Red Sox pitcher Charlie Zink is a rarity among pitchers: a 24-year-old knuckleballer. As a traditional pitcher in the Sally League, Zink put up a 1.68 ERA in relief in 2002 before the big club converted him to a full-time knuckleball pitcher. Zink posted a 3.90 ERA in High-A last year before improving on that with a 3.43 ERA in 39 innings at Double-A. This year, he cracked BP’s Top 50 Prospects list. We sat down with Zink last week before a road game against the New Britain Rock Cats, and asked him about life as one of baseball’s rarest breeds.
Baseball Prospectus: Your college career took you from California to a small Division III school in Georgia, and you even flirted with a pro golf career. How did you get your start in pro baseball?
Charlie Zink: First I went to Sacramento City College. We were national champions in ’98, and returning for ’99, I was supposed to be our ace. Then Luis Tiant came along and asked me if I would throw for him–he was the manager at Savannah College of Art and Design–and I threw for him and right then he told me he’d pay for everything if I came with him. My parents thought it would be a good idea, so I went out to Savannah and left Sac City in the fall. I kind of regretted it at the time. It turned out well now, but at the time I was a little disappointed after not being drafted for three years. I put up good numbers in Savannah, but no one would come watch it; it’s just a D-III college team. I was throwing hard and the scouts all said I was going to throw out my arm, so after my senior year I just decided baseball wasn’t for me.
I was playing golf five days a week at the country club in Savannah, and I was thinking of applying for my pro card. I was going to take the test, and that’s when Tiant gave me a call. He asked me if I’d come try out. I decided to give it a shot; I hadn’t picked up a ball in eight months, but I said, “Yeah, I’ll come try out, whatever.” I went down there and threw. I couldn’t have been throwing more than 85; my arm was weak, but one guy gave me a call two weeks later and asked me to come back down. I told them I had to wait for finals, and once finals ended I came back down. There was a week and a half left of spring training, and they threw me right in the mix. I did really well, and they signed me when camp ended, on April 1st. They told me they signed me just because Luis had been my reference. He told them I was a good pitcher, and they trusted Luis’s opinion, so they gave me a shot, and that’s how I got my start there. I would have never gotten picked up if I hadn’t known Luis. I tried out for a few other teams–Blue Jays, Braves, Rangers–and they didn’t like me. The Red Sox only gave me a shot because Tiant told them to.
BP: You were away from baseball for a while and suddenly it loomed again as a career possibility. Was that a difficult mental adjustment to make?
Zink: Well, when I got signed, I thought I’d last a year, maybe. They told me it was only because of Tiant, so I figured if I had one bad outing I’d be released. Even after I did well my first year, I thought they might not even ask me back. It took a while for my contract to get to me, so I thought I had gotten released. I happened to get lucky and mess around one day and throw a knuckleball in practice and hit our trainer in the face. Goose Gregson was there, our pitching coordinator, and that saved my career. As a regular pitcher, I thought I could have made it. I had confidence in myself. But they obviously wanted to take the path of the knuckleball with me.
BP: Do you think it was because of something else about you, or simply because of your knuckleball?
Zink: Probably the knuckleball. They saw me hit a guy in the face and then hit our other players in the chest two or three times. I’m sure they really liked that. Now, I had average stuff: I threw 90, had a good curve, good changeup…nothing stood out, but I hit spots, and I got people out. But there’s obviously a little more value to me if I can throw a knuckleball for strikes and get people out.
BP: Was that pitch to the trainer the first time you’d ever tried to throw a knuckleball?
Zink: I always played catch with it, but I never threw one off of a mound. That was a big adjustment.
BP: How did you go about learning that craft?
Zink: I didn’t do anything in 2002. They let me finish out the year pitching normally, just throwing bullpens, and mixing in the knuckleball. At spring training 2003, the first two weeks went by and I was just pitching as a regular pitcher, just throwing my bullpens, throwing sides, throwing BP, and then two weeks into it everyone confronts me: [farm director Ben] Cherington and Goose came and told me they thought it would be a good idea if I converted to a knuckleball pitcher. I said, “I don’t really want to do that.” It was two weeks into spring training, and I’m would have to stay in extended spring training, and I won’t be able to break with the team. They had to talk me into it. I went with it because I knew I didn’t have any leverage. I didn’t sign for any money, and I wasn’t a prospect or anything. I knew I had to do what they wanted.
They started working with me and doing all these drills. They had Tim Wakefield come down and work with me. He showed me a ton of things that I wasn’t doing: little things, mechanically, that he does that I didn’t do. I started trying to adapt to what he was doing, and I got more consistent with it within a couple of days. After I met with him, after a couple of days I was throwing it ten times better. It’s amazing how much better I was throwing.
BP: Can you tell us some of the mechanical things that Wakefield showed you?
Zink: As a regular pitcher, I had a real long arm action; I brought my arm out real low and real long to try to add velocity. Now my arm has to be real short. I have to get my arm up real quick and get it out. And my stride was way too long. A regular pitcher has to have a long stride, but now mine’s about four feet.
Keeping my wrist stiff was a big deal. I don’t know how, but before I was able to throw it normally. Now I have to keep my wrist stiff, and try to throw it with my palm leading to the plate, and I have to keep my head on line. When I have my little checkpoints and I do them all, it usually works pretty well. If I start to forget stuff I go back through the checklist and figure it out.
BP: Are these things second nature by now?
Zink: No way. I have to think about it. When something’s not right, I’ll go through my checklist and say, “That’s not what I’m doing.” I’m not to the point where I can just go out and throw and not think about it. I had 12 years of pitching as a regular pitcher and now in one year I’m trying to do something completely different. It’s still tough for me. But I’m having fun with it.
BP: How often do you throw your other pitches?
Zink: If I throw 100 pitches, maybe 95 are knuckleballs. I’d like to start throwing a few more fastballs and curveballs, but they want to see me develop the knuckleball.
BP: What makes the knuckleball so effective?
Zink: Unpredictable movement. I don’t know where it’s going. I aim it right down the middle at the catcher’s mask, and hopefully it stays within the plate. I don’t know how it works, but I just know if I throw it well, I don’t know where it’s going, and the batter shouldn’t have any idea, either.
Hitters like to know: it’s a curveball; you know a curveball is going to break like that. Now I’m throwing something with no spin that nobody ever sees, and I’m the only one here doing it, so that makes it real tough to figure out.
But when I’m not throwing it well, it’s 60 miles per hour, dead straight, and it gets killed. When it’s not going well, it’s like a Little League pitcher out there.
BP: Is the whole thing more precarious because you have so little control over it? Can you go from hot to cold in a second?
Zink: Yeah. That’s one of the big things. I have to be so perfect throwing it. If I’m just a little bit off, then it’ll start spinning up there, and balls will start getting killed. Repeating that motion gets real difficult, especially in the cold when I can’t feel anything, so repeating my delivery in the cold is just about impossible. I can’t feel it, so when it comes out good, I don’t even know what I did to make it come out good.
BP: Why can’t you feel anything in the cold?
Zink: I have Reynaud’s Disease. It started my junior year in college. My pinky, my ring finger and my middle finger went numb one day. It moved from there up to my ring finger, middle finger and index finger, and now it’s just my middle and index finger. When it’s below 60, they just go completely numb because my blood vessels shrink up. I’ve been to a bunch of specialists and they don’t know what to do with it. Usually older people get it and it’s in all their fingers and all their toes, but they don’t know why mine is just in two fingers. They think I might have pinched a nerve because the way I used to pitch, I turned my neck. But they said there’s nothing they can do about it. I’m trying to learn to deal with it now, since I’ve never played in cold weather.
BP: What does that do to your game?
Zink: It makes it real difficult to be consistent. When I’m throwing it well, I can’t figure why I’m throwing it well, because I can’t feel it. That’s really frustrating right now.
BP: Is there anything you can do during the game to help?
Zink: They’ve got gas heaters in the dugout that I’ll usually sit next to, and I’ll try to keep a jacket on the whole time. I just have to stick my hand right in front of the heater and make sure my hand’s real warm by the time I go out there. I have about seven or eight minutes to try to get through the inning, otherwise my hand goes numb again. I can’t blow on my hand because it will get real moist. I can’t have any moisture on my hand because it’ll make the ball stick in my hand and I need the ball to slide right out. I have to try to stick it in my armpit or in my pocket. It’s pretty difficult.
BP: Do you think umpires take you less seriously because of the knuckleball?
Zink: A lot of them saw me last year. I did so well that most of them really like to have me as a pitcher on the mound. I don’t know if they take me less seriously, but they’ve seen how much success I’ve had.
BP: How about your catchers–what was it like for them when you switched?
Zink: None of them really liked to catch me. I’d usually get harassed about it because I have to throw more than anybody else. I have to throw 75 or 80 pitch bullpens while everyone else throws 40; I throw twice a week in between my starts and everyone else throws once. But my catcher now is really good. He’s just always been able to handle me and he’s got a cannon for an arm. That’s all I really need back there: someone who can catch it and throw it. He’s awesome. I’ve had some trouble with other guys….I’ve hit them in the chest a lot, or balls will go right between their legs. This guy that I have now is awesome. I hope I can keep him with me for a long time.
BP: So calling a game isn’t at all an issue for him, since you’re always throwing knuckleballs, and he doesn’t have to worry about location.
Zink: Yeah, it’s pretty simple for him. He just throws down knuckleball all the time. If he throws down something else, I go with it. He doesn’t really call anything else too often. We can always get an early strike or something, try and sneak one in on someone. He does a good job.
BP: Does your defense do anything differently behind you?
Zink: It’s pretty tough for our defense to read it, because guys take huge swings, and might hit it off the end of the bat or get jammed. Our outfield reads the swings because they obviously can’t hear the ball until after it’s hit, and they’ll see the big swing and they’ll start jumping backwards. I get a lot of balls that fall in front of people because they read it wrong. It’s not really their fault, though. It’s more difficult for them to read it when I’m pitching. Usually you can tell when a guy gets fooled and hits it off the end of the bat. They’re taking huge hacks and sometimes the ball just moves at the last second and you can’t tell whether they mishit it or not. It’s frustrating, watching all these little bleeders fall in off me, but that’s part of me throwing it up there.
BP: It seems like the question, “Who’s the toughest hitter for you to face?” doesn’t apply to you.
Zink: It doesn’t really matter. If it’s going well, I can get any hitter out. If it’s not going well, any hitter can hit me pretty hard. I haven’t had one guy, when I’ve been throwing well, who can still hit me.
BP: Is there a certain type of hitter who might do better against you?
Zink: A very patient hitter that won’t go for the low ones, that’ll just wait for me to throw a high one, and that has an uppercut swing. The little slap hitters are just annoying to me because they’ll find ways to hit the ball off the end of the bat and bloop ’em in. Those guys bother me, but it’s always scary when I see a big guy with a big uppercut swing who can actually wait back, because they can get hold of one if they get lucky.
BP: We can project major league performance from minor league statistics for most pitchers, but our own Rany Jazayerli speculates that you can’t do this for knuckleballers. Since the knuckleball is so rare, he thinks, major leaguers aren’t selected based on their ability to hit it, so they can’t hit it all that much better than minor leaguers. Have you found Double-A tougher than A?
Zink: No. I don’t think it matters if I’m pitching in the big leagues or in rookie ball. If I’m throwing a good knuckleball, it’s going to be real tough to hit because it’s unpredictable. If I’m throwing a bad one, a high school team should be able to hit me. For me to get there, it’s all about consistency. If I’m throwing it for strikes and throwing it good, it won’t matter what league I’m in. I’ll have good results. Lately I’ve been very inconsistent with the two-strike pitch. I’m not able to keep it down right now, and I’m getting hurt.
BP: Do you think a pitcher with a conventional arsenal could develop the knuckleball as a fourth or fifth pitch?
Zink: There are some guys I’ve seen who use it as an extra pitch, but now my arm action is so much different when I throw a knuckleball. If you used it as an extra pitch, it would look so different from your other pitches. I think it’s possible, but I don’t think you’d be real consistent.
BP: So if you wanted to throw it properly, you’d have to throw all of your other pitches from that angle, too.
Zink: Yeah. If it were that easy to do, I think there’d be a lot more guys doing it, because it’s a pretty tough pitch to hit. But it’s hard to repeat the delivery, so a lot of guys don’t like to mess around with it. It’s real hard to throw a knuckleball after throwing a bunch of fastballs, because you have a loose wrist.
BP: As far as your coaches go, is there anyone other than Wakefield who can help you?
Zink: Goose knows a lot about it, but I don’t really have anyone else that I can consult with. Our pitching coach knows a lot about pitching and the mechanics of pitching, so he can help me repeat my delivery, but he can’t help me when I can’t figure out why I’m not throwing it well.
There’s not really anyone else for me to talk to. I have Wakefield’s number; he gave me his cell phone number; I just haven’t really used it, because I know he has his season going. I’m a little intimidated by using the number right now, but I’ll probably give him a call soon, because he just had his baby, and congratulate him on that.
BP: Do you think he follows along with your season?
Zink: I don’t know. I know I watch him when he throws.
BP: Can you learn from watching him on TV?
Zink: Yeah. Every time before I pitch I watch one of his DVDs, just so I can get a feel for what he’s doing.
BP: How is the Red Sox front office helping you?
Zink: They sent me 3 DVDs of separate Wakefield outings, and one of all of his strikeouts from 2003.
BP: Do you ever get to see your own game film?
Zink: I went to Atlanta for the last exhibition game against the Braves, and I have that on DVD. We got a couple videos of me this season that we did from the dugout. They’re side views, so it’s tough for me to get a good feel for what I was doing. I’d like to have a view from behind home plate so I can see my release point.
BP: Is your workout schedule different from everyone else’s?
Zink: It’s more that the program they came up with for me is whatever I felt necessary. The day after I throw I lift legs real heavy, and the day after that I’ll lift upper body, and then I don’t do a whole lot after that. I’ll do long distance running; I usually like to do distance, not sprints, because I don’t really have to be explosive like the other guys. I just need my stamina.
BP: Do you work with the big league front office on that program?
Zink: With the head trainer in Fort Myers, who does all the rehab for the big leaguers. I pretty much got to pick out the exercises I liked out of the routine, so my program’s a lot shorter, but I don’t really need the same physical attributes that everyone else needs. I kind of like it. It’s a lot easier.
BP: The Red Sox are now at the forefront of teams who are trying to look at the game differently. What’s it like being a minor leaguer in the Red Sox system? Do they teach the game differently?
Zink: It changed a lot last year.
BP: How did it change?
Zink: There was new management, and new people. They became a little stricter. My first year was a lot more loosely run. Spring training was a big difference. I’m in such a different area of it that I don’t really notice the regular stuff, because I’m pretty much on my own out there; I’m on my own program, trying to learn how to do what I need to do.
BP: As a player, how do you deal with the tension that comes in the minor leagues between winning and player development?
Zink: We all want to win, but we all know we have to do our own part. We have to worry about ourselves and that should take care of the winning. If we all do our own job and do it well, we’ll play well as a team. We have to be selfish out there. If we’re all selfish and play well, it’ll work out for the team. We want to win a championship, but we really want to get to the big leagues and win a championship. You aren’t really worried about winning here, you’re worried about developing and putting up the good numbers to get to the big leagues, because no one’s in this to play minor league baseball.
BP: Do you think the Sox will try to do with others what they did with you?
Zink: I’m sure they’ll try to. They’ve had such good success with Wakefield, so why not try to find more? I’m sure there are other guys who can throw it. I know there are position players who can throw it really well, but they’re pretty good position players too right now. If you get lucky and have one that has the same kind of career as Wakefield then you’ve got him for 20 years. They’re not as high-priced as a lot of other players, but they get the same results. I’m OK not being as high-priced….That’s still a lot of money if I can make it there and stay there for a while!
BP: How closely do you follow the world of baseball?
Zink: I was never that big of a baseball fan. I find it a little boring to watch. My favorite sport’s football; I love watching football.
BP: Who’s your team?
Zink: The Niners. This is going to be a sad year. I’ll watch Wakefield play; I like watching the Red Sox play, but if the Giants or the Red Sox aren’t on TV, then I won’t watch it, usually. I’ll watch golf, if that’s on. I don’t really keep up with all the baseball numbers. Pretty much anytime I watch TV I try to watch Seinfeld or That ’70s Show. Those are the only two shows I really like to watch.
BP: What else do you do in your spare time?
Zink: A lot of fishing and golfing. Besides that, pretty much nothing. (laughs) I sit around and relax a lot. I play a lot of video games, Xbox and Playstation, Madden and Tiger Woods. That’s about it. Anytime I can get out and golf for free…I don’t like paying for golf. Too expensive, and I don’t make any money, so if I can get someone to take me out and play golf, I’ll play golf.
BP: You used to be quite the serious golfer.
Zink: Yeah. I started shooting under par when I was 12, so that was a good start. In high school I didn’t try to play golf anymore, because I was a lot better at baseball, and baseball was a lot cooler in high school than golf. I didn’t really play again until I got to college, when I found out that my buddy worked at a golf course and we could play for free. I seriously considered trying to get my pro card, but the timing wasn’t right. I got asked to play baseball. I’d rather play baseball than golf any day, but if baseball ended, that’s what I’d probably do: I’d try and go play golf.
BP: How do you feel about being listed in our Top 50 Prospects, and about all of the media attention you’ve been receiving?
Zink: I thought it was pretty cool! I definitely got a lot more attention after last year. I didn’t get any my first season, when I had a 1.00 ERA as a reliever in 40 innings, and I pretty much dominated, but because I’ve become a knuckleballer and I have a 3.00 ERA all of a sudden everyone’s excited about it. I didn’t expect it to be that big of a deal. My numbers are pretty solid, but I still had a 3.00 ERA and there’s a lot of starters that have that. Because I’m a knuckleballer it became a big deal.
BP: Is that weird for the other guys on the team?
Zink: Guys joke with me, but most of them understand it, and I get along with everyone on the team. Now, my friends harass me a lot, all my buddies I grew up with playing. I used to be the guy who threw hard and struck everyone out, and now I’m the guy who throws as slow as possible.
BP: Tell us a little bit about life in the minors.
Zink: It’s not that much fun. You live out of a suitcase, and you never get to be at home. We’ve been on the road all year, taking a bus for 14 hours at a time. Since we’re the young guys, we have to sit two to a seat, and a lot of the older guys get their own row of seats. But that’s how it’ll be everywhere. Triple-A, same way; big leagues, there’s hazing.
I never get to see my girlfriend. Now that we live together, I still never get to see her, because we’re always on the road. Home games we get done at 10:00 or 10:30, and she’s already asleep, because she has to get up and work. We don’t get too many off days, and usually they’re spent on a bus going somewhere. Usually you’re eating fast food or pizza, so it’s tough to stay in shape during the season. During spring training it’s a little easier because you get fed. Here, you’re always traveling or trying to catch up on sleep. For anyone who thinks that it’s real glamorous, it’s not. It’s hard. You don’t make anything until you get to the big leagues. This isn’t something I want to do for a long time. I want to try to get through this as fast as I can and have a long major league career.
BP: There are some people who say that a level like Double-A sorts out who has the heart to make it and who doesn’t, and then there are others who say that for everyone who’s made it as far as you have, heart isn’t a question, and it’s more a question of luck and talent. As a player, what do you think?
Zink: I think it’s a lot of both. If you don’t have heart, you’re just going to get run over, and this’ll be the last place you ever play. But getting called up from here, even if you’re doing well, is luck. If you don’t make the team out of spring training, somebody has to get hurt for you to get called up, or somebody’s has to be doing really, really poorly.
But if you can do well here you’ve got a pretty good shot at making it up there, either with this team or with another team. There are always people who will want you if you can put up numbers. It’s tough here, though: from High-A to AA is probably the hardest jump. Triple-A’s not that much different, from what I’ve been told. I’ve actually heard hitters have it easier in the big leagues because pitchers are around the plate more. I don’t think it’s that way with pitchers!
I’d like to get a shot eventually, but I don’t think I’m where I need to be yet. After seeing Wakefield and playing catch with him, and seeing how consistent he is, I know I have some work to do.
BP: Does being able to throw it make it easier to catch it?
Zink: No! (laughs) Not at all. I hate playing catch with him. He throws ’em so good every time that usually I just try to get a glove on it to make sure it doesn’t hit me. I know I have a lot more improving to do to get to where he is. He’s been doing it for 15 years, and he’s pretty consistent right now. It’s pretty amazing to watch him throw it over and over and just have no spin. It’s awesome to watch him throw. It helps me to be there to watch him throw in person because I can see exactly what I need to do. He’s real helpful; every time I’m doing something wrong, if my arm’s lagging, or if I’m out in front, or whatever, he’ll point it out right there. He’s a great resource for me.
I don’t know what he did to get to where he is. I know he just came up one day and dominated in the NLCS and the next year he was awful and he got sent back to the minor leagues and that’s how we got him with the Red Sox, because nobody else wanted him. I’ve been told that over and over, when I’m struggling: he had so much success and lost it, and that’s just part of it.
BP: Do you think the Sox will be more patient with you on account of that?
Zink: I don’t know. It’s such a weird business. If they can get somebody in the big leagues for me, and a pretty good player, I’m guessing they’d take the deal. It’s a business. It’s all about the big league club, about winning a championship in Boston.
BP: Are you getting a lot of fan mail?
Zink: There are a lot more people sending me stuff, asking for autographs, asking me to send them my hats and pieces of my clothing. It’s just weird. But it’s pretty funny. I have people sending me stuff at home, too. I don’t know how they got my home address, but my mom gets a ton of mail.
BP: Do you hear from kids out there who are trying to learn the knuckleball at an early age?
Zink: Oh, yeah. A lot of people come up to me at games and ask me to show them how to throw it. I had a kid in Akron come up to me and tell me he’s a high school pitcher who throws a knuckleball, and that’s pretty cool. There are a lot more kids trying to throw it right now–there’s even a website, Knuckleball Headquarters. I don’t think it’s a good idea to learn it in high school; I would have never thrown it in high school. I never really needed it, though. But it’s pretty hard to come up as a knuckleballer.
BP: What do you think about the talk that knuckleballers are all a little weird, and part of their own loopy knuckleball fraternity?
Zink: I think it’s true. We’re a little different than everyone else. I would definitely like to have someone that I could stick with and talk to. When I went up with the big club, I just hooked on to Wakefield’s side and followed him everywhere. I didn’t know what to do, and he took me under his wing. There are so few of us that we have to stick together and help each other out.
BP: What advice would you have to someone who is trying to follow in your footsteps?
Zink: Have fun with it. If you get stressed out, you’ll start forcing things, and it’s a pitch that you can’t be strong with. When I get in a situation, sometimes I try to revert back to how I used to pitch, and give a little more effort, try to throw it a little harder. That’s completely wrong. Have fun the whole time. Just throw it up there, and let it dance. The hardest part for me right now is just having fun with it. Now I have all this hype, and when I start to do not as well as I should, I start to press a little more with it, just to prove people wrong.
BP: How do you think baseball has challenged you the most?
Zink: You find out if you really love the game. You’re playing every day, and you always have something to do with baseball, so it really tests you. You see if you really want it. It’ll wear you out if you don’t love it. Especially if you’re not doing well–that makes it a real long season!
I think I’ll play as long as I can. I’ll never give it up, until someone tells me they don’t want me anymore. That’s when I’ll hang it up. Till then, I’ll always keep playing.
Thanks to Charlie Zink and James Masteralexis for their time.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now