Spring Training: knuckleballers
AP Photo/The Canadian Press/Nathan DenetteCan R.A. Dickey replicate last year's NL Cy Young-winning season? Don't bet against him.The question is being asked far too often for a pitcher who last season had as many quality starts (27) as the Rockies. And yet you hear it, with skepticism, wherever you go: How well will R.A. Dickey do this season? It is asked in part because he is 38 years old, he has moved from the National League to the American League, he is pitching for the first time under the pressure of his first big contract and the pressure of being the reigning NL Cy Young winner, the ace of a pennant contender, of which he has never been a part. But the main reason the question is asked is because Dickey throws a knuckleball.
Baseball history has never fully accepted knuckleball pitchers for what they are: great competitors who work endlessly to refine a pitch that is impossibly difficult to throw effectively. Instead, from Pop Haines to Hoyt Wilhelm to Phil Niekro to Wilbur Wood to Charlie Hough to Tim Wakefield to R.A. Dickey, and everyone in between, knuckleball pitchers have been viewed as circus sideshows, freaks who weren't good enough to get hitters out with normal stuff, so they had to resort to a pitch that is often thrown at the speed limit of a not-so-super highway. They are not considered reliable, not from one start to another, and the fear is they might lose the touch for the pitch for good at any time. Hough was the best, most durable pitcher the Rangers had for most of the 1980s. But because he looked old and unathletic and threw a knuckleball, former Rangers manager Doug Rader, who had tremendous admiration for Hough, once said, only half-kiddingly, “Every time Charlie starts a game, we’re afraid he might calcify right there on the mound."
Knuckleballer Tom Candiotti shook his head -- he knows the feeling.
“In 1991, I had a 2.65 ERA, I think I lost the ERA title to Roger Clemens by a few points," said Candiotti, who won 151 games in his major league career. “I had a good year. I was a free agent after the season. Every team we talked to, we talked about my numbers, and they said, 'Well, you’re a knuckleballer. Well, you’re a knuckleballer. Well, you’re a knuckleballer.’ It was disrespectful. People think it’s a freak pitch. I’ve heard people say that we should outlaw the knuckleball; they say it should be illegal. That’s ridiculous. If you put R.A.’s numbers next to four great pitchers last year, [Justin] Verlander, Felix [Hernandez] and others, and didn't tell anyone whose numbers were whose, you might take R.A.'s numbers until you match the numbers with the pitcher. Then you’d say, 'Nope, I'm going with Felix, or whoever' because R.A. is a knuckleballer."
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Mount Rushmore of knuckleballers, minus R.A. Dickey: From the left, Wilbur Wood, Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough.
Wakefield nodded his head in agreement.
“Same thing happened to me, that's what stinks about it. It’s a pitch that no one trusts because so few people throw it," he said. “To me, a knuckleball pitcher is a pitcher and a half because we can start, pitch in relief, pitch any time, but when it came time for arbitration, that didn’t do me any good. A knuckleballer is such a valuable asset, but no one wants to take a chance on one. Charlie [Hough] told me a story from 1981 where the starting pitcher on his team got hurt, and the opposing GM told him he was starting that night. Charlie said, 'Really?' He threw a three-hit shutout, then later that week, the Rangers called up someone to replace him in the rotation. Charlie said, ‘What do I have to do?'"
The Mets traded Dickey to the Blue Jays in the offseason because they needed a young catcher (Travis d’Arnaud, who one scout said reminds him of Buster Posey) and because they knew they weren’t going to a win for a couple of years, so it didn’t make sense to pay a 38-year-old pitcher. Each argument was legitimate, but the Mets offered Dickey $25 million for two years, roughly $57 million less than what the Tigers gave Anibal Sanchez.
But it’s not just Dickey; it’s basically all knuckleballers in baseball history. Wilhelm won 143 games, saved 227 games, had a 2.52 ERA and made eight All-Star teams, but it took him eight tries before he was elected to the Hall of Fame. For a five-year period, 1964 to 1968, Wilhelm had an ERA under 2.00 each year, and allowed only 340 hits in 539 innings. “At his best," said Paul Richards, a former major league catcher and executive, “I’m not sure I ever saw a pitcher that was harder to hit than Hoyt Wilhelm. No one could hit that man."
It took Niekro six tries to get to Cooperstown even though he won 318 games, the 11th most since 1900. He won his 300th game on the final day of the 1985 season, throwing only one knuckleball in an 8-0 shutout of the Blue Jays. Had he retired after that game, he would have had an ERA of 3.23. But the lasting impression of Phil Niekro for some is him pitching poorly at age 48, looking like an old man throwing a trick pitch as his ERA grew to 3.35. The more accurate impression is Niekro at age 34 in 1975 for Atlanta, winning 20 games, posting a 2.38 ERA in 302 innings -- a pitcher no one could really hit.
Wood is known for starting both games of a doubleheader, as would a slow-pitch softball pitcher, instead of a guy who won 90 games in a four-year period, and won 22 games with a 1.91 ERA in 1971, only to lose the Cy Young that year to a rookie comet named Vida Blue.
Hough won 216 games, had 107 complete games, 13 shutouts and 61 saves -- since saves were made official in 1969, Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz are the only other pitchers to record at least 13 shutouts and 61 saves. Hough was one of the best and funniest guys I ever covered. When the Rangers hired Tom House as their pitching coach, and he had them strengthen their shoulders by throwing footballs, I asked Hough whether it was working. He said, “I don’t know, but we lead the league in third-down conversions." Hough got mad at me only once, when, in 1982, I asked, "Why don’t more pitchers throw a knuckleball?"
“Why don't more pitchers throw 95 mph?!" he yelled. “Because it's really hard to do."
Wakefield won 200 games, 186 with Boston. He started more games than any pitcher in the history of the Red Sox, and in that rich tradition, only Roger Clemens and Cy Young won more games. And yet, Wakefield was often the odd guy out, the guy who had to go to the bullpen, the guy who had to make the spot start when the starter got hurt warming up. “Wake saved us in Game 3 [of the LCS] against the Yankees in 2004," former Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "We were getting killed. I couldn't use any of my other pitchers because I might need them for Game 4 and beyond. Wake came to me in the third inning and volunteered to pitch when he shouldn’t have. He saved the 'pen. We won the series."
Wakefield was a subpar minor league first baseman when he took up the knuckleball. Most knuckleballers have a similar story. Hough was signed as a third baseman, got hurt, and developed a knuckleball. Daniel Boone, a direct descendant of the famous Daniel Boone, weighed 140 pounds. He pitched in 1981-82, then made a brief comeback as a knuckleballer in 1990 with the Orioles. “I suggested on nights that he pitched, we should have Coonskin Cap Night," said Brewers GM Doug Melvin, then an executive in Baltimore. "I was told to stay out of marketing." Boone was once asked about the great and courageous Daniel Boone, and what it was like to be related to him. Young Daniel Boone said, “I bet he didn't have the courage to throw a knuckleball on 3-2 with the bases loaded."
“Josh Booty, 37, a former quarterback at LSU, flamed out as a third baseman after being drafted by Marlins. He recently won "The Next Knuckler" contest that earned him a spot as a non-roster knuckleball pitcher for the Diamondbacks. He has worked with Candiotti. "He threw some bullpens for me, and he’d say, 'I can throw some good ones, but I just can’t get it right every time,'" Candiotti said. “I had to tell him, 'Josh, it’s not that easy. Guys have taken decades to try to throw that pitch. You can't just pick it up and go.'"
I wish I could have thrown it 80 [mph] like him. He is doing great things for knuckleball pitchers. He has added validity to it with his Cy Young. He'll be great in the AL East.”-- Tim Wakefield on R.A. Dickey
Wakefield worked with Booty and other contestants, including Doug Flutie. “R.A. told those guys, ‘I don't envy you guys, you are trying to do something in about two weeks that it took me five years to figure out,'" Wakefield said. “That’s how hard that pitch is."
No one worked harder at it than Dickey. And now it seems he has found a way to throw it harder -- nearly 80 mph -- than almost any knuckleballer maybe ever has. “I wish I could have thrown it as hard as he does, but I wasn’t blessed with that velocity," Wakefield said. “I wish I could have thrown it 80 [mph] like him. He is doing great things for knuckleball pitchers. He has added validity to it with his Cy Young. He’ll be great in the AL East."
Dickey also has found a way to throw it at times exactly where he wants instead of just letting it fly and hoping it moves. “I love what R.A. is doing now," Candiotti said. "He is his own guy. He’s good. He's different. How can you not root for a guy like that? Plus, he can throw it for a long, long time. I pitched until 41. Phil was 48. Wakefield was 45. Hoyt was 49. Charlie was 46. Most pitchers lose velocity on their fastball as they get older. They lost a little depth on their curveball, a little snap on their slider. It doesn't work that way with a knuckleball pitcher. They can still be effective pitching in their 40s."
Dickey started Monday against the Red Sox, his first appearance as a member of the Blue Jays. Steven Wright, a young knuckleball pitcher, started for the Red Sox. It was quite a day: two knuckleballers randomly starting against each other, with another knuckleballer, Wakefield, watching from the side. But Dickey gave up two runs and three hits, plus a wild pitch, in the first inning. It was just a tuneup, a day to get in some work, but you know that somewhere, if not in many places, there were skeptics saying, “You see, I told you so."
Such is the unfair life of a knuckleball pitcher.