Charlie Haeger mixing 'em up
- Saturday's start was a bit different than his first one, however. In his season debut against St. Louis on the 17th, just two of his 80 pitches were fastballs. He went almost exclusively with the knuckler, and it worked. His second time out, he worked in 14 fastballs, mixing speeds a bit more and giving hitters a different look. Unlike most knuckleball specialists, Haeger's fastball actually can be described as one without being ironic.
He throws it between 81 and 87, and I've seen him as high as 89 in the minor leagues. If Tim Wakefield ever threw a pitch at 89 MPH, Jerry Remy would fall out of his chair. Having a fastball that can be described as "just below average” in velocity sets Haeger apart from others who practice the knuckler.
Is he the next Wakefield? Probably not. But I think we're all hoping he will be. His fastball will be a big key in seeing just how far he can go.
Granted, if the goal is deception, 85 might work better than 75. Granted, too, Haeger certainly wouldn't be the first "knuckleball pitcher" to occasionally rely on other pitches. When Phil Niekro won his 300th game in 1985, he didn't throw a single knuckleball until the last batter. When Tom Candiotti arrived in the majors, he threw plenty of fastballs and curveballs with his knuckleballs.
But Niekro's 300th came against a lineup full of scrubs, and if he could have done that earlier in his career with any frequency, he probably would have. As for Candiotti, after struggling in his second season with the Indians, he returned to the minors to hone his knuckleball ... and returned to the majors the next year (1986) with Phil Niekro as his tutor.
Right or wrong, the standard take for some decades has been that a knuckleball pitcher has to rely almost exclusively on his knuckleball. Maybe it's because of that popular old saw that says you should never get beat with your second-best pitch. Either way, there's really only one big key in seeing how far Charlie Haeger can go, and that's how many bats -- and even more, how many sweet spots of bats -- he can miss with his knuckleball.
The rest is mostly details.