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Could a knuckleballer sneak his way onto the Orioles roster?

Mickey Jannis brings his knuckleball talents to Sarasota, Florida, this spring. Next stop, Baltimore?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles Media Day
Baltimore Orioles knuckleball pitcher Mickey Jannis.

In many ways, Mickey Jannis is antithetical to the major league pitcher archetype. He measures only 5 feet 9 inches tall. He’s 33 years old, yet he’s never thrown a pitch in a major league game. And to top it all off, the vast majority of the time he throws a knuckleball that hovers around the mid-70s on average.

Having said that, bear in mind that the O’s spring training pitching staff also includes a 34-year-old former Cy Young winner who had a 5.82 ERA the last two years he played (2018-2019), a 36-year-old lefty who put up an 8.06 ERA in six starts in 2020 before succumbing to a season-ending injury, and a 35-year-old with a mid-80s fastball who just returned to the majors last year after a two-year stint in the Mexican League.

So Jannis is exactly the type of underdog that fits the mold of this scrappy Orioles team carrying the usual low expectations. If there was ever a year that an ‘undervalued asset’ like Jannis could finally get his shot and earn significant innings in the bigs, this could be it. And the Orioles could be the team.

The Birds actually signed Jannis to a minor league contract on January 17th of last year, but he didn’t make it into a single exhibition game before camps closed due to Covid, and the MLB season was put on hold. Then once the decision was made to cancel the minor league season entirely, Jannis had nowhere to pitch.

With the impending pitching restrictions in 2021 due to the abbreviated 2020 season, every MLB team is going to need deep pitching resources to combat the innings limits that will almost surely be in place to protect their arms. So even if Jannis doesn’t make the Orioles out of spring training, that doesn’t mean he won’t pitch multiple innings for the club over the course of the summer.

Expect a lot of roster movement throughout the season to address the unique circumstances. A change of pace guy like Jannis may very well get a chance if he can harness the erratic nature of his main pitch.

For a guy like me who started paying attention to the AL East in the mid-’90s, Tim Wakefield automatically pops into my head as the shining example of a knuckleball pitcher. More recently there was R.A. Dickey, who last pitched in 2017. And of course, there’s Eddie Gamboa, who was originally drafted by the O’s in 2008 but never made it to the majors with them.

So while knuckleballers are a rare breed who come and go only once every so often, they’re not entirely extinct yet.

In 2010, Jannis was drafted out of California State University by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 44th round. Between then and now, he’s pitched basically everywhere a pitcher can pitch — except the majors.

Over the course of seven minor league seasons, Jannis has a 4.17 ERA in 141 games, including 103 starts. He’s averaged a little over two strikeouts per walk and has been able to keep hitters off-balance enough with the knuckleball to severely depress home run totals (0.6 HR/9).

In 2013, Jannis played for the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League. In that one season pitching down under, the knuckleballer posted a 3.05 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP, 7.3 SO/9, and 0.4 HR/9.

Yet another experience section on his resume includes four seasons playing independent ball, totaling 106 games that included 40 starts. He did very well as an Indie pitcher, averaging 2.74 earned runs per nine innings, a WHIP just a hair over 1.20, and to continue a running theme for Jannis, very few home runs allowed (0.4 HR/9).

Unfortunately, Jannis has struggled at the highest level of the minor leagues. In four Triple-A starts covering 14.2 innings, he’s allowed 34 runs (30 earned) and given up six home runs. That’s a highly uncharacteristic HR/9 of 3.7 for him. While those Triple-A numbers are jarring, it is still a very small sample size.

Speaking of small sample sizes, Jannis made his first appearance of the spring two days ago and pitched a scoreless inning against the Yankees. It was a perfect inning, in fact, with Jannis retiring Oswald Peraza on a weak groundout and both Luke Voit and Clint Frazier on pop-ups.

It’s that early stage of spring training when hitters are either swinging at everything or the bat doesn’t leave their shoulder at all. But still, for a guy like Jannis, this first scoreless appearance is a start.

And there’s a lot more to watch as the spring goes on and the Orioles attempt to fill out their starting rotation and bullpen. It’ll be interesting to see whether a guy with such a unique approach can finally get his shot at the majors.