It’s been a long road
Rays infielder Wander Franco had the most noteworthy MLB debut this week, but don’t sleep on Mickey Jannis.
Even the most hardcore prospect hounds probably haven’t heard of Jannis, because guys who spend more than a decade bouncing around the minor and independent leagues don’t attract much attention. But on Wednesday, Jannis, a 33-year-old knuckleballer, made his MLB debut for the Orioles.
Jannis was picked in the 44th round of the 2010 draft by the Rays and adopted the knuckleball when Tampa Bay cut him after his second pro season. He spent three years in independent ball before the Mets signed him in '15. He was picked up by the Orioles in '20, waited out the canceled season and pitched well enough in Triple A to earn a call-up to the big leagues.
“I don’t think I can put it into words what it means,” Jannis said before the game.
“Deep down, I always believed that I could pitch in the major leagues, and that’s why I never gave it up,” he continued. “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.”
Jannis took the mound for the first time Wednesday night and got knocked around. He allowed seven runs on eight hits (including three homers) and issued four walks in 3 ⅓ innings of work, but he did record his first career strikeout.
Regardless of Jannis’s performance in his debut, it’s remarkable that he made it to the major leagues after pitching for 15 different minor, independent and fall league teams. And it’s awesome that he’s keeping the endangered knuckleball alive. He’s only the eighth knuckleball pitcher to debut in the majors in the past 20 years and the only one on a major league roster this year.
In an era where spin rate reigns supreme, there’s something beautiful about Jannis earning a spot in the big leagues based on intentionally not spinning the ball. That made for a pretty funny situation when Jannis was subjected to his first foreign substance inspection.
The knuckleball is the most fascinating pitch in baseball. It’s always fun to watch a good knuckleball completely fool a hitter. But it’s as hard to throw as it is to hit, so it’s a treat whenever we get to see a knuckleballer in the majors.
Watching Jannis’s knuckler float to the plate is a delight.
Watching the ball barely rotate in that video inspired me to do a little math. Jannis threw 57 knuckleballs in his debut (plus five that were erroneously classified as curveballs by Statcast). The average velocity was 77.9 mph and the average spin rate was 407 mph. That means that in the roughly half-second (0.52954 seconds, to be exact) that Jannis’s knuckleball takes to reach the plate, it only rotates an average of 3.5 times, or once every 17.3 feet.
Jannis didn’t fool many Astros hitters in his first big league appearance, but the knuckleball is a finicky pitch. Hopefully Jannis gets it together in his next appearance and baffles hitters well enough to stick around and continue blessing us with this truly bizarre pitch.
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