Landon Knack looked forward to the 2019 Draft. He went unselected after starring on a Junior College World Series runner-up team at Walters State (Tenn.) the previous June, but after transferring to East Tennessee State for his redshirt junior year, he performed well against better competition and added some velocity at the end of the season.
Knack knew he wasn't getting picked on day one, which featured the first two rounds, but figured he might go on day two (rounds three through 10) and almost certainly would on day three (rounds 11-40). He constantly monitored the Draft results on his phone, watching as 1,139 names were called -- none of them his.
Rather than get mad, Knack decided to get better. He transformed his body and stuff and became the best fifth-year senior prospect in recent memory. The Dodgers not only took him in the second round of the 2020 Draft, they also added him to their 60-man list, and he's currently working out at their alternative camp at the University of Southern California.
"As soon as it came and went, when I realized that just pitchability wasn't going to get me there, I was like, 'OK, I'm going to make myself the best that I can,'" Knack said. "I'm going to go for velo and I'm going to fix some little things with my body. I was in better shape than I had been at Walters, but I still wasn't a great-body guy, so I worked the entire summer with our staff over there and gained a ton of strength.
"Over the course of that summer, I cleaned up some things and really started taking sleep, nutrition, everything extremely seriously. And then when I started throwing again at the end of that summer and going into the fall, I started to basically just try to focus on just throwing with as much intent as I could, just trying to throw it as hard as I could and just using that little bit of pissed-off edge from watching the entire Draft go by."
Knack lost much of three years of his career because he tore the labrum in his right (pitching) shoulder as a senior at Science Hill High (Johnson City, Tenn.) in 2015, redshirted at Walters State in 2016, then dislocated his left shoulder diving for a ball after coming back in 2017. He went 13-0 and hit 11 homers for the Senators in 2018, but his fastball sat in the upper 80s and he drew no pro interest.
Knack had no problems adapting to NCAA Division I after transferring, ranking among the Southern Conference leaders in wins (nine), ERA (2.60) and strikeouts (94 in 97 innings) and seeing his fastball creep into the low 90s by the end of the 2019 season. After spending the summer adding strength and dropping body fat and working with ETSU pitching coach Micah Posey to stay behind the ball and generate more backspin, he cut his 6-foot-2 frame to 220 pounds and displayed a 91-94 mph fastball during fall practice. That put him on scouting radars as a potential fifth-year senior discount for the 2020 Draft, and his velocity continued to creep upward during preseason workouts in January.
Dodgers area scout Marty Lamb first got alerted to Knack by the club's analytics department in 2018, when the pitcher opened the season at Walters State by striking out 42 batters before issuing his first walk. But Knack's below-average velocity didn't make him a priority and Lamb didn't see him until last fall, when he noted his size, improved arm strength and ability to throw strikes.
Lamb didn't see Knack pitch in an official game until March 7, his last outing before the college season ended. Knack struck out 16 in six shutout innings against Wagner, and Lamb was astonished at how good his stuff was.
"I said, 'Whoa, this is way different than what I saw in the fall," said Lamb, who has worked for the Dodgers since 1999 and signed first-round picks Chad Billingsley, Bryan Morris, Walker Buehler, Will Smith, Jeren Kendall and Bobby Miller. "He was up to 98 mph, pitching at 95-96 into the sixth inning, throwing strikes with his fastball to all quadrants of the strike zone. He threw his slider at will where he wanted, and I don't know that I saw him throw the slider in the fall.
"He's pitching with a plus fastball, he's got command, it's a 55-60 slider [on the 20-80 scouting scale], the curveball is at least average, he threw a couple of changeups. I just went, 'Wow.' I remember calling into our office and saying, 'You'll never guess what I just saw.'"
Knack's dominance of Wagner capped a spectacular, albeit brief, 2020 season in which he won all four of his starts, posted a 1.08 ERA and topped NCAA Division I in strikeouts (51 in 25 innings) and K/BB ratio (51/1). Though he was the oldest player taken in the Draft at 22 years and nearly 11 months, he also was the best fifth-year senior prospect since at least 2006, when the Padres took David Freese in the ninth round. That demographic usually commands a four-digit bonus, but Knack signed for $712,500 as the 60th overall choice.
"He could always pitch and throw strikes," Lamb said. "The makeup and work ethic were there and the stuff got better. Who cares how old he is? You get a lot of guys who can light up radar guns but can't pitch. He can do both."
Thirteen months after the Draft slapped him in the face, Knack is working out five miles away from Dodger Stadium as a potential callup for a team favored to win the World Series. While Los Angeles' primary reason for including him on the 60-man list is to give him (and other 2020 early-round picks) some development time, his stuff and strike-throwing ability could be useful on the big league staff. True, that's a longshot, but so was everything else about his year that has come true.
"It's been an insane couple of months, how quickly my life has changed and how fast things have moved," Knack said. "I don't know if I would have believed you or not if you had told me I'd be out here doing this right now, but it's been a lot of fun. It's been kind of crazy to sit back and really think man, my life has changed in a heartbeat."