Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Knuckling down

Tim Wakefield on Monday pitched
seven innings against the Twins, allowing
three earned runs, striking out five
and walking none. 
I'd rather not see the Twins lose, but if they had to lose Monday night I would have preferred to see Tim Wakefield get the "W." No luck there, either; the veteran knuckleballer left with the lead, but Alfredo Aceves vultured the decision.

So we still don't have a truly active 200-game winner. Wakefield is stuck on 199.

Watching him toss his flutterball got me to pondering, once more, the apparently dying knuckleball. When I started paying attention to baseball (1969) there were quite a few accomplished knuckleballers — future Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm, plus guys like Wilbur Wood (the rare left-handed knucklerballer) and Eddie Fisher — and a few others, such as Jim Bouton, throwing the pitch without great distinction.

Today there's Wakefield, 45 and clearly near the end of his career, and R.A. Dickey, whose record this season with the Mets doesn't look as strong as last season on the surface but really isn't that much worse.

The Twins had Dickey in 2009, and he gave them a half season of good work, then deteriorated rapidly. The Mets have used him almost strictly as a starter, and he's been pretty effective.

Dickey's 36, which is normally a bad sign. But it's a rare knuckleballer who flourishes before age 30. They start late and finish even later. I suspect the pitch requires a sense of fatalism a 20-something hasn't developed. Nobody really controls the knuckleball. The pitcher lets it go and hopes it does something between his hand and the bat.

Which is why knuckleballers are the last to get a chance. Managers like to be in control. We'll pitch this guy inside, that guy outside, and don't throw this one a breaking pitch in the strike zone. There's no control with a knuckleball.

Right now, Dickey is the future of the pitch, although I'm still holding out some hope for Charlie Haeger, who's only 27 and has had some moments in the bigs. None of those moments have come this year, however, and he's not fared well in Triple A this season.

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