With the news that Boston Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright will be called up from AAA Pawtucket as an injury replacement, the MLB knuckleball fraternity has increased in size to…2. The call up will have Wright joining Toronto Blue Jay R.A. Dickey, giving the AL East the quirky privilege of having all of the knuckleballers in the MLB.
As I have alluded to previously, those who throw a knuckler are a rare breed and always seem on the verge of becoming extinct in today’s game. Yet, with the help of their senior brethren – Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Tom Candiotti in particular – those who wish to take the bull by the
knuckles horns, most often in an attempt to rejuvenate a stalled pitching career as a fastballer, do trickle in year-to-year, providing *just enough* new blood for the knuckleballer species to survive.
With Wright on the precipice of attaining the goal of every minor leaguer, regardless of arm slot or pitch repertoire, let’s take a look towards the future, and see who remains to carry the torch in the minors and keep the knuckleballer blood lines alive.
Joseph Zeller – Kane County Class A / Midwest League (Chicago Cubs)
The oddball of this group due to his parent organization (more on that shortly), Zeller is your typical knuckleballer, in that he learned it after his pitching career floundered with a more traditional pitch selection. Topping out at AA affiliate Tennessee in 2012, Zeller appears to have been sent back to Class A Kane County this season to further hone his knuckleballing skill set through the mentoring of the aforementioned 25 year veteran and 216 career game winner Hough.
Zach Staniewicz – unknown (Baltimore Orioles)
The most inspirational story in a group of players already defined by their dedication to the game and to making the most out of their talent and opportunities, Staniewicz was recently signed by the Orioles after a tryout. Looking to get back into the game after a few years in the independent Continental Baseball League, Staniewicz sought the tutelage of Phil Niekro while serving in the Air Force Reserve, honing his knuckler skills as a member of the U.S. Military All-Star team. While still a Baltimore farmhand, he doesn’t appear to be on any of their active minor league rosters and could be getting more one-on-one attention from Niekro at the Orioles spring training facility before officially setting out on his minor league career as a knuckleballer.
Eddie Gamboa – Bowie Class AA / Eastern League (Baltimore Orioles)
Another O’s farmhand, Gamboa piggybacked on to Staniewicz’ training in some ways, taking interest in the knuckling wisdom Niekro had to offer Staniewicz; having played around with a knuckleball on the side for a few years, Gamboa took to the pitch fairly easily. A non-prospect up to this point in his career in spite of solid minor league numbers, the UC-Davis product looked to the pitch as many do, as a way to rejuvenate a stalling career. By the sounds of his first outing as a knuckleballer, the future looks bright for Gamboa, even if he still requires some additional seasoning.
On the surface a dying breed, the knuckleball remains alive and kicking in the minors, even with the deserved defection of one of their own to the bigs in the form of Wright. While it doesn’t enjoy the numbers and appeal as a pitching style that it did up until the 1970’s, its novelty will always be alluring to those who are looking for a way – any way – to get batters out. As the family lines are extended by the likes of the gentlemen discussed, they are nonetheless threatened by the lack of older heads to teach the pitch and keep the progeny line moving.
Even with thinning numbers of knuckleballers in the game, the baseball world keeps spinning – in spite of the knuckler’s best efforts.
No matter how you look at it, RA Dickey‘s career has been nothing short of remarkable. From a fireballing first round draft pick of the Texas Rangers after an illustrious collegiate career at the University of Tennessee to the knuckleballing Cy Young Award winner we see in front of us today, Dickey’s career path has been rife with detours and lessons in perseverance. Those lessons have been at the hands of the ulnar collateral ligament that he does not have in his pitching elbow – a fact learned after a team doctor noticed Dickey’s arm hanging in an odd fashion in a picture shoot for a Baseball America cover, prompting an exam, and revealing the lack of ligament.
In spite of the missing hardware, Dickey has made quite a name for himself after an inspiring metamorphosis into a knuckleballer, culminating in adding some baseball hardware to his collection, in the form of the NL Cy Young Award last year. His baseball rejuvenation has been performed with style and aplomb, and in a way opposite that of most knuckleballers in MLB history. It has been noted by many that Dickey’s knuckleball is one of the hardest thrown ever, and adds to the effectiveness and mystique of Dickey’s pitching repertoire, and to the awe induced by these kinds of results:
A quick table, courtesy of Texas Leaguers, shows us the ‘career’ PITCHf/x data of the 3 knuckleballers that have made MLB appearances since the technology was installed and data was offered to the public, around 2007. As you can imagine, data is scarce, not only because there are so few knuckleballers, but because the technology is so new; as an aside, it would be a real treat to see PITCHf/x data on some old timers, like the Niekros, Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough, and Hoyt Wilhelm. Next lifetime, I suppose. On to the table!
|Player||Type||Count||Velocity||Vertical||Horizontal||Spin Angle||Spin Rate|
As we see, his average knuckleball velocity is quite faster than Tim Wakefield or Charlie Haeger, but I want to focus on the reasonably large disparities between Dickey’s knuckleball spin angle and spin rates. While I don’t confess to being either a PITCHf/x or physics guru, it did set off a bell in my head.
Could RA Dickey’s success with the knuckleball, along with his ability to throw it with such great velocity and at the spin angle and rate he does, be a result of his not having a UCL in his pitching elbow?
The UCL is a critical piece of anatomy in baseball, as it provides the lion’s share of stability to the elbow in athletic activities, like swinging a bat or throwing a ball. It is considered a valgus stabilizer, which is fancy medico-speak meaning the UCL helps keep the elbow in place, and not become displaced away from the midline of the body. If you can imagine your arms resting at your sides, it’s the UCL that prevents your arms being splayed outwards at the elbow.
With that in mind, and looking at the PITCHf/x data, in particular the spin angles and rates, we can see where possibly this increased anatomical freedom at the elbow joint could provide Dickey with an advantage in throwing the knuckleball, a pitch that is notorious to master, due to the necessity of the pitcher to minimize wrist flexion in order to produce the ‘spin free’ results that are desired. Could additional laxity of the elbow joint be somehow advantageous, possibly in the deceleration phase, and give the pitch a little more oomph, not only from a velocity perspective, but also from a pitch movement perspective? I leave it as an open-ended question, and welcome smarter folks than I to provide their thoughts and input.
Sometimes less can be more; for Dickey, his career less a UCL had given him more. More velocity, notoriety, and accolades than his fellow knuckler brethren ever garnered in their careers.
As you might have seen by now, the Toronto – Cleveland game yesterday was highlighted by a, shall we say, enthusiastic Jays fan, whose terrifying pleasure of grabbing a bat, courtesy of Indians’ infielder Jason Kipnis’ slip of the grip, has been making the rounds. For those link click averse, here’s our fella:
Of course! It’s Stuart – the Scottish patriarch of the McKenzie family from the cult classic movie, So I Married An Axe Murderer!
But you probably already knew that, ya smart arses….
If you’ve read this blog with any frequency, you’ll know that I am enamoured with lefty pitchers. Can’t get enough of ’em*. I am also a sucker for a good baseball ‘underdog’ story. 239048th round draft pick who goes on to win MVP? It just got a little dusty in here. Born club footed, but persevered to not only play, but win a stolen base title? YES.
Old lefthander, back in a big league camp, and making waves? OH YES.
While spring training is normally a bit of a slog, this preseason has been a bit more interesting to follow due to the stories of redemption for four lefthanders – 3 former MLB level pitchers and a former outfielder making the conversion to a pitcher. All have had varying levels of success in the past, but find themselves years removed from their last big league appearance, and wearing a high double-digit number in spring training, as non roster invitees. Let’s meet our old friends, shall we?
Scott Kazmir, Cleveland
A 2-time All Star while a starter for the Tampa Rays, Kazmir is easily the most high-profile return from oblivion story of the 2013 preseason. Having made a nice splash in spring training with Cleveland as one part of the Indians plan of trying to catch lightning in the bottle one last time with a former AL East starter (the other being Daisuke Matsuzaka) in an effort to bulk up their starting rotation, Kazmir has already been given the #5 slot in the rotation. While his early 2013 numbers are impressive – a 13 K/BB ratio against 9.2 OppQual opponents per Baseball Reference – his propensity to give up his share of hits, as evidenced by his 12.5 H/9 ratio and 1.46 WHIP, apparently remains from his Tampa and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim days. In spite of this, it is the return of his fastball velocity this spring that has people hopeful that Kazmir can make a triumphant return to the MLB, after 5 IP with the Angels in 2011, and a sojourn to the wilds of Independent League baseball with the Sugarland Skeeters.
Nate Robertson, Texas
A former starter for the Florida Marlins and Detroit Tigers with ‘meh’ results (career 89 ERA+ and 1.85 K/BB ratio), Robertson nonetheless provided consistent and serviceable innings, to the tune of an average of 31 starts and 191 innings per season, until being released by the Marlins in 2010. While already asked by the Texas Rangers to accept a minor league assignment, the reassignment shouldn’t be misconstrued as a demotion, as Robertson pitched well in spring training, and did so free of the elbow problems that plagued his previous career, and also with a more sidearm delivery. While stats are sparse on Robertson with his new delivery, it can be expected that the opportunity to pitch a few innings as a LOOGY a la Javier Lopez or Clay Rapada, and be a low BABIP, high ground ball rate pitcher is ripe, and that it is simply a numbers and waiting game that is between him and a spot in a MLB bullpen.
Mark Hendrickson, Baltimore
No stranger to the Oriole bullpen, Hendrickson finds himself back in Charm City, which was where we last saw him in a major league uniform, in 2011. Your textbook lefthanded journeyman, Hendrickson, much like Robertson, is looking to make a return to the MLB after a couple of years away, and a revamping of his delivery to a more sidearm release point. Historically, Hendrickson has been a low K/9, pitch to contact type of pitcher, who greatly depends on his defense to hoover up any would be hits, and things are no different now. However, he does look to add more deception and a little more movement to his mid to high-80s fastball and curve combo with a drop in his release point; with this and his 6’9″ stature, Hendrickson has the potential to become a more effective reliever than what he has been historically, inducing ground balls at a rate greater than his career 44% clip, and making lefthanded hitters a little more uncomfortable in the box while facing him. This will come more than likely after a stint in the minor leagues to further hone his delivery, and become more consistent with the new release point. If this spring has shown anything, it’s that Hendrickson is still not completely comfortable with the lower release point, and does tend to drift up to a more 3/4 delivery at times, making him more hittable and prone to a big inning.
Jason Lane, Minnesota
Probably the most intriguing of the four, Lane looks to come back not only at a different position, but also from the longest amount of time away from the big leagues. When we last saw Lane, he was patrolling the outfield for the Houston Astros, primarily in right field. Somewhat overlooked due to the success of teammates at the time, who included Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell, Lane’s most prolific season was the NL Championship 2005 season, hitting 26 HR and enjoying a 109 OPS+. After a couple of at bats with the San Diego Padres to finish up his 2007 season, Lane was granted free agency, and went on to bounce around the minors for a couple of teams, notably the Toronto Blue Jays. While with the Jays, Lane was occasionally called upon to toe the rubber when he wasn’t playing in the field, with mixed results. After spending the 2012 season with Arizona AAA affiliate Reno, again splitting his innings between the field and the mound, the Minnesota Twins offered him a minor league deal and an invite to spring training. While his professional successes have come from his bat, Lane has always had a good, live arm, and was actually the winning pitcher in the championship game of the 1998 College World Series, as a USC Trojan. This spring training has been a mixed bag for Lane, who shows a good, low 90s fastball with a serviceable curve ball, as he continues to make the transition to a full-time pitcher, and gain command of the strike zone. If his limited minor league numbers are any indication, look for Lane to be an above average K/9 guy, who will give up his share of hits, but will do so without having too many leave the ballpark. Out of sheer coincidence, Lane’s traverse back to the bigs also included a stop in Sugarland, much like Kazmir.
While the odds are against them to fully regain the glory of their younger years, each of these four portsiders are a testament to the resilience of their spirit and their willingness to persevere. Their spring training stories are also a testament to the notion that if you’re lefthanded and have a pulse, you’ll always have a job in baseball.
Cynicism aside, you can’t keep a good man down, handedness be damned.
*Except for Norm Charlton