Left-hander Josh Turley is a member of the Toledo Mud Hens bullpen — and a member of one of baseball’s most unique fraternities as a knuckleball pitcher.
The 6-0, 185-pound Baylor graduate was drafted by the Tigers in the 16th round of the 2012 draft and has pitched for the Mud Hens in each of the previous two seasons. Turley was 2-3 with a 4.68 ERA with Toledo in 2016, then last season — after committing to throwing strictly a knuckleball — he was 2-2 with a 6.27 ERA in seven starts here.
He began the 2018 season with Double-A Erie before making his debut this season Monday night vs. Durham. He got the win by allowing one run in three innings while pitching on a cold, windy, snowy night.
The Blade: When did you first throw a knuckleball?
Josh Turley: “Every kid has a little bit of a knuckleball, but I found out mine was pretty decent when I was 15 years old. I didn’t throw it in high school because I could get away with simple velocity, and in college I was successful as a ‘traditional’ pitcher. I started to throw one every now and then just to put it in a hitter’s mind, maybe 4-5 times a game. But last year I got serious about it and transitioned in to being a full-time knuckleball pitcher full-time.”
Did you tell Detroit you wanted to become strictly a knuckleball pitcher last season? Or did they tell you to scrap your other pitches and focus on the knuckleball?
“It was a mutual decision. The Tigers came to me and asked me what my thoughts were, and I was on-board with it. If this works out the way I think it can, this could really enhance my career.”
What are the problems trying to throw knuckleball in cold weather?
“There are problems because it’s a ‘feel’ pitch, and sometimes you can’t even feel your fingers. It felt fine [Monday], and luckily I had a couple of outings in Erie to get used to it. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
How do you know when your knuckleball is working well?
“You call tell if you have a good knuckleball if the catcher drops a couple of them. When Grayson dropped a couple [Monday], that was encouraging. … I don’t try to watch the pitch as it goes to the plate because I’m trying to get in a defensive position. Usually the catchers give me good feedback on the movement, and because they’re hitters they can tell me how tough it might be to hit.
“And hitters give you feedback, too. If you throw a really good one, sometimes they’ll look out and say, ‘What was that?’ And if you throw a bad one and they hit it 100 miles, well, that’s feedback, too.”
What was the hardest thing about becoming strictly a knuckleballer?
“I was always a command pitcher before I transitioned to the knuckleball. I’m getting out of the mind-set that I’m pitching and transitioning to the mindset that I’m playing catch. It’s weird, but I’m starting to come to grips with it. I know the walk numbers are up the last two years, but this is something that can enhance my career.”
Does the weather help or hurt your knuckleball?
“People think I’m crazy, but I tell them I prefer having the wind blow in my face. It may be an advantage for the hitter because it does make the ball travel, but it also gives my knuckleball more movement, more ‘wiggle.’ ”
How close do you feel you are to perfecting your knuckleball?
“I feel very confident in the pitch. I talked to [former major league knuckleballer] Phil Niekro last year when I went to extended spring training and worked on it exclusively. He told me that I needed to get out of the ‘try to not walk anybody’ phase because it’s going to happen. It’s part of throwing the pitch. I have seen times when I’ve thrown a great knuckleball and the catcher drops it — and it’s called a ball because the catcher dropped it. You have to live with the bumps and the bruises.”
Most pitchers throw a fastball that is roughly 90 miles per hour, and breaking pitches like a curveball generally are roughly 70-some miles per hour. What speed does your knuckleball hit?
“I keep it consistently in the high 60s, low 70s. But at times I’ve got it to go as fast as 83 and as low as 49. And they say the name of the game in pitching is changing speeds, right? Seriously, the more I can change speeds — maybe get a batter chomping at the bit to swing at a slow one, then throw him a fast one — it will be fun to see the reaction.”
Most of us view throwing a knuckleball as a ‘physical’ process: You have to throw it just so to make sure it doesn’t spin and moves when it gets to the plate. But it sounds as if throwing a knuckleball is more mental than physical.
“I think that’s because I’ve had one for so long, all I would do is mess with it — and that was the physical part. The more you throw it, the better it will be consistently. But I’ve always had the physical part; the mental part is where I’ve had to do work. It’s different than the mind-set of other pitchers, and that’s the biggest adjustment I had to make.”
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