rays drafting him in 2010.
“I always kind of threw it growing up and it was always pretty good, so I always stuck with it, just kind of playing catch after warming up and stuff,” Jannis said. “When I got released by the Rays, I was just kind of the average right-handed pitcher, so I decided to change it up. I was going to independent ball and I wanted to stick out from the crowd and be different from what everybody was looking for. I just made the change.”
It was always something he’d pondered doing, but never needed to execute. He asked in college at Cal State-Bakersfield, and again when he got drafted by the Rays, but was told to stick with what got him to that point.
When he talked it over with his family, it “really wasn’t that hard a decision,” he said.
“It was just hard getting a feel for it and learning to pitch with it was the toughest part, because independent ball is all about winning,” Jannis said. “There’s one team. There’s not an organization where you’re developing. So that first year was just such a learning experience in trying to throw it, and it really took a couple years before I really, really started trusting it. It was definitely a long experience.”
His first independent league experience was with Lake Erie Crushers in the independent Frontier League, and he was back there in 2013 before pitching with the Bridgeport Bluefish in the Atlantic League. He spent the winter in the Australian Baseball League.
Over the next few years, he was back at Lake Erie and added the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs and the Long Island Ducks to his independent league collection of clubs. He made it back into affiliated baseball at age 27, when he signed with the New York Mets.
Jannis spent most of his time in that organization at Double-A Binghamton, honing a knuckleball that he describes as the harder variety a la former Mets Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.
He said he’s thrown his knuckleball anywhere from 64 miles per hour to 84, with a typical range being 74-77 mph. He’ll use it around 78% of the time, he said, with a fastball and slider also in his arsenal just to keep hitters off balance.
But the knuckleball is the draw with Jannis. As an extra player brought over to cover innings in case the day’s scheduled pitchers can’t complete their assigned work, Jannis has warmed up a few times without getting a chance to pitch in a game.
Still, he gets his work in. He likes pitching in front of the Edgertronic high-speed cameras at minor league camp, as he did in spring training, to see the ball coming out of his hand.
Jannis knows any time on a mound, whether in a controlled setting on a minor league camp field or the big league bullpen, is an opportunity to show that his unique style may one day get him to the majors.
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“It’s been really good,” he said, “There’s been great communication with the coaches and I, just letting them see how I pitch. I know a lot of people’s perception of the knuckleball, they remember the Tim Wakefield where they’re lobbing it up there, 67-70 miles per hour. When you see it in person as a harder knuckleball, I think it opens up a little more eyes.”