There have only been 85 pitchers that primarily featured the Knuckle Ball. Mickey Jannis is trying to join the likes of Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, and most recently R.A. Dickey who all have found long-term success with it in the Majors.
Jannis initially spent time with the Rays organization after being drafted as a sinker/slider pitcher in the 44th round of the 2010 June amateur draft. After having mixed success, Jannis entered the Frontier and Atlantic independent leagues to make the transition from the traditional style of pitching to the unique art of becoming a knuckleball pitcher. He was then signed by the Mets on July 2nd, 2015 to a minor league contract and has since advanced from the Class A-Advanced affiliate, St Lucie, to Double-A Binghamton while also making a couple of Starts with Triple-A Las Vegas last year.
Now entering his ninth year of professional baseball, I had a chance to speak with the 31-year old knuckleballer about his 2018 season and what he hopes to accomplish in 2019.
Tyler Boyce: “How would you rate your season last year? I saw that you had a solid season in double-a and that you made two starts for triple-a.”
Mickey Jannis: “Overall, I finished the season as what I believe was my best season of my pro career. Starting off the season in triple-a was my goal going into spring training and my first start (in triple-a) was the worst start of my career. Which led to a demotion back to double-a, where, results wise, I had an up and down first half of the season, but I knew I was heading in the right direction with how I was pitching. Heading into the allstar break I made a few minor adjustments and the second half of the season was the best I had pitched in my career.”
Jannis’s second half was excellent as he went 4-4 with a 2.19 ERA in 65.2 innings with a .226 average against. Overall, Jannis finished 4th in innings pitched (142.1), 7th in ERA (3.60), and 8th in strikeouts (114) in the Eastern League. I followed up Jannis’s response about his triple-a experience with the affiliate moving from Las Vegas to Syracuse.
Tyler Boyce: “You said your first triple-a start was your worst of your carrer. The Pacific Coast League is notorious for being a hitter friendly league due to where the parks are situated in the country. Do you think the move back to the east coast will help the knuckle ball?
Mickey Jannis: “I think move will benefit everyone not just a knuckleball. Should be able to evaluate pitchers and hitters a lot better with the truer conditions. I grew up in Sparks, NV so I know the elements very well. I think that start just happened to be a bad one for me. Not necessarily due to the elements.”
Jannis broke camp in triple-a last season but was demoted after two starts. He discussed what his goals are for the upcoming season and what he hopes to work on to make him more successful in advancing to the higher ranks.
Mickey Jannis: “This coming season my goal again is to break camp with the AAA team. I feel I proved enough last season that I should get that opportunity. I need to build off my strong second half from last season. Continue to improve the command of my knuckleball, if that’s even possible with the unpredictability with it. Changing speeds with it was a huge jump I made last season and need to continue to improve that. Holding runners was also a major improvement I made. Also, continuing to find the right times to mix in my fastball and slider as those are still effective pitches for me.”
Knuckleballers are often anomalies in the way they approach the game. Some pitch at a consistently low-velocity, allowing the wind to create more unpredictable trajectories to the plate, such as Steven Wright or Tim Wakefield whereas some others will have a variety of knuckleballs where it’s thrown at different speeds, such as R.A. Dickey. How does Mickey Jannis categorize himself as a knuckleball pitcher?
Mickey Jannis: “I consider myself closer to R.A. Dickey. But I still feel that I am different than all of them. Like I said earlier changing speeds was a huge improvement I made last year. And I mix in my entire repertoire of pitches to keep hitters guessing. That is when I found the most success last season. I can be a different type of pitcher every game I throw. If my knuckleball is on that day, obviously that will be my go-to pitch. But if I feel I’m beating a team with my slider or fastball more on a certain day, I will use those more and throw my knuckleball to set up the other pitches. Some days I throw 90% knuckleball, and others I’ve thrown 50%. Every team has a different approach against me so figuring those approaches out what makes baseball such a chess match and why I love it so much.”
With the amount of analytical and technological data made available to coaches and players around the game, pitchers have to separate themselves to make their assortment of pitches unique and surprising to the hitter. Jannis has identified that changing speeds of his knuckleball, game-planning opponents strengths, and weaknesses, and implementing a slider and fastball allows him an assortment of weapons at his disposal to attack hitters leaving them off balanced. Jannis will be in the mix to begin the season with the Syracuse Mets of the International League, with Corey Oswalt, Chris Flexin, Walker Lockett, Hector Santiago, and PJ Conlon.
With a starting rotation that ranks third in MLB in velocity (94.5 MPH), giving a chance to a crafty-knuckleballer in the rotation as positional depth, would serve to provide the team a profoundly different look. The Mets offered a 35-year old RA Dickey a chance in 2010, and he gave back a Cy-young in 2012. Let’s see if the Mets knuckle down to allow history to repeat itself with Mickey Jannis.
Photo Courtesy: MILB Video Courtesy: Baseball Census