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July 14, 2004

Are Knuckleballers Easy to Relieve?

...And Other Pressing Issues of Our Time

by Michael Wolverton

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Today we dip into the mailbag to cover a number of topics related to recent columns. First, a question stemming from the article on starters' support from relievers:

I noticed Phil Niekro and Steve Sparks are both on the list of most-helped starters. I would hypothesize that knuckleballing starters are 'easier' to help out than their straight-throwing brethren because of the extreme difference in speed/movement between a knuckler and a typical reliever's mid-90 mph heat. What do you think?

--S.S. (no, not Steve Sparks)

Good theory. Many other readers were wondering the same thing, and sure enough...

                       Ex.   Act.  Runs
Pitcher         Rnrs   IR     IR   Saved
Phil Niekro     366   139.6  112   27.6
Steve Sparks    105    36.3   19   17.3
Wilbur Wood     213    83.2   72   11.2
Charlie Hough   316   110.8  102    8.8
Dennis Springer  73    30.5   27    3.5
Tim Wakefield   145    57.0   56    1.0
Tom Candiotti   208    75.8   76   -0.2
Joe Niekro      370   130.6  133   -2.4
TOTAL          1796   663.8  597   66.8

Four knuckleballers got good or great bullpen support, the other four are essentially average, and the bottom two guys on the list (Tom Candiotti and Joe Niekro) are also the least knuckleball-ish.

Eight pitchers aren't enough to prove anything definitively, especially when the effect is so small to begin with. But based on the evidence we have, it looks like there's something to the relieving-a-knuckleballer-is-easier theory.

Next, a letter about bad bullpens:

I am shocked that no Royals team of the last five-six years made the list of all-time bad bullpens. These guys fight fire with jet fuel. I suspect if you looked for the worst bullpen over five consecutive years my boys would win hands down.


I feel your pain. When you're watching your team's relievers self-destruct night after night, it's hard to believe that anyone's ever been worse. But rest assured, there have been plenty of fans who have suffered more from their bullpens than you've suffered at the hands of the Royals. Here are the worst five-year stretches for bullpens, by Runs Prevented:

Team                      Years       RP
Philadelphia Phillies   1926-1930    -292
San Diego Padres        1973-1977    -234
St. Louis Browns        1936-1940    -230
Philadelphia Athletics  1938-1942    -228
Philadelphia Phillies   1938-1942    -228
New York Mets           1962-1966    -227
St. Louis Browns        1947-1951    -222
Houston Astros          1965-1969    -207
Washington Senators     1954-1958    -205
Washington Senators     1946-1950    -193

Philadelphians had to suffer through several long periods of bullpen ineptitude in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, both from the Phillies and the A's. Even in recent years, Royals fans haven't endured nearly as much as Tigers fans, who've had awful bullpens most years since 1991. If it makes you feel any better, 1999 to 2003 is the worst five-year stretch for any Royals bullpen.

Here are the best five-year stretches:

Team                      Years        RP
Anaheim Angels          1999-2003     270
New York Yankees        1996-2000     193
Oakland Athletics       1988-1992     172
Chicago White Sox       1964-1968     171
Cleveland Indians       1992-1996     169
Atlanta Braves          1998-2002     169
Cincinnati Reds         1986-1990     164
Minnesota Twins         1999-2003     163
Colorado Rockies        1997-2001     161
Texas Rangers           1995-1999     155

The recent Angels show up as having by far the best bullpen of all-time. That's pretty impressive since the bullpen has turned over completely in the past five years, from the Al Levine/Mike Magnante pen of 1999 to the Brendan Donnelly/Francisco Rodriguez pen of 2003.

Next, a question stemming from the California League articles, part 1 and part 2:

I'm having a debate on a message board about if Nelson Cruz is a legit prospect. He leads the league in average and has an OPS over 1.000, but is almost 23 (or 24 depending where you check), strikes out too much and doesn't walk enough. Any thoughts after seeing him?


Unfortunately, I didn't manage to see Cruz during his short stint in High-A ball. After murdering California League pitching to the tune of .345/.407/.582 and a .325 EqA--he's still on Clay Davenport's California League leader board--he was promoted to Double-A Midland.

It's hard to completely dismiss Cruz as a prospect, despite some red flags. Besides the California League line I mentioned, there are other positive bullets on his resume:

  • 20 HRs, .192 ISO in the Midwest League last year

  • None of his impressive offensive lines have come from repeating a level.

  • Beane traded for him. I know, just Jorge Velandia, but they wouldn't make a special effort to get him if they didn't see something they liked.

  • He's listed at 6'3", 175 lbs., which makes you think there's room for him to fill out a bit.

However, those bullets looked a lot better when I thought he had just turned 23. And why not think that? He's listed as having a July 1, 1981 birthday by both the Oakland A's media guide and (until the recent promotion) the Modesto A's Web site. But Brian VanderBeek of the Modesto Bee confirms that it's been known for a couple of years that Cruz's birthday is actually a year earlier, making him 24. That year makes a pretty big difference for a guy in the California League. And, for what it's worth, he's gotten off to a slow start in the Texas League: .194/.275/.371 in 62 AB

The bottom line: You can't completely ignore a guy with that kind of power, but at his age, he has a lot to prove at the higher levels, and not a lot of time to prove it.

Finally, a question about an unusual pitching accomplishment by this year's Mets:

I have a Mets blog where I noted that, going into Friday's games, the Mets had the lowest ERA in the league while also getting the fewest strikeouts. They've succeeded by giving up singles only. My question is whether any team has ever finished a season first in ERA and last in strikeouts.


Believe it or not, it's been accomplished three times since 1900, the last time by the 1956 Milwaukee Braves. The Braves were led by Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, neither of whom was a great strikeout pitcher. In fact, all their ERA-title-qualifying pitchers that year finished in the bottom half of the league in strikeout rate.

The other two teams to accomplish the feat were the 1937 Boston Braves and the 1908 Cleveland Indians.

Related Content:  Joe Niekro

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