Mickey Jannis was initially selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 44th round of the 2010 draft out of California State University Bakersfield.
He spent two seasons in the minors with Tampa Bay before he was cut loose. This was when he decided to transition to a knuckleballer, a pitch he had kept in his back pocket over the years after throwing it in college.
Jannis caught on with the Lake Erie Crushers of the Frontier League in independent ball, with tours of duty in Australia, Bridgeport and Southern Maryland before playing for Bud Harrelson‘s Long Island Ducks.
This is where he caught the attention of the Mets in 2015 and was scooped up. He is been in New York’s system since.
Jannis had a solid 2017 season with Double-A Binghamton, pitching to an 8-7 record with a 3.60 ERA in 21 games started (122.1 innings pitched) followed by a strong Arizona Fall League season where he went 1-3 with a 2.33 ERA in 27 innings tossed.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Jannis recently, where we talked about his transition to a knuckleballer and his strong campaign.
Piersall: Let’s talk about your solid AFL season this year. What was working for you? Did you make any mechanical changes or do anything different than you did during the regular season?
Jannis: I didn’t really do anything different than I had been doing during the regular season. I was just able to continue to build off the strong second half of the season I had. Continuing to develop the knuckleball and mixing in my other pitches as well.
Piersall: You transitioned to a knuckleball pitcher after the 2011 season upon being released by the Rays. Before you thought to do that, was there ever a point where you thought your career was over?
Jannis: Not at all. I always told myself that I would continue to play as long as I felt like I was still getting people out. And I had recent years with the Rays and in independent ball so I was confident that I would get another opportunity at some point.
Piersall: How did you come to throw the knuckleball and what is the process you undertook in becoming a knuckleball pitcher?
Jannis: I always messed around with it as a kid and I always had a good one. So I just kind of kept it in my back pocket in case I needed it at some point in my career. I think the process is just throwing it all the time. That’s the only way to develop it. Especially to hitters and off the mound almost everyday to get the right feel for it and keep the feel of it.
Piersall: I’m sure you’ve seen the Knuckleball documentary. It seems as though knuckleballers are such a tight knit because you guys throw such a unique pitch. Have you ever sought advice from Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey or any other successful MLB knuckleballers?
Jannis: Not too much actually. It’s pretty much been trial and error on my own in my career. I’ve talked a little to Charlie Hough at the beginning of the process. Towards the end of this Fall League Tom Candiotti reached out to me on his own so that was really cool to talk to him.
Jannis: Yeah we talk and joke about it all the time. I think the thing that a lot of people don’t understand is how good independent ball actually is. A lot of players come into it thinking they will dominate, and those are the guys that get run out of the league.
It’s all about winning. So you really need to perform or they will find someone else who can. I think that’s what made it tough for me. I was trying to develop something that I’ve never really done before so it was a tough process to get guys out and develop the knuckleball. That’s what made 2012 and some of 2013 so difficult.
Piersall: Glenn Abbott just got promoted to Triple-A pitching coach while Frank Viola is now going to be with the Rumble Ponies. I don’t know if you’ve talked to Viola at all, but how has Abbott helped you with your knuckleball? Is it a different approach he undertakes with you or is it the same?
Jannis: He has helped me more with just making sure that I stay within myself mechanically. I went through some mechanical changes in 2016 and beginning of 2017. And mechanics can be the same with a conventional pitcher as they are with a knuckleball pitcher too.
Piersall: Do you ever hear from opposing players about the knuckleball being a gimmick? Is that a stereotype you still have to battle?
Jannis: No not really. I think more players just think it’s fun to see someone throw it because you just don’t see it very often anymore so everyone wants to see it. They just don’t want to have to catch it or hit against it.
Piersall: Is there a specific catcher that you always pitch to because he can handle the knuckleball better? I remember when R.A. Dickey was on the Mets, he always pitched to Josh Thole.
Jannis: I threw to Colton Plaia basically the entire season and then when he got hurt, Tomas Nido stepped in very well. And then that carried over to the Fall League. When it was Nido’s day off, I threw to Chadwick Tromp from the Reds organization. Everyone catches me differently. I try to help them where I can but I just tell them catch me however it will be easiest for them.
Piersall: When you’re in the minor leagues, do you keep tabs on the parent club, or are you just focused more on what’s going on with the team you’re playing for in the moment?
Jannis: Yeah we always have the games on in the clubhouse and see the highlights. A lot of us minor leaguers have friends up there so we like to watch.
Piersall: Was there a team you rooted for growing up? Any favorite players?
Jannis: Being named after Mickey Mantle, my dad was a Yankee fan so I actually was a huge Yankee fan. I liked watching Derek Jeter when I was younger. And then when I became more of a pitcher only, I like Roy Halladay and Mariano Rivera.
Piersall: What’s the food like in the minor leagues? I’ve heard rumors the minor league guys eat the food from concession stands mostly. Is that true? Are there any ballparks that have really good food?
Jannis: Some teams do better than others when it comes to our spreads, but that really just depends on the clubhouse manager. We get a lot better food than the concessions though. I don’t really eat the ballpark food though.
Piersall: What are your expectations for the upcoming season?
Jannis: I don’t really have expectations because a lot of my goals are out of my control. So my biggest thing is just to continue to build off of my strong season this past year, keep developing my knuckleball, and get better everyday.
Piersall: Best of luck to you! It’ll be exciting to keep tabs on you in 2018. Hope to see you pitching in Queens! Thanks again for taking the time out to talk.
Jannis: Awesome, thanks for having me. Enjoy the holidays!
To stay up to date on how the knuckleballer is progressing, give him a follow on Twitter: @MickeyJannis.