JUPITER, Fla.—The Niekros are a baseball family.
The name is synonymous with the game. Hall of Famer Phil had a 24-year big league career, notching 318 wins and posting a 3.35 ERA. His brother Joe had 22 years in the majors, posting 221 victories with a 3.59 ERA. The brothers grew up in Ohio, and among their many honors, Niekro Diamond in Bridgeport, Ohio, is named after them.
Joe’s oldest son Lance spent parts of four seasons in the major leagues and 10 in the minors, his last in an attempt to come back as a pitcher, taking after his father and uncle. Phil had more career victories than any other pitcher after the age of 40, crediting his famous knuckleball for his longevity, and Joe, who died in 2006, used the pitch as well.
Now, it’s J.J. Niekro’s turn. Joe’s youngest son—Phil’s nephew and Lance’s half-brother—is 16 years old and is pitching this summer for the Ostingers Baseball Academy 16U Select squad out of Lithia, Fla., in the greater Tampa area. The team is one of hundreds in Jupiter this week for USA Baseball’s National Team Championships tournament.
“I have a curveball, changeup, four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball,” the young righthander said. “And a knuckleball in my back pocket.”
All joking aside, J.J. has yet to attempt a knuckleball in a game situation. He believes he could probably pull it out if he ever needed to, but for now he wants to stick to everything else that both his family and his coach Jimmy Osting have taught him.
Niekro’s father died of a brain aneurysm when J.J. was only eight, but Lance and Phil Niekro have served as mentors as well as Osting, who played 10 years in the minor leagues and briefly in the majors.
“My dad passed away at an early age, but he gave me the proper mechanics on how to pitch and how to hit and the basic things,” Niekro said. “As I’ve grown up, I’ve had my uncle and my brother help me, and my coach Jimmy has really helped me pitch and helped develop me into the pitcher I am, along with my dad.
“I’ve learned a lot about the game because we always go to baseball games together and we can just study it, even at a major league game we see what pitchers are coming, how they approach batters and other stuff like that.”
Not only does the young Niekro study major league pitchers, but his mother Debra has a video camera out for all of his pitching performances so they can watch and analyze what he’s doing.
“We can put it on the TV from our video recorder and I can see what I’m doing wrong with my mechanics and if I’m leaning forward or not staying back all the time,” Niekro said. “My mom really helped me out a lot with that and I learn from that . . . I go through every game if I have time.”
Osting has known Niekro for several years and has been his pitching coach for almost four years. Over time he said he has been impressed with the amount of time that Niekro has taken to learn and educate himself about the game.
“He’s a big-time student of the game; a really smart kid who studies the hitters,” Osting said. “I’ll walk out to the mound and before I can even get anything out of my mouth he says, ‘Hey what am I doing wrong?’ Sometimes he can overanalyze it, but over time he’s developed, gotten stronger and his pitches have gotten sharper.”
Osting said he has also seen siginificant improvement in Niekro’s game over time, and is excited for how much further he can go.
“When I first got him when he was 12 and getting to the big field, he was very quiet and laid-back, which he still is, and bodes well for him to be a good pitcher,” Osting said. “Nothing really fazes him. He grew up in a smaller city, Plant City, and wasn’t really big into travel ball.
“Slowly but surely he blended in and got bigger and stronger, he started throwing a little bit firmer, mechanically he’s gotten better, his breaking ball has gotten sharper, he’s got a good changeup, and he’s become a pitcher.”
On Thursday in the 17U championships, Niekro went 4 2/3 innings, allowing just two hits and shutting out the Boca Thunder, walking three and striking out six along the way. His fastball sat between 81-83 mph, but dropped off later in the game as he grew fatigued.
“I need to work on throwing strikes,” Niekro said. “I had three walks and that’s too many. I shouldn’t have any walks. Sometimes my arm gets tired late in games and I leave a few pitches up. I like to work on that arm strength.”
Listed as a righthander and a third baseman, the 6-foot, 165-pound teenager seems focused on pitching, and enjoys being on the hill more than anywhere else.
“Out on the field, I feel like I can control the game (from the mound),” Niekro said. “Sometimes I work more quickly and if I’m facing a better team I can just speed it up or slow it down, or I can throw a first-pitch curveball and come back with a fastball. I can go slow and fast and have control in the game when I’m out there.”
Osting said he has no problem with Niekro taking control of the game, and he brings a demeanor to the field that the coach would love to see all of his players adopt.
“The first time I met him there was just the presence that he carries,” Osting said. “He stands out from the other kids absolutely. He has that presence about him, probably because of being around dad, being around brother, and being around uncle all the time, but he has that presence that no situation is too big that he can’t handle.”