SweetSpot: Charlie Haeger

No. 5 Starter Watch: Dodgers (and DeWitt)

April, 1, 2010
No fooling: Charlie Haeger's won his spurs. From Dodger Thoughts:
    The Dodgers just broke bottles of champagne on the broadsides of Blake DeWitt and Charlie Haeger, with Joe Torre officially announcing they have been named the team's starting second baseman and No. 5 starting pitcher.

    "Blake DeWitt is our second baseman," Torre told reporters before tonight's exhibition. "Over the long haul, DeWitt needs to play everyday. Belliard and Carroll can play against left-handers ... so we have flexibility. If someone gets hot, we'll find a spot for them.


    "Haeger will be our fifth starter. He can pitch out of the bullpen before that. His versatility is a plus. We'll give him a shot."

DeWitt's already had an interesting career, grabbing the every-day job at third base in 2008 before he was ready, then playing semi-regularly in late September as the Dodgers fought off the Diamondbacks for the division title. Last year he was hurt, and spent most of the season with Albuquerque. I think he'll hit OK, but I'm not sure OK's good enough for a guy who's not proved he can play a decent second base. Statistically speaking. We'll see.

Meanwhile, the main event ... I never really believed Joe Torre would trust a knuckleballer with a slot in the rotation. Not for long, anyway. Haeger got three starts in last August, pitched well in two of them, and was thrown over for Jon Garland; Haeger pitched only three times in September, all short relief outings. Which left me with the distinct impression that Torre, at 69, just wasn't interested in learning a new trick.

I hope I was wrong. We'll see.

No. 5 Starter Watch: Dodgers (and Haeger!)

March, 28, 2010
This news wasn't as good as I'd hoped, upon clicking on a link in a tweet. Via ESPN Los Angeles' Jon Weisman, Joe Torre's Saturday morning quotes:

    "Physically guys are ready, mentally it's tough to remind yourself these games are important. We still have decisions to make not just at second base but the pitching staff as well.

    "[Charlie] Haeger could go five or six today, we're not concerned about building up his endurance. He's done a good job and handled everything we've thrown at him. He can dominate a game when that thing's working. He talked with Charlie Hough about how to pitch in certain environments. Florida should be fine, he said he enjoys pitching indoors too.

    "We've got to figure out our starters and figure it out from there ...

Well, I wouldn't say that Haeger's been anointed yet. The top four are set and No. 5 candidate James McDonald has been demoted already (thanks a lot, mechanical adjustment!), but that still leaves Haeger, Eric Stults, Carlos Monasterios, and (gulp) the two Ortizes, Ramon and Russ.

Stults hasn't pitched well in his two spring starts, and there's talk of trading him. But Haeger hasn't exactly been lights-out, either. Meanwhile, Monasterios and both (improbably enough) both Ortizes have pitched exceptionally well.

My guess is that Monasterios winds up in the bullpen, because 1) he's got exactly seven and one-third innings of professional experience above Class A, but 2) he's a Rule 5 guy, so the Dodgers can't send him to the minors without offering him back to the Phillies.

So that leaves Russ and Ramon, the latter of whom has struck out 19 hitters and walked only four in 14 innings. Of course, he's the same guy who got hammered in Japan in 2008 and pitched in the Pacific Coast League last season, and pitched well but never got the call from the Giants. Same guy whose ERA was 5.47 over his last three seasons in the majors (2005-2007).

I'd take my chances with Haeger, but then I'm not exactly objective on this subject.

Who's the last non-Wakefield knuckleballer to break camp with a spot in the starting rotation? Probably Steve Sparks, who started the Diamondbacks' fifth game in 2004 (and came out of the bullpen for two innings just four days later). Sparks held that No. 5 slot until late July, when he lost it to rookie Lance Cormier (who lost it, two weeks later, to Steve Randolph).

Here's what I like about Charlie Haeger: as knuckleballers go, he's still a baby. Sparks was nearly 30 when he reached the majors. Dennis Springer was 30. Jared Fernandez was 29. Haeger reached the majors at 22. Granted, that was four years ago and he's still looking to earn his first extended shot. Considering his relative youth and his Triple-A numbers, I like his chances. But managers of contending teams don't typically have a great deal of patience, and Haeger might not pitch 200 innings in a season until he finds a lousy team.

Charlie Haeger mixing 'em up

August, 24, 2009
Dave Cameron wrote today about Charlie Haeger, our only real candidate to carry on with the knuckleball after Kid '66 finally hangs 'em up. Money quote:
    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.

Does that seem right to you? Does it really matter much whether a knuckleball pitcher throws his fastball 85 (like Haeger) or 75 (like Wakefield used to)? I suspect that if a major leaguer knows the 85 is coming, he can blast it over the fence just as easily as he can blast a 75 (particularly when you consider that the 85 comes with more energy, and thus more bounciness).

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.

Knuckleballer Haeger back in majors

August, 13, 2009
I wish this bit of news, via Jon Weisman, hadn't escaped me yesterday:
    Charlie Haeger recruited for long relief Wednesday

    Jeff Weaver will start for the Dodgers on Wednesday in place of Chad Billingsley, and Charlie Haeger will replace Eric Stults on the active roster to help back Weaver up, according to word passed along by Dylan Hernandez of The Times.

    A 25-year-old knuckleballer, Haeger has a 3.55 ERA for AAA Albuquerque this season. Last year in the majors, he allowed eight earned runs in 4 1/3 innings.

As it happens, I was watching that game yesterday. Not soon enough to see Bruce Bochy get ejected in the second inning, or soon enough to see the fifth-inning rhubarb. But soon enough to see a bit of shoddy umpiring in the ninth, and soon enough to see Panda lollygag an easy triple into a double. Soon enough, too, to see Juan Uribe's walkoff job in the 10th.

What I didn't get to see -- what I wanted to see -- was Charlie Haeger throwing some long relief. It really should have happened. Jeff Weaver is a sort of swingman now, and hadn't pitched as many as five innings since the 20th of June. Yesterday, Weaver pitched three scoreless innings, after which the parade of relievers began. Eventually, all of them -- James McDonald, Hong-Chih Kuo, Ronald Belisario, Ramon Troncoso, George Sherrill, and Guillermo Mota -- would pitch in the game.

Well, almost all of them. Apparently Haeger is low man on the totem pole, as he alone didn't get into the game. Mota is capable of pitching two innings, so Haeger's chance probably would have come -- if Mota hadn't served up Uribe's home run -- in the 12th.

At the very least, I'd love to see Haeger hang on for another week or so. If Tim Wakefield's Triple-A start goes well this weekend, he'll probably rejoin the Red Sox's rotation next week. And if Haeger's still around, he and Wakefield and R.A. Dickey will make three knuckleballers in the majors at once. Which has happened in recent seasons, but far too briefly. Once we get all three of these guys for good, plus R.J. Swindle ... why, then we'll really have something.

Update: Epic fail! R.A. Dickey, who's pitched terribly over the last month, was sent to Triple-A last weekend to make room for Carl Pavano. It's like the baseball gods just won't allow three knuckleballers at once. Regardless, I'm now pinning my hopes on September ...