A Conversation of the Road
The Interview Series where I talk to people who spark my curiosity or make me examine my views in an interesting way.
Introduction: Michael and the Dreams of a Soap Bubble
For me, nothing says baseball like watching a knuckleball flutter to a catcher’s mitt. Emphasis on the flutter, because if it rotates, you’re effectively throwing batting practice. Some say that no one dreams of being a knuckleballer. Personally, I feel that those people are absolutely wrong.
When I was young, I was fairly brainy, fairly doughy, and quite far from anything approaching athletic. But then in 1992, the first season that I truly followed the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team made an acquisition prior to the season. I should note that the 1992 Los Angeles Dodgers were a tire fire of awful from the riots to the poor performance of practically everyone involved not named Eric Karros. As is known, Karros was the first of five consecutive Rookies of the Year and yet would not win a postseason game until Lima Time, 12 years later.
It would be unconscionable that the Dodgers would go 63-99 today. However, one of my many memories from that season, which I once had an encyclopedic recall of, was my love affair watching and listening to Vin Scully describe a single person pitch: Tom Candiotti.
Now despite my considerable efforts, I couldn’t find any media of Scully talking about Candiotti in 1992. So in the interests of time, I’m splitting the difference.
Plus, you get to see Josh Reddick look silly at the plate - win, win really.
Scully would often describe Candiotti’s knuckleball as akin to one throwing a soap bubble that would dance and dart, much to the consternation of Dodgers’ catcher Mike Scioscia or whoever was behind the plate. I always thought that it took guts to stand on a mound and try and lob a soap bubble by major league hitters.
When I would invariably play baseball video games, and the games finally added a “create your own player” feature. I would invariably add myself as a pitcher. I would always have a knuckleball as my primary pitch. I would also have a slider and forkball, as I actually know how to throw those pitches. Sorry, Chad Billingsley - you get to stew in the minors. It’s Michael-time. (This feature didn’t come for a while.)
There would invariably be knuckleballers as Candiotti. Wakefield. Heager. Dickey. These were names that I followed with great interest, until I didn’t, in Heager’s case, but let’s not dwell on that case. Anyway, seemingly in a blink, the knuckleball faded from view after having a renaissance in Dickey and that, as they say, would be that. Until it wasn’t.
Once again, I hearty shout out to YouTuber SportStorm who researched and produced this 13-minute video as to the only knuckleballer in the Majors in 2021: Mickey Scott Jannis, who actually had nothing to do with the creation of the video, but he is a fan.
What was remarkable about Mickey’s story was not just the fact that he’s a power knuckleballer, but that he toiled in the minor leagues and in Independent baseball for over 10 years before finally getting his call to the show against the Houston Astros for the Baltimore Orioles, which went well...until it didn’t.
Such is the life of a knuckleballer. Some say that the knuckleball is rooted in failure, a gimmick pitch for those trying to stay relevant, to cling to a dream in Major League Baseball. I disagree wholeheartedly. And my guest, who I had the sincere pleasure of speaking would likely disagree as well.
A Conversation with Mickey Jannis: Zen and the Art of the Knuckleball
On February 28, I had the privilege and the pleasure of speaking with Mickey, who was named after Mickey Mantle, was born in 1987 in Carson City, Nevada. His love of baseball ultimately led him to pitch at Cal State Bakersfield in Bakersfield, California. From there, Andrew Friedman’s Rays drafted Mickey Jannis in the 44th Round in 2010. When his career ends, he’d like to end up in the front office of a team, helping build it. From this point, it’s best if I let Mickey Jannis tell his own story.
[Author’s Note: This interview is edited for clarity and length. A full unedited, upload of my conversation with Mickey Jannis will be posted to my YouTube channel, mostly for posterity. If you want to like, comment, and subscribe - feel free, I’m never going to ask you to do that as the channel is mostly used as a repository for videos I take from the road.]
Michael J. Elizondo (“MJE”): You said that you grew up in Reno, but you ended up pitching college ball at Cal State Bakersfield. I grew up in the Central Valley, so I’m curious how you ended up in Bakersfield.
Mickey Jannis (“MJ”): That’s just a whole lot of moving around. I went to five different schools in high school, for baseball purposes. Ultimately, I moved in with my grandpa for my senior year of high school and I got noticed by some junior college scouts. I figured that would be my best route to the Majors. I wanted to be a two-way guy, as I played shortstop and pitched in high school. I bounced around a bit more and by this point, I was a pitcher-only because that is how I was going to succeed. It was hard to give up being a two-way guy.
I was recruited by Fresno State, the year after they won the NCAA title, and Cal State Bakersfield. I’ve always followed the advice of “go where you are loved rather than where you are liked.
MJ: I remember being shown the field that they were building and being told that they were planning to build their rotation around me.
MJE: What was your pitch repertoire back in college?
MJ: I was a sinkerballer/slider thrower mostly. I developed a cutter and changeup back in college, these pitches I developed during my senior year. The cutter and changeup were what was drawing attention from pro scouts as the Bakersfield closer.
MJE: What drew you to the knuckleball?
MJ: At the end of the day, I’m 5’9” and I throw 88-92, right-handed. I topped out at 93. I needed something to stand out, something to get me through a lineup the third time. My changeup was fine, but not good enough to get me to the next level. After I got released by the Rays in 2011, I knew I needed something to stay in professional baseball. R.A. Dickey threw a hard knuckleball as I do, so I thought I could build on what he had done while doing things my own way.
MJE: What was it like to be drafted? Did you have any expectations?
MJE: What can you share about the Independent League that fans don’t know but should know?
MJ: It’s professional baseball. It’s just as good as the minor leagues, but it’s just filled with folks who have either gotten hurt or are trying to get back into affiliated baseball. You’ll have folks enter independent ball and think that they are going to dominate and they just get dominated, wondering what happened as they are bounced from the league. There are good baseball players and good baseball, filled with folks who may not ever get another shot at affiliated baseball. It’s another way for fans to interact with players.
I had a lot of fun playing for the Long Island Ducks. I remember seeing Lew Ford.
MJE: What do you remember about that day you got called to the Show?
MJ: I’ve talked about this story before in other places, and it’ll likely be the story I share if my career was to end today.
MJE: What do you remember about your start against the Orioles?
MJ: I remember most of it. Based on the game situation, I knew I was going to have to eat some innings once I got the call to the bullpen. It’s part of the life. Maybe on another day, I go five shutout innings. But I’m there to do a job. I do recall that when I got to the mound I hear the loudspeaker say “Now pitching, making his major league debut, Mickey Jannis.” For two innings, things were going pretty well, and in that third inning, not so much, but it happens. I do remember that when I got checked for foreign substances, the umpire congratulated me on my major league debut. That was pretty neat. When I realized my knuckleball wasn’t knuckling, I tried to mix in some more fastballs to compensate. Changing speeds with my knuckleball has helped me going forward. Usually, it’s in a range of 75-81 mph, but I figured out how to change speeds even more without altering my mechanics.
MJE: What do you mean by your statement as the knuckleball is a feel pitch?
MJ: Sometimes it depends on the baseball itself. Realistically, if you pitch on the seams, it’s generally going to go the same based on the fact you can anchor yourself by the grip. The knuckleball is different because, while you don’t have to throw it perfectly every time, so many things can go wrong if you don’t do everything right. If you’re off in some way the pitch changes from an 80-mph knuckleball to an 80-mph batting practice fastball. It happens to the best of us, from R. A. Dickey to Tim Wakefield. There are some days I go to the bullpen and I wonder what I’m doing here, but the next day, I feel amazing and everything’s working.
MJE: I’ve heard that the knuckleball is a zen pitch of baseball, everything has to be in alignment or bad things happen.
MJ: That’s a great way to put it.
MJE: What do you say to folks that say the knuckleball is a relic best forgotten?
MJ: I don’t really come across people like that. People who see me, some think or attach labels to me, but honestly, I’m just going out to pitch! I’ve got a job to do. Most organizations in baseball aren’t anti-knuckleball, but it just takes so long to develop.
MJ: Right now, it’s hard to invest in one person to take five years to learn this pitch as teams want results right now. I remember seeing an LA Times article where Andrew Friedman was talking about how the knuckleball seemed primed for a comeback, especially in opener roles. But some days, it’s hard for a knuckleballer to throw it for strikes. But the versatility of the pitch would make a knuckleball pitcher the perfect opener because you can likely bring them back on successive days throughout the week. It’ll just take that right combination of pitcher, team, and executive to bring such an idea together.
It’s worth diverting from the interview for a moment to actually to briefly discuss Bill Shakin’s LA Times article, of May 28, 2021:
“I think it would be devastating as an opener,” [Chris] Nowlin said. “I know, in the independent league games I pitch, the guy that comes in from the bullpen after me commonly strikes out the side. “The knuckleball hangover is very real.”
Said [Tom] Candiotti: “[Using a knuckballer as an opener is] a great idea. You could probably do that three or four days a week, at least.”
The Dodgers happily would reserve a spot on their roster for such a pitcher.
“If we could get someone who could go one time through the lineup with a knuckleball and actually command it well enough to do that, I’m in,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.
Let’s get back to the interview.
MJ: I remember seeing Terry Francona talk about Tim Wakefield and Francona described managing him as being in a rocking chair. One second, he’s leaning forward, because it’s clear Wakefield doesn’t have it, the next second, Wakefield is dominating so Francona can lean back, and on and on like that. In some ways, the knuckleball is the anti-analytics pitch, because sometimes it can’t be read and it’s so unpredictable. But that’s why I trust in the pitch.
MJE: Right. I saw some footage of you from Instagram and it looked like poetry. I pity the poor batter who would have to stand in there and try to hit this soap bubble.
MJ: Most scouts, prior to R.A. Dickey, never saw a knuckleball that can go over 80-mph. Every time, it seems, when scouts see me pitch, I defy expectations. I constantly hear “you throw this pitch hard.” I don’t have the abbreviated, shotput-like windup of the past. So I have never had to change my fundamental mechanics. Most scouts aren’t sure what to do with this information. I thought that throwing a harder knuckleball would catch on more than it has. Right now, I feel like I’m out of step because folks are impressed, but they aren’t sure how to use me going forward. My goal is to prevent batters from squaring up on me, not necessarily to strike you out.
MJE: Well, you’ve had that development time. It’s a bespoke pitch where you have to tailor the pitch to the pitcher, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
MJ: After the debut, I had a lot of people reach out to me as to how I throw a knuckleball. Some in minor league ball and some in college. I think the pitch works better against advanced hitting, but if you can’t throw it for strikes, hitters will just take it and sit back waiting for you to come into the zone. It just takes time to develop it and that depends on whether teams want to develop a knuckleball pitcher.
MJE: What kept you going in the minor league and independent ball for over 10 years?
MJ: I knew I was good enough.
MJ: It’s there in bullpens, it’s there in games. There are so many guys who can pitch or play in the Major Leagues, but they never get the opportunity. When I was with the Mets, I had a pitching coordinator who was in my corner pushing me and arguing for me who ended up leaving the organization for health reasons, so I lost my advocate. Plus, I got sent down in 2018 after a couple of starts, because they were in a position that they needed guys to help them now and they didn’t see me as that guy. So after they didn’t grant my release after I was tearing it up in Double-AA, I just did my best and pitched. I ended up with the Orioles, but then COVID hit, and in 2021, the Orioles brought me back. After I got sent back down after my Houston start, I just couldn’t find that groove in the second half of the season, where I usually excel.
MJE: What are you most looking to do going forward?
MJ: I think I’ve made real strides this offseason and I think I can contribute going forward. I just want to take advantage of any opportunity that a team gives me. Whether that opportunity comes this year or not, at this point, I’ve never had a full season in AAA. Last year, I was briefly sent down to AA after I was outrighted after my Major League debut. I can throw my knuckleball for strikes and I want the chance to show that off. I think my uniqueness is a huge thing to have on a Major League staff. Look at Tim Wakefield or R.A. Dickey. I have the same mindset. If they need me to eat up innings, I can do that. If they need me to pitch on successive days, I can do that too. I want to make more of the opportunity if I can get back to the Major Leagues.
For the final substantive question of the interview, I couldn’t help but think of Zach Lee and the nightmare Major League debut he had in New York in 2015, which I was there for. Mickey Jannis’ statline from that game was 3⅓ innings, 8 hits allowed, 7 runs (all earned), 3 home runs, 4 walks, and 1 strikeout. As was alluded to, the debut went well...until it didn’t.
Personally, I could envision someone being quite embittered that ten years of struggle resulted in a nightmarish appearance, especially considering that Mickey Jannis had a pretty awful second-half in 2021, which is atypical of his career. As a result, Mickey was briefly demoted to AA for a few weeks in the second half. After returning to AAA, after his brief demotion, he elected for free agency at the conclusion of the season. Again, a lesser man would be diminished by such a turn of events. Not Mickey Jannis:
I don’t know what the future holds for Mickey Jannis. What I can say is that he’s a class act and a genuinely amazing person. Based on the footage below, Jannis’ knuckleball, when on, is pretty electric, no thanks to the amateur catcher below.
I’m not going to lie; I could watch that all day. My mind just keeps drifting back to one scene from Moneyball:
I didn’t go to Yale, as I was wait-listed for six months until they finally said no. I have an imperfect understanding of economics, and that’s being charitable (looks at “It’s Not My Money(ball)! series). It seems to me, especially with the limitation of options throughout the year (it’s not the Mitch White-rule, but let’s go with the name), it seems like a good idea to develop someone who could be versatile to the point that this pitcher could multiple days in a week with a minimum of risk of injury/fatigue.
There was only one Iron Mike Marshall, and it’s likely a fool’s errand to try and duplicate his career. But you might be able to recreate Marshall in the aggregate. As I freely admit, I’m not a journalist, so I can freely root for someone and admit my biases. If I can show this footage included in this article, and if I can ask you all to share it so that it gets as much coverage as humanly possible, maybe Mickey Jannis ends up with a job somewhere. Maybe this theory is put into action. And if folks wanted to light social media with the following hashtag, #JannisFriedmanReunion, I certainly wouldn’t stop them. All I know for sure is that when I watch Mickey Jannis pitching, I’m seeing something unique that seems like it could and should work.
Do I think I have that kind of pull? No, absolutely not.
However, like with most things I do, I tend to put myself out there and try with all my might. And you don’t know unless you try and you fail all the times that you don’t try, regardless of what a green muppet tells you. In most cases, the attempt is the most valuable part of the experience.
If you have suggestions for this series, please let me know and I’ll see what I can do. I have a couple of ideas (Notice me, Catman!), but this series could and should be a fun little diversion throughout the year.
But as for the future adventures of Mickey Jannis; that’s just one conversation of the road.