Thoughts on Eddie Gamboa's First Knuckleball Outing

Eddie Gamboa made his first start of the 2013 season for AA Bowie this afternoon.  Ordinarily, this would not exactly be news except for the fact that Gamboa is attempting to reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher.  The 28-year old was originally drafted by the Orioles in the 21st round of the 2008 draft out of University of California, Davis.  The right-hander has good minor league numbers – 7.0 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 8.4 H/9, and a 3.03 ERA in five career minor league seasons.  Despite his relative success, Gamboa is at a career crossroads.  He has never been considered a true prospect and with stops at Frederick, Bowie, and Norfolk in 2012, he appeared to be firmly heading for the dreaded “organizational filler” category.  Looking to give his pitching career a shot in the arm, Gamboa has decided to give the knuckleball – a pitch he has reportedly practiced throwing for years – a real go.

I watched Eddie’s first start on delay this evening and my abbreviated first impressions are below:

  • Gamboa did not exclusively throw a knuckleball in this outing.  He mixed in a fastball and possibly a slider throughout the game.  When Gamboa fell behind in the count 2-0, he would usually go to his fastball to get a strike.  He mixed in the fastball – which the Harrisburg announcers said was reaching 91 – at other junctions as well.The use of his fastball is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.  The first being that the knuckleball is a pitch that takes a lot of practice and a lot of reps to become truly successful with.  Phil Niekro has stated that inspiring-knuckleball pitchers are likely best served by throwing the pitch exclusively in order to gain a better understanding of how to control it through constant repetitions.  Gamboa – at least in his first minor league start throwing the pitch – does not seem to be following that path.  The fastball is also noteworthy because it is a decent pitch that reaches 91 MPH and has some lateral movement.  The ability to have a perhaps fringe Major League pitch that he can throw a strike with when needed could be an asset to the knuckleballer.

  • For the most part, Eddie’s knuckler was breaking a bit like a 12 to 6 curveball.  He threw a few that had some funky break and lateral movement, but for the most part the knuckler floated downwards with a curveball-like movement.  When kept down, it appeared to be an effective pitch and drew either weak fly balls or ground balls.  When kept up, the pitch resembled a hanging curveball which batters were generally able to put strong swings on.

  • Command-wise, Gamboa was a tad erratic with the knuckleball although that is to be expected.   He hit the first batter of the game and plunked another Senator’s hitter in the 4th.  He threw a wild pitch in the first inning and a few more pitches ended up in the dirt.  As an aside – Brian Ward did a very good job catching the pitch I thought.  Against more patient batters, Gamboa probably would not have fared as well though he did get the pitch over a decent amount for his first outing.  As mentioned earlier, the ability to throw a fastball or a conventional breaking pitch when behind also helped him get by when his knuckleball danced outside the strike zone.

  • I am not 100% sure, but it looked like he might have been throwing a more conventional knuckleball along with a harder version.  There is a strong chance that the “harder” knuckleball – which didn’t dance all that much – was simply a knuckleball that was overthrown and therefore did not achieve the desired results.  The announcers mentioned that one of the more conventional knucklers was clocked at 68 MPH, which is in the typical knuckleball velocity range.  Some had wondered if Gamboa would throw a harder, R.A. Dickey-like knuckler given his good fastball velocity, but in his first outing at least, his knuckleball appeared to be most effective in the high-60 MPH range.  Picture of previously mentioned R.A. Dickey knuckler (courtesy of Fangraphs) included just because I am mesmerized by it.
  • Gamboa exited the game after 6 innings pitched and only 73 pitches thrown.  He walked two batters and hit two more, but he did not allow a single hit and struck out four.  The results were very good and as I wrote earlier, the knuckleball looked good in terms of command and movement for the first time out.  Gamboa no doubt has a ways to go in mastering the art of the knuckleball but today’s outing sure does indicate that the potential is there for this experiment to work.  Only time will tell.