At 29, the process of Eddie Gamboa reinventing himself as a pitcher is continuing.
He began throwing a knuckleball last year in spring training and and began to have success with the pitch at Double-A Bowie. When he moved to Triple-A Norfolk in July, he threw the pitch more often, but the results got worse. After the season ended, he went to winter ball in Mexico and got back to a comfort level with the pitch, going 3-4 with a 2.64 ERA in 11 starts.
Throwing the pitch about 50 percent of the time at Bowie, Gamboa went 4-6 with a 3.64 ERA over 16 starts. But then he began throwing the pitch about 90 percent of the time with Norfolk and he ended the year going 2-5 with a 6.23 ERA over nine starts.
Gamboa walked 31 in 99 Double-A innings but then walked 28 in 43 1/3 innings at Triple-A.
"It is all about getting outs and however you do it, you do it," Gamboa said. "The knuckleball was a new weapon for me to try and get consistent outs. I did it well enough at Double-A to get a promotion to Triple-A. But at Triple-A I was throwing the knuckleball more, but not having very much success with it. That was really tough for me and my family.
"I didn't finish Triple-A the way I wanted to and that was a big reason why I went to Mexico. I went back to using it about 50-50, as I had in Double-A. Going to Mexico made me better.
"Right now I'm about 50-50 and using the knuckleball as a pitch, at times as my primary pitch. If I could throw a knuckleball for strikes consistently, I don't see why I'd want to throw a fastball, slider or changeup. I'd stick with that."
Gamboa had some success to hang his hat on with the pitch, allowing a batting average of just .227 to Eastern League hitters, .244 to International League batters and .251 in Mexico. He certainly got his work in, throwing a total of 207 innings between the three stops.
The Orioles added Gamboa to their 40-man roster on Nov. 20, but less than two weeks later he was non-tendered and removed from the 40-man. That led to him re-signing with the club on Jan. 7, when he signed a minor league contract with an invite to big league spring training. All along, it appeared he'd remain an Oriole and that was his first choice. The O's brass suggested he throw the knuckler and they realized it was a long-term project.
"It was destiny for me to come back to the Orioles," he said. "Because Dan Duquette has been great and treated me with respect. When I pitched lousy, he's calling me and telling me the positive things about this. Plus having access to a Hall of Famer like Phil Niekro (who worked with him last year) keeps me excited for the start of the year. The Orioles have had faith in me with this pitch.
"Every day is different with the knuckleball. I'm still learning with it. It wasn't the competitive me in Triple-A. I wasn't as focused on winning as working on something. But I felt like I needed to win and compete in Mexico. As an American player there, if you are not doing well, you come home real quick."
The Orioles' 21st-round draft pick in 2008, Gamboa said his experience in Mexico was a real positive one. He spent some time tweaking his mechanics a bit on his more conventional pitches and found a few extra ticks of velocity on his fastball, which usually sits 88-91 mph. But there at times sat from 90-93 mph.
He is probably a strong candidate to begin the year in Norfolk's rotation and this is a big year for him. It's one where he'll continue to try and master that knuckler, but he has to balance that with production, results and getting outs, knowing he is as close to the majors as he's ever been.
What is the plan for the knuckler for this season?
"Start off with 50-50 but if there is a day I can feel I'm really throwing strikes with this thing, I'd go 100 percent," Gamboa said. "But the feedback I'm getting was that whatever you were doing in Mexico was working and you are getting outs. If you're getting outs, you can do that at the Triple-A level and big league level if you keep working on your stuff.
"If you look at my numbers at the Double-A level, and I was there for four years, I felt like I was competing well, but I couldn't get over that hump. I felt like I had average stuff, nothing to wow you. Now that I have the knuckleball with it, I'm hoping that gets me over that hump."