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April 5, 2007
Doctoring The Numbers
It's no secret that I'm a fan of the knuckleball and the men who throw it. Among the many clues I have left in my wake, the most obvious is the time I ignored the objections of a few…okay, all of my colleagues, and attached Charlie Zink to the bottom of our Top 50 Prospects list three years ago. Fortunately, Zink has gone on to great and glorious success since then, completely vindicating my faith in him.
You might think that the...stagnation of Zink's career would have dimmed my enthusiasm for the knuckleball. If so, you vastly underestimate the tenacity of my opinions, which ranks somewhere between "stubborn" and "completely pig-headed." Zink is a setback; he is also a sample size of one. (He's also now only 27 years old, which means that as a knuckleballer, he's about 10 years away from his prime.)
All of which I mention as an explanation for why, on the second Sunday in March, with the 19th pick in my Strat-o-matic league's annual rookie draft (one of the strongest drafts in the league's 16-year history), I used my first overall selection to take another knuckling Charlie, last name Haeger. The next pick was Andrew Miller; pitchers like Jeremy Sowers and Adam Loewen were still over a dozen picks away.
My selection of Haeger was met with the chatroom equivalent of crickets; I was not privy to the chatroom equivalent of snickering that was no doubt being relayed by private messaging. (In my defense, I had previously traded my second- and third-round picks; there was no chance of grabbing Haeger later in the draft.)
Joe Sheehan, who has been my Strat archrival since 1993, tried his best to cheer me up: "I didn't have Haeger in my Top 40." His opinion concurs with that of Kevin Goldstein, who refused to rank Haeger among our Top 100 Prospects despite no end of whiny pleading on my part. I learned a valuable lesson from this: I learned that I really shouldn't have traded my second-round pick to Joe a year ago. But I also learned that there's a disconnect between my evaluation of Haeger, and those of a lot of really smart people whose opinions I respect.
And I think I know why that is. I think Charlie Haeger has failed to grab people's attention for two reasons. First, because he insists on going by "Charlie" instead of "Chuck." Seriously, Chuck Haeger? How could he miss with a name like that? Major league hitters digging in to face Chuck Haeger for the first time would all be geared up to hit the first fastball ever to break through the sound barrier-because as we all know, virtually all major leaguers have a strong background in aviation history-and then invariably swing three times through the 67-mph knuckler that floats by. Think of the endorsement potential! We could nickname his pitch "The Flight Stuff"! I'm telling you, this is gold, Jerry, gold!
Second, and more seriously, Haeger gets overlooked because he is almost without peer in the modern annals of major league baseball. It's this second point that I really want to write about today.
Let's start with a quick recap of Haeger's career: he was drafted out of high school in the 25th round as a conventional pitcher, only to be chased out of the minors after two seasons when it became clear that there was a good reason why he wasn't drafted until the 25th round. A year later, having learned that playing golf at Madonna College wasn't nearly as much fun as playing baseball for a living, he returned to the White Sox-still just 20 years old-armed with a knuckleball pitch he had perfected during his time off.
Thus equipped, he shot through the minors like he had been launched by Robert Goddard. He made fewer than 15 appearances at each level before promoted to the next, and worked his way from rookie ball to Triple-A in two years. A year ago at this time, he was already widely considered to be the best knuckleball prospect since Tim Wakefield. A 3.07 ERA in Triple-A did nothing to change that perception, nor did a September callup (11 innings, four hits, 15 strikeouts) that washed away the bad taste of his six-walk, six-run major league debut on May 10th.
About that debut…Haeger was 22 years, seven months, and 21 days old when he made his first appearances in the major leagues as a knuckleball pitcher. At the same age, the majority of the most successful knuckleball pitchers in baseball history had not even learned to throw the pitch yet ; most of them did not throw it in the majors until their late 20s. Hoyt Wilhelm, pitch-for-pitch the greatest knuckler of them all, was three months shy of his thirtieth birthday before he threw his first major league pitch. Tom Candiotti was 25 when he debuted, but didn't start throwing the knuckleball until after a minor league sabbatical two years later; by the time he returned in 1986, he was nearly 29 years old.
There's a good reason why most knuckleball pitchers debut later in life-the knuckleball is a notoriously difficult pitch to perfect, and an imperfectly-thrown knuckleball is a batting-practice fastball. The Niekro brothers are a perfect illustration of this. Both of them learned the knuckleball from their father as teenagers. Phil committed to it as his ticket to the major leagues straight out of high school, yet he still didn't reach the majors until he was 25, and he was used mostly as a long reliever until he was 28. Joe's conventional repertoire got him to the majors at the age of 22, but only after joining the Braves at age 30 and working with his brother did the knuckleball become the primary weapon in his arsenal.
So how unusual is Haeger's success at such a young age? Well, after consulting The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers-as indispensable a book as there is in my library-I checked the records of all 70 knuckleball pitchers listed, as well as a few more that I found through a web search.
A number of pitchers that would later be regarded as "knuckleball pitchers" debuted at a young age; virtually all of them reached the majors as traditional pitchers and only started throwing the knuckler later. Wilbur Wood, for instance, was in the majors at 19, but he only started throwing the knuckleball after he joined the White Sox (and spent a year in the minors), at the age of 25.
In the history of baseball, only two pitchers have ever toiled in the major leagues at a younger age than Haeger with a knuckleball as a major part of their repertoire. Eddie Rommel made his major league debut at 22 years, seven months, and six days-but as Neyer/James note, the knuckler was not his primary pitch at the beginning of his career. Rommel was quoted in 1923 (his fourth major league season) that, "roughly speaking, I throw a knuckleball one out of three tries on the slab. The remaining two tries will be about evenly divided between curves and fast balls." That same year, his manager, Connie Mack, explained that "[Rommel's] knuckle ball is a very effective delivery. He didn't use it much when he first came to the club, but last year he perfected it so much that it was valuable to him."
By comparison, Haeger throws maybe 80-85% knucklers, mixing in a mid-80s fastball and a curveball every now and then. Which means that, to the best of my knowledge, there has been only one knuckleball pitcher in history who reached the majors faster than Haeger: Charlie Hough was 22 years, seven months, and seven days old when he debuted, two weeks younger than Haeger was. Hough was kind enough to speak to me about his experience, and seemed genuinely surprised when I told him he appeared to be youngest knuckleball pitcher in major league history.
Hough was drafted out of high school as an eighth rounder in 1966 as much for his hitting skills as for his conventional repertoire on the mound. He was sent to Ogden, where his manager (some guy named Lasorda) decided that his future was on the mound. Hough was effective enough that he reached Triple-A the following year. "But then I started having arm problems and couldn't throw hard enough anymore," Hough said, and after a pair of lackluster seasons in Albuquerque, Lasorda suggested he "try something new." Another coach recommended the knuckleball and taught him how to throw it, and he took to the pitch immediately. "I threw the pitch for the first time in September 1969, and within a year I was in the big leagues, and I hadn't a clue what I was doing," Hough joked.
When asked if he still mixed in his other pitchers after he arrived, Hough replied, "I didn't have those pitches anymore. See my ERA that first year? That came from my fastball." (Hough had a 5.29 ERA in 17 innings after he debuted in September 1970, and also gave up seven home runs in that span.)
To put it bluntly: what Charlie Haeger has already done-reached the major leagues before his 23rd birthday while throwing knuckleballs almost exclusively-is almost unprecedented. It also strongly suggests he has a bright future, at least if the company he keeps is any indication. Hough pitched 25 years in the majors, and won 216 games despite working in relief the first half of his career (he made just 23 starts in his first 12 seasons).
Rommel went 171-119 in his career, with a 3.57 ERA pitching in the high-octane offensive era of the 1920s and early 30s. His playing career ended in 1932, at age 34, though as late as 1931 he posted a 2.97 ERA. This somewhat hasty end for a knuckleballer no doubt had something to do with the fact that on July 10th of 1934, Mack called on Rommel (who was mostly a reliever at that point) to start the second inning of a game against the Indians, and he was still out there when the A's finally won in the 18th inning. Only two pitchers had been taken the train with the rest of the club for the one-day road trip to Cleveland. Rommel's arm never recovered from that, although he went on to eventually serve as an AL umpire for 22 years.
The only other knuckler who reached the majors before turning 23 was Eddie Fisher, who was an underrated reliever for most of his 15-year career that ended in 1973, finishing with a solid 34.1 WARP.
At the same age that Haeger was when he appeared with the White Sox last year, Charlie Zink had just made his debut-his minor league debut as a knuckleball pitcher. When he was this age, Tim Wakefield's first minor league pitch was still a few months away. The knuckler was still just a dream in the minds of Jared Fernandez, Dennis Springer, and Steve Sparks.
None of this is to say that Haeger is destined for a long and successful career, because we know that youthful success is no guarantee of a long career for pitchers as a whole, certainly not the way it is for hitters. But it certainly can't hurt, especially seeing as how the thing that trips up most young pitchers-they pitch too much, too soon, and blow out their arms-is not nearly as much of a concern with knuckleball pitchers.
Let's take a look at Haeger's stat line since he returned from his brief retirement:
Year Level W L ERA G GS IP H R ER BB K HR 2004 R 1 6 5.18 10 10 57.1 70 41 33 22 23 6 2004 A- 1 3 2.01 5 5 31.1 31 17 7 12 21 0 2005 A+ 8 2 3.20 14 13 81.2 82 33 29 40 64 3 2005 AA 6 3 3.78 13 13 85.2 84 43 36 45 48 1 2006 AAA 14 6 3.07 26 25 170.0 143 71 58 78 130 9 2006 Maj 1 1 3.44 7 1 18.1 12 10 7 13 19 0
If you were to conjure up numbers for a promising young knuckleball pitcher out of thin air, they would like a lot like the numbers above. Good ERAs despite iffy control and a mediocre strikeout rate? Looks about right, as do the high unearned run totals. (Historically, knuckleball pitchers give up more than their share of unearned runs, thanks to the tendency of their catchers to surrender passed balls.) So does the fact that his 2006 hit total reads like a misprint, because it's so low in comparison to his strikeout rate; perhaps more than any other group, knuckleball pitchers seem to have the ability to keep their BABIP lower than average.
But one column in Haeger's stat line looks out of place. Specifically, his homers allowed column, which looks like it was borrowed from another player: Greg Maddux. Haeger has allowed just 19 home runs in 444 innings since he started throwing the knuckler. Over the last two years, he has allowed just 13 in 356 innings. That's phenomenal for any pitching prospect, even the best pitching prospects in the minor leagues. While it's a small sample size, the fact that Haeger faced 79 major league hitters last year and didn't surrender a single homer-and just one double and one triple-is a good sign that his ability to keep the ball in the park may not be solely a single-deck phenomenon.
By comparison, Felix Hernandez, one of the most impressive pitching prospects of our time, and an extreme groundball pitcher at that, surrendered 14 homers in 306 minor league innings. Haeger's home run rate is on a par with that of King Felix; it's better than Homer Bailey's (12 HR in 255 IP), or Matt Garza's (14 HR in 211 IP), or Francisco Liriano's (32 HR in 484 IP). On the other hand, it's not as good as Philip Hughes, who has given up a mere six bombs in 237 innings.
You expect a pitcher with a great sinking fastball to be difficult to drive for hitters. Not so with the a pitcher who relies on the knuckleball, because even the best knuckleball pitchers can't avoid throwing the occasional knuckler that hangs long enough for hitters to feast on. For example, Tim Wakefield led the AL with 35 homers allowed in 2005, the fourth time in his career he has given up 30 or more homers; on his career, Wakefield has allowed 315 homers in 2432 innings. Wakefield's problems with the gopherball didn't start in the major leagues-in his first full pro season as a knuckleball pitcher, he surrendered 24 homers in 183 innings. Prior to his major league debut, he'd given up 51 homers in 553 innings-a ratio more than twice as high as Haeger's.
When asked about Haeger, Hough replied, "oh, he's got the best knuckleball since I saw a young Wakefield in the minors." When I mentioned that Haeger has been able to keep the ball in the park much more effectively than Wakefield, Hough pondered that for a moment. "Haeger might have a slight advantage over Wakefield, in that he was a pitcher before he started throwing the knuckleball," whereas Wakefield was a converted first baseman. Hough's point was that when Haeger has to throw a strike, he has a few other pitches he can turn to without necessarily risking a cookie over the plate.
Zink, Haeger's minor league contemporary, has surrendered 37 homers in 578 minor league innings. That's a ratio 50% higher than Haeger's. The previous pretenders to Wakefield's throne, Fernandez and Sparks, both gave up around one homer per ten innings in the minor leagues. And let's not even bring up R.A. Dickey's one memorable major league appearance as a knuckleball pitcher. Unfortunately, minor league home run data for Candiotti and the knuckleballers before him are not readily available. So all we can say for certain is that Haeger's ability to keep the ball in the park is significantly better than any other knuckleballer in the past 25 years.
How about a scouting report on Haeger? In the words of Kevin Goldstein, "scouts have a remarkably difficult time" with knuckleball pitchers, which is only fair; scouts aren't selected on their ability to evaluate the knuckleball any more than major leaguers are selected on their ability to hit it. But Goldstein reports that Haeger's knuckleball "is generally seen as the best since Wakefield." When asked how you scout a knuckler from afar, Hough's advice was that the only proven method is to "watch how many times the catcher drops the ball."
None of this is to say that Charlie Haeger is destined, or even likely, to be remembered someday as one of history's finest practitioners of the knuckleball. The pitch is simply far too unpredictable to make such a statement. Haeger has thrown the pitch competitively for less than three years, not much longer than Zink had before everything went south for him.
Hough himself was not at all concerned that Haeger failed to make the White Sox Opening Day roster as a long reliever (Haeger will instead head back to Charlotte to start the year). "It's a lot easier to throw the knuckler as a starter," Hough said, "and another 100 or 200 innings in the minors wouldn't hurt him compared to throwing 30 innings in the bullpen this year." He quotes an old coach who used to tell him of the knuckler, "when you've pitched a thousand innings you'll know what you're doing." There's no substitute for the experience that comes from pure repetition, Hough says, because when a knuckleball pitcher struggles "there aren't a whole lot of guys around who can help you."
For evidence we need to look no further than Wakefield's career. Wakefield was an absolute phenom in his major league debut-he went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in 1992 while not debuting until July 31st, then won Games 3 and 6 in the NLCS as the Pirates came within one pitch of the World Series. The following year, he was 6-11 and his ERA rocketed up to 5.61, and he pitched even worse (6.99 ERA) after a demotion to Triple-A. In 1994, he spent the whole year in Triple-A and lost 15 games, put up a 5.84 ERA, and walked more batters (98) than he struck out (83). The Pirates released him at the end of that year; at that point, Wakefield had thrown 1006 innings in his pro career. You know the rest-he latched on with the Red Sox, and after four starts in Pawtucket in 1995 he made his triumphant return to the majors, going 16-8, 2.95 ERA and finishing third in Cy Young voting. He's been at least an average major league pitcher ever since.
Whether Haeger returns to the White Sox later this month or later this year, whether in long relief or as a starter, he figures to stick in the majors this time. With youth on his side, there's no compelling reason why he won't still be in the majors twenty years from now. Hough himself was still in the majors until he was 46, and he was the Marlins' Opening Day starter in the franchise's first-ever game when he was 45. Phil Niekro made the All-Star team at 45.
There's no guarantee that Haeger will have a longer and more successful career than the far more notable pitchers who debuted last season, but he has a shot. Those of us who love to watch the knuckleball for what it does, and for what it does to the poor men who have to swing at it, have had fewer and fewer pitchers to root for in recent years. The 1945 Washington Senators alone had more quality knuckleballers than we've seen in the majors over the past generation. And with Wakefield entering his 40s, you have to figure he doesn't have more than, oh, seven or eight years left. Finally, we may have found a worthy successor to his mantle, a pitcher who insures that a trick pitch first thrown 100 years ago continues to baffle the finest hitters in the world for decades to come.
Many thanks to Kevin Goldstein for his considerable assistance with this column.