Mickey Jannis wasn’t allowed to throw a knuckleball when he was in the Rays system. That was in 2010 and 2011, his first two seasons of professional baseball. He’s a Met now, and the butterfly is out of his back pocket.
The bridge between Tampa Bay and New York was unaffiliated. Jannis pitched in the independent Frontier and Atlantic leagues from 2012 to 2014. Non-baseball options were available — the 28-year-old righty has a degree in business administration from Cal State Bakersfield — but he wasn’t ready to give up his dream. Not when he had a secret weapon to employ.
Flummoxing hitters with his floater, Jannis put up a 1.18 ERA for the Long Island Ducks early last summer. Subsequently inked to a contract by the Mets in July, he proceeded to hold his own in 11 appearances between high-A St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton.
Jannis discussed his atypical journey, and the evolution of his equally atypical go-to pitch, at the tail end of the Arizona Fall League season.
Jannis on knuckleball commitment: “I mentioned it to (the Rays) toward the end of my second season, when I was with Hudson Valley, but I wasn’t able to throw it in a game. My manager, Jared Sandberg, was kind of all for it. He was, ‘Yeah man, that’s good enough to throw,’ but it just didn’t work out to where I could. I only threw it on the side.
“It’s just such an unpredictable pitch. You have some control over it, but it’s still unpredictable. One pitch could be the best knuckleball you’ve ever thrown and the next four you can’t throw for a strike. Every pitch is different — every pitch feels different out of your hand — and because of that, it’s hard for an organization to commit to it.
“Once I got released, I was kind of, ‘Hey, a guy who played in the big leagues told me it was good enough, so maybe I should do it.’ (Sandberg) gave me confidence to go with it. I also knew it was a pitch that would help me stand out from the crowd in independent ball.”
On his decision to play independent ball: “I’d told myself that as long as I was getting guys out and enjoying the game, I’d keep playing. Having some experience with the knuckleball — I’ve fooled around with knuckleballs ever since I was about 12 years old — I wanted to give it another shot to see what would happen.
“I really took the jump with the pitch when I got to indie ball, although the first year was a big learning experience. The biggest thing with a knuckleball is throwing strikes and I was struggling to do that at the beginning. I kind of had to go back to my old way of sinker-slider to keep my job, but then I fully committed to it in the offseason — that was 2013. Winter ball, in Australia, is where it really took off for me.”
On getting buy-in for butterflies: “It took a lot of perseverance and dedication. You need to have the right person believe in you. I had a few coaches who had confidence in me, but I also had some who wanted me to stick with being a sinker-slider pitcher, and maybe throw a few knuckleballs to change things up. I wanted to throw it more, so I butted heads with a few people.
“One of my first caches in indie ball actually said, ‘If you want to throw a knuckleball, you can go home and throw it.’ The coaching staff with the Ducks gave me an opportunity to succeed — they were fine with me throwing one — and I took off and ran with it.”
On getting a second opportunity in affiliated ball: “One day, I was in the clubhouse after one of our games — I was eating — and my manager (former Met Kevin Baez) came up to me and said, ‘Mickey, can I see you in the office real quick?’ I’d been pitching well, so my teammates all looked at me, like ‘This might be your chance.’
“I was told, ‘Hey, we got a call from the Mets. They said they’re interested in you; give them a call and let us know what happens.’ They gave me a number — it was [director of minor league operations] Ian Levin — and he told me they had an opening in high-A, and would I be interested?’ I was like, ‘How do I get there? What do I have to do?’
On his signature pitch: “It’s a two-finger grip, like R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield, and Steven Wright, maybe. But the way the ball is turned in my hand is a little different. I throw it at the bottom of the horseshoe, whereas I know Dickey and Wakefield threw it at the top of the horseshoe. It feels better coming out of my hand that way, and everybody is different.
“Most of the time I throw it hard, but I do change speeds wth it; I throw some soft ones, too. I throw my harder one at the catcher’s mask and let it drop down in the strike zone. My slower one, I kind of aim at the umpire’s mask and let it drop down. So my focal point differs. I try to have a feel for the release, but once it’s gone it does it’s own thing.”
On butterflies as a circus act: “I call it throwing the butterfly. That’s what my family always calls it, too. It’s almost like a circus. Before I go out to pitch, my dad and my uncle will tell me, ‘Go out and put on a show today.’
“The knuckleball is just different. Even if you’re just playing catch with it in the bullpen, guys will gather around to watch. Sometimes it’s hard to keep a straight face when I’m throwing it. One will go off the catcher’s knee, or maybe his mask, and guys will start laughing behind me. I’m trying to be serious, but it’s hard not to smile. It’s definitely a fun pitch to throw.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.