From MLB infielder to suspected bettor to … minor-league knuckleballer?

Date:

PENSACOLA, Fla. — David Fletcher didn’t look like a typical pitcher.

Unlike most starters, who meticulously time their pregame routines to the national anthem, he was warmed up 20 minutes before first pitch. Rather than menacingly strolling onto the field behind his defense, he sprinted to the mound. He was at least two inches shorter than every other pitcher on his team. His fastball topped out at 82 mph.

Fletcher’s main pitch — the one he would throw 90 percent of the time in his debut start with the Class AA Mississippi Braves on this balmy June night — was a knuckleball, a magic trick of a pitch that floated unpredictably toward the plate. Fletcher’s catcher hadn’t seen one since Little League.

“You catch 100,000 pitches a year, but the only person who’s going to throw what Fletch did is Fletch,” 23-year-old Tyler Tolve said. “It’s so hard to throw.”

Fletcher, 30, has spent much of his career in stadiums nine times this size — and as an infielder, not a pitcher. He spent parts of six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, where his scrappy hitting and pristine defense made him a favorite of baseball purists, and even once earned him an MVP vote.

But over the past month, Fletcher has found himself in baseball purgatory, twirling an obscure pitch to young hitters making $600 a week — and a central figure in an exploding scandal that has dominated baseball headlines all season.

As the MLB season began, news broke that millions of dollars had been wired from a bank account belonging to Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani to an illegal bookie. Ohtani’s Japanese interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, has since pleaded guilty to pilfering the money without Ohtani’s knowledge to pay off ballooning gambling debts.

Last month, Fletcher, Ohtani’s friend and former Angels teammate, was thrust into the headlines when ESPN reported Fletcher had gambled with the same bookie and that his childhood friend, former minor league ballplayer Colby Schultz, bet on Angels games when Fletcher was on the team.

The intrigue surrounding Fletcher comes as seemingly all of sports reckons with versions of the same scandal: that of pro athletes or those close to them betting through illegal bookies or on their own sports.

The sprawling federal investigation that exposed Mathew Bowyer, the bookie who accepted Ohtani’s stolen millions, also has revealed illegal bets placed by prominent sports figures including former Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig and Maverick Carter, the business manager and partner of NBA superstar LeBron James.

Separately, MLB last week permanently banned San Diego Padres infielder Tucupita Marcano and suspended four other players for a year after learning they had bet on baseball through legal sports betting apps. In April, the NBA banned Toronto Raptors forward Jontay Porter for life after he allegedly manipulated the action in games he was involved with to repay bookies he owed money.

People familiar with Bowyer’s bookmaking operation confirmed to The Washington Post that Fletcher was a customer but said those bets were not on baseball. Though betting on other sports with an illegal bookie is against MLB rules, it is treated as a relatively minor infraction.

In a legal letter obtained by The Post, Schultz’s attorney denied that he placed bets on the Angels using “insider information” from Fletcher and said Schultz “has no connection to the ongoing criminal proceeding involving Mizuhara.” Schultz was no longer a professional baseball player when he bet with Bowyer, according to people with knowledge of Bowyer’s operation.

MLB has said it is investigating Fletcher’s betting. But that investigation has been at an impasse from the beginning, according to people familiar with it, with MLB awaiting developments from the unspooling law enforcement investigation.

Meanwhile, Fletcher has been plunged deeper into baseball obscurity. In December, the Angels traded him to the Braves, but between lengthy stints in the minors, he had only nine plate appearances with the big league team. This month, the Braves transferred him from their team in Class AAA, the highest rung of the minor leagues, to Class AA, a lower level where Fletcher last played when he was 23.

Along the way, Fletcher surprised even his agent and his former big league manager by breaking out a knuckleball.

Joe Maddon, Fletcher’s manager on the Angels, said the unexpected new skill was Fletcher’s attempt to burnish his résumé as a “consummate utility man” to make it back to the majors. “David just wants to be a baseball player in the big leagues,” Maddon said. “And I guess he’s intentionally or unintentionally showing them, ‘I’ll even pitch, if you want me to.’ ”

In his debut for the Mississippi Braves last week, before 3,506 fans, Fletcher reared back and unleashed the slowest pitch Tolve had ever caught in his professional career, a 65-mph butterfly. Its novelty brought the Pensacola Blue Wahoos to the edge of the dugout.

At first, they seemed to have no trouble with it, notching two hits and a run in the first inning. Then Fletcher caught his rhythm, “learning on the fly,” Tolve said, “better every inning.”

Fletcher didn’t give up another hit through the next five innings.

“It was dancing so much,” Pensacola right fielder Tanner Allen said. “It looked like somebody throwing a Wiffle ball in a hurricane.”

On May 8, not long after Fletcher was sent down to Class AAA, his Gwinnett Stripers were down 8-1 in the eighth inning and running short on pitchers.

Fletcher volunteered, declaring he could throw a knuckleball, though he had not even pitched in college. He got out of the inning in 14 pitches, without allowing any runs. A week later, in the eighth inning of another blowout, he struck out three straight batters.

Like many things with Fletcher, the origin of his sudden interest in pitching was a mystery. One of his agents, Jeff Borris, said he learned of Fletcher’s pitching ability only after his first appearance in the minors. “I didn’t even know he was capable of doing that,” Borris said.

He came on in relief twice more the following week and hit a rough patch, giving up six runs in four innings. But in his first start with Gwinnett, he struck out six — including top MLB prospect Jackson Holliday — in five innings, allowing two runs and three hits. Three days later, he was sent down to Mississippi.

His new teammates weren’t sure what to expect. Most were at least five years younger than him. None had played in the majors. None earned anywhere near his $6.5 million salary.

What they encountered was a player who “acts like everybody else here,” Tolve said. “It’s cool to see someone who had so much time in the big leagues and had so much success come here and just be one of the guys.”

Whether Fletcher’s unusual circumstances have been a distraction, welcome or otherwise, is unclear. The Mississippi Braves and Pensacola Blue Wahoos agreed to let The Post interviews players on the condition that questions focused on baseball. Fletcher himself declined interview requests, and an Atlanta Braves spokeswoman declined to comment.

An Orange County, Calif., native, Fletcher was not long ago an understated star for his hometown Angels. Fletcher batted .319 during the pandemic-shorted 2020 season, and the following season Sports Illustrated declared Fletcher “baseball’s most anonymous talent.” He represented Team Italy during the World Baseball Classic last year. While his teammates clowned around on social media, Fletcher simply shook his head while staring at the camera.

The stoic confidence surely helped Fletcher, an avid gambler, at the poker tables, where he was a regular. Fletcher played in poker tournaments at casinos around the country, an online database shows. During the baseball lockout following the 2021 season, he played poker alongside Adam22, the podcaster and adult-film actor, in a game live-streamed by Hustler Casino.

And Fletcher hosted an annual charity poker game in which the buy-in was $350 to sit at his table. The poker tournament’s sponsors included the agency that represents Fletcher, Ballengee Group. The agency’s founder, James Ballengee, golfed with Bowyer and NBA legend Charles Barkley at the American Century Championship, a celebrity tournament, in 2019. Ballengee did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Borris, Fletcher’s agent, is also an avid poker player who took part in one of his charity tournaments. He described Fletcher as a “very good recreational poker player” — but not pro quality. “If he was able to do that, that’s what he’d be doing, right?” Borris posited. He declined to comment on anything related to the gambling scandal.

Ohtani joined the Angels in 2018 and quickly became the most successful two-way baseball player — hitter and pitcher — since Babe Ruth. Fletcher made his debut the same season. Fletcher reportedly said he was “good friends” with Ohtani, and he spoke fondly about facing his then-Angels teammate in the WBC.

Fletcher also apparently bonded with Mizuhara, Ohtani’s then-interpreter and close friend, over poker. “Ippei is a good poker player,” Fletcher told AngelsWin.com in 2021. But Fletcher boasted that he was still the best bluffer on the team. According to multiple sources, Mizuhara met Bowyer at a poker game with Fletcher present.

Maddon, who has managed the Angels, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs over parts of 19 seasons, suggested the rash of betting scandals in baseball went hand in hand with the rise of casual betting for fans that the entire sports industry has promoted.

“It’s not just baseball,” Maddon said. “It’s everywhere — everywhere we are encouraging people to gamble, from a lottery ticket to your cellphone. So the fact that it’s infiltrated our game, why should that surprise anybody?”

‘A backyard Wiffle ball game’

As dusk fell over the yachts in the harbor beyond the outfield fences in Pensacola, it was Fletcher’s knuckleball, not his role in an ongoing scandal, that had people buzzing from the press box to the dugouts.

“It was cool to be able to play against it and see what a knuckleball is and get your feet wet,” said Joe Mack, Pensacola’s catcher. “We were having fun.”

On their way to a 6-3 defeat, Mack recalled seeing his teammates “swing and miss, smiling, having a good time.”

Behind the plate, Tolve observed Pensacola’s batters laugh after particularly nasty knuckleballs. “Never seen that one before,” he heard one opponent say.

“It almost felt like a backyard Wiffle ball game,” Tolve said.

At least one player wasn’t in on the joke. For Fletcher, the knuckleball is not a silly gimmick but possibly a lifeline for a career mired in uncertainty.

When asked whether suddenly debuting as a two-way player could be a smart move for Fletcher’s career, Borris laughed and said, “Ask me that after he’s had a few more starts under his belt.” (Indeed, during a rematch against the Blue Wahoos on Sunday, Fletcher fared a bit worse, giving up two homers and four runs, and the Braves lost.)

Wes McGuire, Mississippi’s pitching coach, had never worked with a knuckleballer and wasn’t sure of Fletcher’s intentions before meeting him. It didn’t take long for McGuire to understand “he really is serious about becoming a pitcher.”

As teams grow careful about pitch counts and assess how to optimize their roster spots, Fletcher pursues a skill set nobody in MLB today outside of his former teammate Ohtani has successfully attained: a guy who can play in the field every day and pitch a few innings whenever needed. That “versatility,” McGuire said, “is the biggest value” Fletcher can offer if he develops consistency on the mound.

It would mean mastering the toughest pitch in baseball to control, dancing the floater past the questions swirling around his status in the sport.

“It’s hard for me to believe that no team wants him right now,” Maddon said. “The fact that he’s throwing knuckleballs, from [where he was] a couple of years ago, is hard for me to believe.”

Share post:

Popular

More like this
Related

Blair business, Washington County discuss preparing for looming flood threat

BLAIR, Neb. (WOWT) - With officials on alert for...

Bonkers Milwaukee Brewers And Washington Nationals Trade Proposal Creates Quite The Stir On Social Media

The Milwaukee Brewers Double-A affiliate team recently announced on...

Israeli defense chief heads to D.C. as Hezbollah escalates threats

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is set to arrive...

Netanyahu again claims US withholding weapons days after Washington denial

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said there has...