The Orioles announced on Tuesday that Eddie Gamboa and Zach Clark were signed to minor-league deals. Their knuckleball experiment will be continuing for at least part of another season.
This was one of the fascinations of Dan Duquette during the most recent season, with Clark, after a brief, unremarkable big league stay, being returned to Bowie to work on becoming a knuckleball pitcher. Why? Perhaps suddenly discovering a knuckleballer is the new market inefficiency. The legendary Phil Niekro will be returning to work with both Clark and Gamboa. For Gamboa, the minor-league contract includes an invitation to major league spring training.
It's not a short-term project, so the fact that they can continue it in the Orioles organization is a positive in the sense that it won't end with another team reaping the fruits of the O's labor.
The O's briefly added Gamboa to the 40-man roster after the season. before removing him. At that point, any team could have had him if they wanted him. No one did, which could mean that the Orioles are onto some secret genius scheme or that they're insane. It could be both. As the saying goes, the difference between insanity and genius is measured only by success.
Gamboa had some modest success at the Double-A level after converting to throwing the knuckleball prior to the 2013 season. He managed a 3.64 ERA over 16 starts, averaging a little over six innings per start. He also struck out 79 batters in that time. It was enough for the Orioles to take his knuckleball experiment to Triple-A Norfolk.
Things did not progress as well there. Over nine starts, he had a 6.23 ERA. His walk rate, which was 2.8 per nine innings at Bowie, ballooned to 5.8. Perhaps hitters closer to the big leagues had more patience, though he did keep the same strikeout rate.
Clark is interesting because of a local college connection. He attended UMBC and ended up coming to the O's as an undrafted free agent. He also did not have the greatest of success in his initial foray into the knuckleball world. Clark was bounced down to Bowie and Frederick to learn the ropes, and even there he had sky-high walk rates of 7.5 and 8.5 per nine innings.
Clark is 30 and Gamboa is 29. The knuckleball experiment probably represents their only chances of being big league pitchers. In knuckleballer years, they're still quite young, and if the team did somehow hit the jackpot with them, that would mean they'd have the standard six years of control.
Unearthing the next R.A. Dickey or Tim Wakefield would be something with a real benefit to the team, like finding a pitching prospect out of nowhere. Even finding a league average pitcher, or one slightly worse who can still go six innings on average, would be something that would be of value.
If it was easy to be a knuckleballer, every team would have one. For whatever reason, the O's seem to have pinpointed this as a place where they can find some talent. It'll be interesting to see whether they try to convert anyone else to throwing a knuckler next season or whether they'll just stick to these two.