ALTOONA- From Phil Nierko, Tim Wakefield, and R.A. Dickey, baseball has had a long history of the knuckleball. With velocity becoming more prevalent, we’ve seen the knuckleball become something of a dying breed.
For the Pittsburgh Pirates, they have a player in their system keeping the knuckleball tradition alive, in Matt Eckelman.
The 29-year-old Eckelman has been in the Pirates system since 2016, when he was drafted in the 21st round out of St. Louis University.
Since entering the system, Eckelman has wavered back in forth between a starter and a bullpen arm, but as of late, he’s become more of an opener/long reliever.
Eckelman didn’t even begin his career with a knuckleball.
It wasn’t until 2022, when he was getting blasted out of the water in Indianapolis that the Pirates decided to send him down to High-A Greensboro to work on that pitch.
Known for his tremendous control coming out of college, Eckelman struggled to harness the knuckleball, but towards the end of the season, he started to get better results out of it.
Saturday, May 27, 2023, I was in Altoona hoping to speak with some of the Pirates up-and-comers and pull some stories from the minors.
After batting practice, I was able to sit next to the big bearded gentleman known as Matt Eckelman, and we spoke quite a bit about his career up to this point and why he continues to trudge through this grind that is minor league baseball.
Before we get into all of that, how exactly did he start throwing the knuckleball, and why that obscure pitch?
“As a kid, I grew up throwing it,” said Eckelman. “Always joked around with it during seasons and stuff, and then last year I sat down with the Pirates, and they said, ‘Hey, let’s give this a shot. It’s something new, and it’s something different to try and going again. But I’ve always messed around with that pitch throughout my life.”
Eckelman dove into a little detail on how those talks with management went and if this is indeed his best shot into the majors.
“It is now. Once you go, it’s kind of hard to turn around and go back. It’s a unique little thing that gives me something that nobody else has got.”
Eckelman has yet to reach Drew Maggi’s status in terms of a grinding minor leaguer, but seven years in the minor leagues is quite some time.
From my observations in the clubhouse, it seems to me that Eckelman has taken on a big brother role, or a mentor if you will to the younger guys in the clubhouse.
“Whatever that person needs.,” said Eckelman on his role with his teammates in the clubhouse. “If they just want to be my friend, I’ll be their friend. If they want some advice, I might have some. It may not be the best advice in the world, but I’ve definitely been around for a while. I’m probably the third oldest guy on this team, but I’ll give my input on guys that might need some. I don’t know if I’ve reached full grandpa mode yet.”
There’s something that makes the masses jump up and root for the underdog. Maybe it’s because they see themselves as that underdog, or maybe it’s because of the good story that comes with it.
Either way, Eckelman is definitely an underdog, so what is it exactly that makes him wake up every day and punch in his time card?
Minor league life isn’t easy, it’s usually late nights, cheap hotels, possibly cramped quarters, and scrapping change together to get a drink at the local gas station.
“It’s fun, and there is nothing really like this. You get to come to the field and hang out for a while, and once it’s over, you can hang out with the guys. It’s a game, it’s fun and you get paid to have fun. This is a fun team, too, if I didn’t have this team, it’d be hard to come back because I am getting older. It’s not like I have my own family, but I have little nieces, and it was fun in the off-season to see their stuff. There’s stuff you miss, but these guys make it worth while.”