Every knuckleballer has a difficult path to the Show. No one gets drafted as one, they are forced to adapt as their baseball career begins to crater. Mickey Jannis fits this stereotype to a T.
As a 44-round pick in 2010, he had always needed to exceed expectations. However, after a 2011 release from the Rays, he knew he had reached a pivotal moment in his career.
Throughout the next four years, he continued his dream to play baseball, however it was in the lowly independent league, where many declining pitchers sign, hoping for one last chance. Here, he started to experiment with his new pitch, the knuckleball.
In 2015, the Mets gave him an opportunity after he dominated the Independent League as a member of the Long Island Ducks. After two uneventful seasons in 2015 and 2016, his career has taken off in 2017.
As a 30-year-old, Jannis is still relatively young for a knuckleballer. In 2017, he pitched to a 3.60 ERA as a member of the Double-A Binghamton Rumble Ponies, propelling them into the playoffs.
However, in this year’s Arizona Fall League, Jannis has channeled his inner Tim Wakefield, completely befuddling baseball’s premier prospects. His 2.33 ERA was third among AFL starters and his 1.04 WHIP ranked fifth.
Especially more impressive is the fact he’s found a way to control his unique pitch. Typically, knuckleballers are among the league leaders in walks. However, in his 27 AFL innings, he allowed only five walks compared to 24 strikeouts. One of the other issues knuckleballers tend to have is keeping the ball in the park, Jannis didn’t allow a homer in the AFL.
“With any pitch, you have to be able to throw it for strikes, but even more with the knuckleball because of its unpredictability,” Jannis told MiLB.com during his AFL stint. “You need to have it in the strike zone, and you’re pitching to contact. You’re not really going for swings and misses. You’re just trying to put the ball in play.”
This isn’t the first time he’s made great strides in his pitching. In 2017, in his seven second half starts, he pitched to a 2.36 ERA with a 1.05 WHIP. He also halved his walk rate this season from 12.2% to a more manageable 7.6%. He also allowed only 0.7 HR/9 below the league average of 0.9 HR/9. Another key to the season-long success of Jannis in Double-A was his 53% groundball rate.
He was a speculative candidate to be selected in this year’s Rule 5 draft. Fortunately for the Mets, he was not picked and represents a possible quality MLB-ready rotation option for the coming year. Coming off an all-around breakout season, Mickey Jannis will continue to ride his knuckler in Las Vegas in 2018.