Olympia grad, knuckleballer James Holle embarks on next phase of career
| 8:38 a.m. June 25, 2015
James Holle is a bit of a blast from the past.
The recent graduate of Olympia High School drives a red 1987 I-ROC Z Chevy Camaro — with a T-top. With his full head of blond hair looking like it was imported straight from a 1980s Tom Cruise movie — a look that has earned him the nickname “Sunshine” around campus — and signature aviator sunglasses, Holle has a unique style all his own.
It takes a certain amount of confidence to pull off, which is fitting because, as a baseball pitcher who specializes in throwing the knuckleball, self-confidence is a prerequisite.
“He is a wonderfully weird kid,” said Justin Aldridge, who coached Holle during his junior year for the Olympia Titans junior varsity team. “He wears his jean jackets and wears his hair like he’s in the 80s — and that’s how he pitches. … It’s a weird pitch, and it’s not impressive if you’re not catching it or you’re not hitting against it.”
Aldridge gets credit as the coach who encouraged Holle to take the knuckleball and go all in on it. Aldridge, a West Orange High alum who played collegiately as a catcher/infielder at UNLV and then played professionally for a time, had tried to reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher after injuries limited his ability to play catcher any longer. That he would soon after become Holle’s junior varsity coach was a stroke of good fortune for both men.
“What I told him is, ‘If you’re going to throw it, you’ve got to throw it,’” Aldridge said. “‘Your first pitch is a knuckleball.’ When it started, it was rough, but the more you throw it, the better it gets.”
It was a risky move, in more ways than one.
The pitch is thrown to minimize the spin of the ball in flight, causing an erratic, unpredictable motion. It is slow but also tough to hit — and especially tough to hit well.
There is a certain level of confidence required of someone to throw a pitch that slow in velocity to talented hitters.
Then there are coaches who don’t believe in the pitch, don’t like the pitch or simply are not confident enough in it to lean on a knuckleballn pitcher in a high-stakes environment.
With James playing his senior season for coach Chuck Schall and the Olympia Titans — part of a program that spent about half of the season at the top of the national polls — every game was a high-stakes game.
On a pitching staff with one player who just inked a contract with the Cleveland Indians (Juan Hillman) and several Division I signees, Holle didn’t get much of a chance to play.
It was something he took in stride, often helping his team by keeping stats in the dugout.
“I love my teammates … I loved being part of the team, and I was really proud to be part of it,” Holle said of his senior season. “As myself (as a player), I’m trying to get better, and I felt very limited in what I could do to get better.”
Holle’s positive approach to the situation was reinforced by his family and, specifically, his father, Tim. Tim Holle, a professional photographer, continued to dutifully shoot most of the Titans’ games this season even as his son sat buried on the bench.
“(James) had a chance to go to another school and be one of the (starting) pitchers,” Tim Holle said. “He told us that this (Olympia) is his school — and we supported him 100%. … I support the program at Olympia 100%. So does my son; so does my wife. We weren’t happy about the situation, by far, but we understood that we have top-rated pitchers.”
The family only recently completed its transition to Florida, one that originated with James’ desire to play baseball in the highly competitive Sunshine State. Coming from Indiana, the Holles first rented their son an apartment zoned for Olympia — which James chose based on academics without much familiarity with the baseball program’s history. Once the family was able to sell its home and Tim’s photography studio, they completed the move.
After arriving in Florida, James realized quickly that, although there were talented baseball players up north, there was a far greater density of them here. Once his fastball began to top out at a speed that wouldn’t allow him to be competitive, he began to look at the knuckler — which he used mostly with two strikes against a hitter — as a way to differentiate himself.
It took a lot of practice, but eventually, he became comfortable throwing it up to 100% of the time, if needed. That’s where the confidence came in — whether it’s to zone out fans in the stands wondering why he is throwing so slowly or opposing players who would not so subtly suggest he learn a “real” pitch.
“Really, whenever I’m throwing it, I’m really not thinking about it,” James Holle said. “When I first started, it took a lot of confidence to throw this really slow pitch. … I can control the spin on it, but I can’t really control what it does.”
Leaning on support from his family, Holle persevered and “emailed every single junior college coach” he could. He has been given an opportunity and will be pitching for South Florida State College as a freshman. In preparation this summer, he has done well pitching for the Mustangs in the JUCO Summer League in Polk County — Holle leads the team in innings pitched (24.1) while having an impressive 2.87 ERA.
“Now he’s been let loose,” Tim Holle said.
James is just excited to be pitching in games, again — and to have been given a chance. He said he understands the market is slim for a player with his particular skill set — there is only a handful of pitchers in Major League Baseball who currently utilize the knuckleball — but that he’s all-in on it.
His former JV coach said it could just be a matter of the stars aligning that could lead to this local product inking a professional contract in the coming years.
“If the right person sees it and the right person believes in it, he can go as far as he wants to,” Aldridge said.