For Orioles minor league pitcher Eddie Gamboa, it was time for a change.
At age 28, and with his chances of reaching the majors quickly dwindling, Gamboa has decided to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer.
The idea for the experiment came about in mid-March, when Hall of Famer knuckleballer Phil Niekro visited Orioles minor league camp. Niekro was there to meet with Zach Staniewicz, a fellow knuckleballer whom the O's signed out of an independent league during the offseason. Niekro's visit caught the interest of Gamboa, who has toyed around with a knuckleball in practice, though never in a game.
"Gamboa told me he threw a knuckleball," said Brian Graham, Orioles director of player development, "and a couple of the pitching coaches told me he threw a really good knuckleball. … He just threw it playing around and playing catch, [but] the players and the pitching coaches, they recognized that it was something more than just playing around. It was a pretty good pitch."
Gamboa asked whether he could sit in on Niekro's instruction, and soon, he was showing the winningest knuckleballer in major league history what he could do.
"Phil asked him to throw some, and Phil really liked his knuckleball," Graham said.
Niekro's enthusiasm convinced Gamboa and the Orioles that the knuckler could be a path to revitalize the youngster's stalled career.
Gamboa, a 21st-round pick out of the University of California, Davis, in 2008, has toiled in the Orioles' minor league system for five seasons, spending most of his time at Double-A Bowie. Though he has posted decent minor league numbers -- a 3.03 ERA while splitting time between starting and relieving -- the Orioles recognized that his standard repertoire of pitches ultimately wasn't going to be good enough to get him to the majors.
"Eddie was at a point where he needed to do something different," Graham said. "He's sort of a Double-A, Triple-A kind of guy and really doesn't have good enough stuff to be a big league pitcher with the conventional fastball, slider [and] changeup that he throws right now. … We had a conversation about his future and the percentages of him making it to the big leagues as a conventional pitcher, and we both agreed that if he had a knuckleball and it turned out to be a professional pitch, he'd have a much better chance to pitch in the big leagues."
Becoming a knuckleballer is no easy task, but Graham said he thought Gamboa had the pitching acumen to make a successful conversion.
"The unique thing about Eddie Gamboa is that he does throw 90 miles an hour and he has a real good feel for the baseball," Graham said. "By that I mean he throws strikes. He can throw a changeup for a strike. He can throw a slider for a strike. He has a pitcher's mentality. He's been extremely durable over the years.
"So you have a guy that has a feel for the baseball, and throws strikes, and understands pitching and has that competitive nature, and now all of a sudden you have this newfound weapon, which is a knuckleball. So that's pretty good. … You've got a guy that can throw strikes with all his pitches and throw a knuckleball 60-70 percent of the time."
Gamboa will begin the season as a starting pitcher at Bowie, where he'll continue to work with pitching coaches to develop his knuckler. The conversion will take time and is no guarantee to pan out, but the O's will be patient.
Both sides have much to gain if the experiment pays off. Gamboa can transform himself from a stalled minor league lifer into a pitcher with legitimate big league potential. And the Orioles would be happy to boost their already-deep supply of young pitchers with another possible weapon. Knuckleballers have become a rare breed in the majors, but a few other pitchers have enjoyed breakthrough seasons after scrapping their conventional pitches for a knuckler -- most recently, defending Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.
Gamboa isn't likely to become the next Niekro. But his attempted transformation will be a story worth keeping an eye on in 2013. If all goes well, he may yet prove a valuable contributor to the Orioles in the future.
Posted March 29, 2013 by Paul Folkemer