Intrigue of Twins' pick Lewis doesn't stop at knuckleball

July 19th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins scouting director Sean Johnson is now in his 21st season as a member of the organization's scouting department. In those decades, he has undoubtedly summarized the pitch mixes of tens of thousands -- if not hundreds of thousands -- of young hurlers from across the land.

In all those years, he thinks Monday might have been the first time he ever described a pitcher's arsenal and finished the summary with the phrase: "... and then an impressive knuckleball."

When it comes to Cory Lewis, the right-hander the Twins selected from UC Santa Barbara in the ninth round of the 2022 MLB Draft, "unique" might be underselling it. They already loved the uncommon spin and extension on his fastball that made him an analytical darling with the "best carry that was on the board today," according to Johnson.

And then, there's the rest of his "kitchen-sink" arsenal -- the curveball that's his best secondary pitch, a slider, a changeup, and, stunningly, a knuckleball, which Lewis has actually mixed in consistently throughout his collegiate career, culminating in a 3.57 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 88 1/3 innings as a junior at UCSB in '22.

It's a good knuckler -- they think.

"My knuckleball grading isn't all that good," Johnson said. "I'm not sure if it's plus or average or what. But it's actually pretty good."

During the middle rounds of the MLB Draft, the Twins like to look for pitchers with perhaps some inefficiencies in their mechanics or pitch usage that the organization can help to improve, or more unique mechanics or offerings that set them apart, in an effort to find hidden value with these mid-tier picks.

What could set a pitcher apart more than the knuckleball? It's the bygone pitch that laughs in the face of spin rate or any conventional analysis, and has all but disappeared from the Major Leagues since Steven Wright of the Red Sox was the last pitcher to regularly use it in 2019. Lewis doesn't lean on it to the extent of knuckleball pitchers of the past; his conventional arsenal has been the primary factor in getting him here.

But he has a lot of fun mixing the knuckler in as a change-of-pace pitch, usually as the first offering of an at-bat or as a putaway pitch in two-strike counts.

"It was always fun to start it off, the first pitch of the at-bat, just to see what the hitter was looking like after," Lewis said. "Most of the time, they'd just look confused, like, 'What the heck was that?'"

It's a hard knuckleball, and his scouting report for the pitch is that it usually sits 80-83 mph and touches 84, with movement that gets "pretty crazy at times," he said, though he obviously can't control it -- even if he's tried.

Despite being a mostly "conventional" pitcher, he seems to takes the art of the knuckleball seriously.

"I would say these last two years, I've kind of been tinkering for different ways for it to move," Lewis said. "I've been trying to manipulate my wrist position or how it comes out of my hand, to get more of a slider movement compared to a 12-6 break on it, or even an armside break like a screwball. I've been trying to do that, but I haven't really had much success. It's been fun."

Lewis doesn't know where the pitch even came from; he just remembers that he started throwing it when he was 10 years old. Lots of young pitchers mess with knuckleballs but don't use them seriously; Lewis stuck with it because, well, it worked wherever he went, including at the collegiate level.

He wouldn't always feature it; when his fastball-curveball mix would work particularly well, he didn't really need the knuckler. But he tried to mix it in two to four times every game, just to show that he had it.

"It wasn't just like a, 'Oh, let me just throw this in catch play,' or whatever. It actually worked on the mound. I just never got rid of it."

Much about Lewis has changed over the years. He was a sinkerballer in high school, he said, but he changed to the high-carry four-seamer when he got to UCSB, seeing the analytical data behind how good the pitch could be. In fact, that's the pitch that stood out to the Twins when they made this selection. He has worked to continue developing the slider and changeup to round out his arsenal.

The knuckleball has been there the whole time, though.

So, the million-dollar question, then: Are the Twins going to let him keep throwing it?

"Who knows? I'm not going to put any restrictions on our player development," Johnson said. "Maybe? I don't know. Maybe he's a high-carry, knuckleball guy, north-south guy. I don't know."

"It's nice, because ideally, I get up to sitting in the 92-94 range [with the fastball] -- obviously, I'm not there yet -- but if I'm 92-94 and I just drop in a knuckleball at, like, 83, I don't know of anyone that's really done that in the past," Lewis said.