August 29, 2005

TURNING ZINK INTO GOLD:

The knuckleball: a lost art: A masterstroke when on, but teams rarely paint selves in corner developing it (Jack Etkin, August 29, 2005, Rocky Mountain News)

Imagine a pitcher who is practically tireless, capable of working often and can fill a variety of roles. And assume the pitch he relies on puts little strain on his arm, is rarely seen anymore and, at the very least, will be perplexing to hitters.

Considering the dearth of quality pitching, does a possible solution rest in the knuckleball, a trick pitch with few practitioners these days? Should clubs that already go to great lengths to groom conventional pitchers try to develop a knuckleball pitcher?

"We would absolutely love to take a shot at that and we'd be open to it," Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "But one, we'd have to have a kid in the system that showed the aptitude to do it. And not many do, or not many self-evaluate good enough to know that that's what they should try."

Pitchers who successfully throw a knuckleball often have turned to the pitch with a last-chance, fading-hopes mind-set, having realized their stuff is short and their dream of pitching in the majors is about to be derailed. [...]

Hoyt Wilhelm, who was a reliever for basically all but three seasons of a 21-year career that ended two weeks short of his 50th birthday, had a Hall of Fame career throwing a knuckleball.

Phil Niekro, a starter, used his knuckleball to reach that same exalted destiny. His brother, Joe, also parlayed his ability to throw a pitch that fluttered unpredictably into a successful career.

Left-hander Wilbur Wood was a knuckleball specialist in the 1970s. Tom Candiotti, who relied on his knuckleball less than some other devotees of the pitch, ended up winning 151 games and pitching until he was 41 because he perfected the knuckleball.

While pitching at Class AA Jacksonville in the Kansas City Royals system, Candiotti said manager Gene Lamont, a former catcher, insisted he scrap his knuckleball. It was only when Candiotti left the Royals organization and began throwing the pitch that his career took off.

The knuckleball is an invitation to havoc, maybe even disaster. Passed balls, sometimes a slew of them, come with the territory, as catchers stab at knuckleballs that dart unpredictably. The flip side is a knuckleball with little action, an oh-so-slow offering that wafts toward home plate and a batter salivating at something easy to hit.

The pluses are an utterly baffling pitch that can move every which way and destroy a hitter's timing. Knuckleballers have the ability to throw a lot of pitches, work on far less rest and, in short, save a staff.

The Red Sox won the World Series last year. But they wouldn't have gotten there without Wakefield's efforts against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. He pitched 3 1/3 innings in Game 3 of the ALCS, a 19-8 Boston loss, and kept the Red Sox from emptying their bullpen. Wakefield was scheduled to start Game 4 but selfishly opted to pitch a day earlier.

Then in Game 5, Wakefield, with one day of rest, pitched three scoreless innings and was the winning pitcher in Boston's 5-4 victory in 14 innings.

"Whether he's the actual best pitcher on the team - who cares?" Hough said. "But he ends up being one of their key guys every year, whether it's helping out in the bullpen for six weeks or whatever. So when you do happen to stumble into and develop one of those guys, if he's pretty good, there's a huge payoff."

In front-office circles, stumble is not a word typically associated with development, the latter seen as a generally orderly process with little that is haphazard. But it's often different with knuckleballers, where chance and luck weigh heavily and resorting to that pitch might be the only alternative with the real world beckoning.

"It's not worth doing from scratch," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said, referring to developing a knuckleballer. "You'd never draft a guy to be a knuckleball pitcher or sign someone internationally and give someone a lot of money."

Charlie Zink, who turned 26 on Friday, is a converted knuckleballer who has started and relieved this season for Boston's Class AA Portland affiliate, where he made 18 starts last year before being demoted to Class A Sarasota. That's where his season ended in early August when he developed tendinitis in his right shoulder.

"We spend as much time and energy developing Zink as we do all our pitchers," Epstein said. "(Throwing a knuckleball) is a way to get big-league hitters out if you do it the right way. So we don't look at those guys as circus freaks or anything like that. They're just doing it a different way."

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 29, 2005 12:00 AM
Comments

If every AL team had a knuckler or two in the rotation, the Yanks would win about sixty games a year.

Watching ARod et al try and hit Wakefield is pathetic. If the Red Sox were smart they'd start Wakefield every game in the playoffs against the Yanks. They wouldn't have to worry about game 7, or even game 5.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at August 29, 2005 12:09 PM

I remember watching Wilbur Wood pitcing for the White Sox in the 70s. One of the drawbacks a fan was that you had to have a tolerance for the times when the pitch was so good and wild the batters would smarten up and just stand there for ball after ball. I vaguely remember he once walked the bases loaded and then forced in a run with four consecutive walks.

It's too bad Ron Leflore ended his career with a linedrive off his kneecap. Then man probably had the better part of a decade left in him.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 29, 2005 12:51 PM

Bob Uecker once said that the best way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.

Posted by: wopchote at August 29, 2005 5:30 PM

Problem is that no knucleballer is ever a lights out stopper, like a Clemens or Pedro, but they don't really work well unless they work a lot. The best ones have always wanted to start every fourth day, but they are not consistent enough to make them a number one or number 2 starter.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 30, 2005 2:19 AM
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