Brian Wilson eyeing MLB return as a knuckleball pitcher

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist

Brian Wilson intends to resume his pitching career as a knuckleballer.

Yes that Brian Wilson, now 34 years old, beardless and having just gone a month eating nothing but guacamole, which probably isn’t quite as great as it sounds.

On a muddy mound at USC on Wednesday morning, wearing high-top spikes and a Hawaii-themed cap, Wilson threw a 30-minute bullpen session. Of those dozens of pitches, all but a handful were knuckleballs.

“That right there,” Wilson said while pulling off his muck-caked shoes, “was an MVP-Cy Young knuckleball. You can write that down, too. No joke.”

He smiled.

“I can already see myself out there,” he said, “throwing up some waffles.”

Wilson is nearly 2 ½ years removed from his last professional pitch, thrown for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the end of the 2014 season, when they released him in spite of owing him $9.5 million for 2015. He continued to throw while also taking on real estate projects in Los Angeles, content in a career that spanned nine seasons and netted 172 saves, three All-Star appearances and two World Series titles, mostly with the San Francisco Giants.

He hadn’t, however, intended to retire. His elbow – saved twice by Tommy John surgery – felt strong. His shoulder, too. And several months ago he decided to spend more time with the knuckleball, a pitch he taught himself as a 12-year-old and toyed with ever since. In San Francisco, he said, coaches had asked him to refrain from the knuckleball in deference to the health of catchers Mike Matheny, Bengie Molina and Buster Posey. The pitch can be savage on a catcher. Besides, Wilson was pushing triple digits with his fastball and his slider was borderline unhittable. A 74-mph knuckler seemed, to the Giants, unnecessary.

Two summers had passed. Wilson missed the game. He missed the teammates, the fans who loved and despised him, the heartache of some of those losses and the joy of the rest. Could he again throw 95 with a disappearing slider? Maybe. Could he throw a fluttering somethin’-somethin’, throw it for a strike, throw it for five or six or seven innings, and have a great time doing it?

He has thrown for at least two teams in the past couple weeks.

“It was kinda good to lay back and figure out what I wanted,” Wilson said. “It feels like a new leaf.”

Besides, he said while holding a Whole Foods bag stuffed with lettuce and fruit and sparkling water, so clearly off the guacamole diet, “I may be 34, but I’m actually 26 biologically.”

So there you go.

He’ll be 35 in March.

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson is attempting a comeback … as a knuckleballer. (Getty Images)

R.A. Dickey, who came to the knuckleball when he was about 30, is 42 and will make $8 million pitching for the Atlanta Braves in 2017. Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox turned to the knuckleball in his mid-20s and had a breakout 2016, when, at 32, he won 13 games. Noted recent knuckleballers Tim Wakefield and Tom Candiotti pitched well into their 40s.

A reliever for nearly all his professional career, when he was fastball-slider reliant, Wilson likely would focus on being a starter as a knuckleballer. What’s left to determine is whether the knuckleball is good enough for the big leagues. Wilson said he threw it a few times during spring training with the Dodgers in 2014.

What would seem different about Wilson’s knuckler is that he throws it from several arm angles. Also, he grips it with the tips of his fingers, so does not bury his fingernails into the ball, and then does not push the ball as much as he throws it as he would a fastball. On Wednesday morning, he changed speeds with it, commanded it on both sides of the plate, up and down, threw it over the top and sidearm, and generally beat the hell out of the guy trying to catch it. The rest will be left for the hitters to decide, assuming Wilson gets into a team’s camp, which shouldn’t be so hard.

“I always said that once my career was over I was coming back as a knuckleballer,” he said. “I’m good with it. Man, I get to play a game. It’s going to be pretty fun.”

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