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As MLB cracks down on spin rates, Orioles bring Mickey Jannis and his knuckleball into the fray

The same day veteran pitchers Max Scherzer and Sergio Romo nearly removed their pants on the field as umpires searched them for spin rate-increasing sticky substances, the Orioles made the most anti-spin roster move they could: promoting knuckleballer Mickey Jannis to the majors.

Jannis didn’t make it into Tuesday night’s 3-1 loss to the Houston Astros, but the 33-year-old waited a long time for his major league debut. Before Wednesday’s game, he laughed when asked whether umpires should even bother checking him for foreign substances.

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“I don’t believe so, but that’s gonna be part of the game so whatever they got to do,” Jannis said. “In this day and age where everything’s about velocities, spin rates and things like that, I’m taking spin off the ball.”

Jannis first got checked after he pitched a scoreless fifth inning Wednesday in which he froze Houston slugger Yordan Álvarez with a knuckleball. His next check came after he left the mound in the eighth, having allowed seven runs over 3 ⅓ innings in a 13-0 loss.

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Manager Brandon Hyde said before the game he had “zero experience” with knuckleballers, outside of watching former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the opposing dugout. Jannis said teammates will regularly ask him for advice on throwing the specialty pitch, which is intentionally thrown without spin. He throws his knuckleball about 80-to-90% of the time, he said; since Statcast began tracking in 2015, only Dickey has thrown a knuckleball at that high of a rate, excluding position players.

Statcast tracked 57 of Jannis’ 71 pitches as knuckleballs Wednesday, with another five registering as low-spin curveballs that likely were actually his signature pitch. Including those, 87% of Jannis’ pitches in his debut were knuckleballs.

Hyde was also “not sure” how his catchers would handle Jannis. Despite their shared time in Triple-A Norfolk, Jannis said Austin Wynns didn’t catch any of his seven outings, in which he pitched multiple innings and posted a 2.92 ERA, though he was behind the plate for the entirety of Wednesday’s appearance. Pedro Severino caught him in a bullpen session Tuesday.

“He wanted to get a look at it,” Jannis said. “I’ve just been trying to throw to as many catchers as I can just trying to get them used to it. Everybody’s pretty much embraced it.”

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Jannis first adopted the pitch himself in about 2012. Drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays as a conventional pitcher, he was released after the 2011 season and began an odyssey into independent ball, throwing the knuckleball to stand out. It eventually caught the attention of the New York Mets, whose system he pitched in from 2015 to 2019, never getting an opportunity in the majors.

He joined the Orioles ahead of the 2020 season but never got the chance to pitch for them with the minor league season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. He spent the first couple of months this year with Norfolk. It was Triple-A manager Gary Kendall who called with Tuesday’s good news.

“I don’t think I can put it into words what it means,” Jannis said.

He then called his wife, Emily, and his family. Friends he reached out to didn’t believe him, thinking he was joking.

He described his story as one of “perseverance.”

“Deep down, I always believed that I could pitch in the major leagues, and that’s why I never gave it up,” Jannis said. “I told my wife like as long as I feel like I have a chance to pitch in the major leagues like I want to pursue this dream. She was all for it, backing me up. My parents backed me up, my entire family, so it’s just pretty special.”

To open spots on their 40-man and major league rosters for Jannis, the Orioles designated Rule 5 draft pick Mac Sceroler for assignment. Unless another team trades for him or claims him on waivers, Sceroler will be offered back to his original organization, the Cincinnati Reds.

In his first professional stint above High-A, Sceroler recorded a 14.09 ERA amid missing almost two months with right shoulder tendinitis.

“It’s tough to evaluate when he didn’t have the regular workload out on the mound,” Hyde said. “It’s also tough to pitch in the Florida State League a couple years ago and then to pitch in the big leagues. I really like his stuff. I think he’s got starter stuff. That’s why we held onto him as long as we possibly could, just because we think he’s got big upside and gonna be a good major league pitcher and it was just hard to evaluate just because of the usage as well as him going down for about a month. But I wish him the best of luck.”

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