On Saturday, in his first big league start since September 2008, Ryan Feierabend threw the first complete game of his career. It was less triumphant than it sounds. Feiereabend threw four full innings in a game that wound up getting called in the fifth due to rain, allowing four runs on seven hits, a walk, and a homer; it was complete enough by the official standard to tie him for the American League lead, with one. It was the 33-year-old’s first big league decision in 11 years, both were losses.
There’s no real reason why you would or should know who Ryan Feierabend is, or why even the most ardent of Seattle Mariners fans would remember him better than any of the many other pitching prospects that broke or busted or burnt up on reentry with the organization over the last couple decades. Feierabend was the team’s third-round pick in 2003, which wound up being a typically unproductive draft for the team. Adam Jones, the team’s first pick at 37th overall, went on to become a star and a franchise icon—in Baltimore, where he was sent along with a few of the team’s other top prospects in a deal that brought back the scorched remains of Erik Bedard’s left arm. Besides Feiereabend and Jones, only three of the 50 players that Seattle picked that year ever reached the majors.
For a very brief moment, Feiereabend looked like he could be the best of those picks. He was 17 during his first season in rookie ball and pitching effectively in the majors just three years later. His teammates on that 2006 Mariners team included Richie Sexson and Carl Everett and Matt Lawton; it was Ichiro’s age-32 season. This was more or less a different geological age in baseball terms. Feiereabend was up by late May of the the following year and got rocked, and that continued pretty much until he finally submitted to Tommy John surgery in 2008.
This was the first of several moments that might well have been the end for Feiereabend as a big-league pitcher. He had allowed 132 hits and 78 earned runs in 89 innings over the previous two seasons, and there were complications after the surgery and then complications on those. It ended up taking Feiereabend 64 months to throw another pitch in a competitive baseball game, almost exactly three times the normal recovery period. He was still just 24 when he came back, but a story that includes everything you have already read should not by rights end with the pitcher starting a big-league game 11 years later.
If you expand that story to include the next four years, in which Feiereabend pitched for four different organizations and which culminated with another rocky seven-and-a-third innings in 2014 with the 67-win Texas Rangers, it becomes even more difficult to believe. That could have been the end, too, and it would have been an achievement to get back to the bigs after six years away. But because Feiereabend is both stubborn and left-handed, that wasn’t the end, either. He received a contract offer in the Korean Baseball Organization for 2015.
The first two years of Feiereabend’s time in Korea were unremarkable not just in terms of the numbers he put up but how he achieved them. The same three-pitch mix that had made him just good enough to get lit up in the majors worked only slightly better in a hitter-friendly league full of hitters that were slightly less good. He was brought along in the ways of Korean baseball by the brotherhood of expat MLB Guys over there—Andy Van Hekken, who made five ham-and-egger starts for the 2002 Tigers and later became a 20-game winner in the KBO, was especially helpful—and once again hung in there just well enough to keep hanging in there. After Van Hekken bombed out of Japan’s NPB, Feiereabend lost his spot with the Nexen Heroes to his former mentor. This is how it goes at the end of the line, but again this wasn’t the end of the line.
The KT Wiz picked Feiereabend off waivers and kept him, but by 2017 Feierabend was 31, getting paid about a third of what imported players such as Carlos Villanueva and the extra-crispy late-stage version of Alexi Ogando earned, and just desperate enough to get weird. “I started throwing a knuckleball for the simple fact that I had nothing else to lose,” Feierabend told Fangraphs’ Sung-Min Kim in 2018. “If it worked, it would be something that the KBO hitters had never seen before.” The other, unspoken half of that sentence is clear enough for anyone to read. In 2017, Feierabend significantly backed off his mid-80s fastball, started throwing his changeup more, and effectively replaced both his breaking pitches with a knuckleball that he threw nearly 21 percent of the time, and which he increasingly used as his put-away pitch.
It worked and then, for the first time in Feiereabend’s long and frustrated career, it kept on working. Feierabend chopped nearly a run and a half off his previous mark and led the KBO with a 3.04 ERA; the league had hung a .837 OPS on him the year before, which shrunk to a feeble .687. He somehow stopped giving out walks. His next KBO contract paid him more than a million dollars and the one he signed after that, before this season, was with Toronto. It was another minor-league deal, with a team that is among the third or so of MLB teams rolling out a Plausible Deniability Tank Job this year. Even still, there were many names ahead of him on Toronto’s depth chart. Ryan Feiereabend is a 33-year-old knuckleballer whose best MLB days came starting alongside Jamie Moyer and Gil Meche. This will be the case for as long as he hangs on, but here he is, fresh off his first MLB start since George W. Bush was President of the United States, hanging on.
At the moment, Feiereabend is the only knuckleballer in the majors. It’s a pitch that more or less every pitcher has messed around with for some time—Feierabend told Kim that he’d first started throwing his when he was 13—but which generally only gets adopted when every other option has been exhausted. R.A. Dickey was an elite college pitcher whose career was complicated, after he was drafted, by the discovery that he had been born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm. He gutted his way to the bigs with a conventional arsenal, got battered, and went on to win a Cy Young Award throwing a knuckleball, but the lesson there is less clear than it looks. Knuckleballers can pitch forever—Charlie Hough pitched in the majors for 25 seasons and looked like H. Ross Perot when he retired; Phil Niekro threw his first big-league pitch when Lyndon Johnson was President and his last at the tail end of Ronald Reagan’s second term.
But the ungovernable aspects that make the pitch so hard to hit make it hard to command in both the practical baseball sense and in several deeper ones. There is a reason why its practitioners talk about it in mystic-philosophical terms, and why pitchers like Feierabend view it as a last chance. Contemporary baseball careers, at the margins, tend to end in whirling descents through farm systems and minor leagues and foreign leagues; that a pitch that doesn’t spin could stop that vertigo is nice enough as metaphor, but the process has its own severe gravity, and when it starts ending it generally goes on that way.
But when the knuckleball does what it’s supposed to do, it can do anything. “As far as my career, you can always say ‘What if?’” Feierabend told Kim. “If I had starting throwing it earlier, I may still be in MLB or I may be retired. You can choose the path you do and live with the results.” This is just how knuckleballers talk—“Although the movement is chaotic and severe, if you throw it right, it’s a beautiful thing,” R.A. Dickey told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap during his Cy Young season in 2012. “And that’s how I view my life.”—but it’s not an affectation. It’s a normal way to talk about enjoying something won long after anyone but you stopped expecting it.