Saturday, January 10, 2009

BASEBALL: An Opportunity Missed

I love knuckleball pitchers. Besides the pure entertainment value of somebody throwing the pitch, I think knuckleballers perform an important task in today's pitching staff-weakened major league baseball. That task is pitching in blowouts and emergency situations. It means leaving kids in the minors to develop, rather than throwing them to the wolves in a spot start, almost certain to be confidence-hurting.

My favourite butterfly thrower of all time was Wilbur Wood, of course. When you teamed him with a young Rich Gossage, of pre-Goose fame, it was almost like it was unfair. Wilbur would come in with seven or eight innings of 69 MPH dancers and then Gossage would come in throwing flames. An awful lot of major leaguers took days off when Wood pitched. Of course, Wilbur wasn't above starting BOTH games of a double-header back in the day. Gimme a Wood today, and I'd have a four-man pitching staff regardless of the money. EVERYBODY else would pitch on a five-day rotation, basically. The Neo-Wood would start the rest of the games. Ahhh, but I dream.

The only knuckleball throwing starter of the current era is Tim Wakefield of the Bosox. I'm on record, I think he's worth faaaaar more than his salary. It's close now, but he's been a bargain for more than a decade. He's started, closed and been the long man ... frequently switching between roles during the season. And he's done all three with something between capable and outstanding success. He's not really a Wood. He throws fastballs and his floater has been 'controlled' most of the time, rather than the kind of wild darter Wood threw. But he survives alone.

That's because the Boston knuckleball factory has not exactly cloned his successor. The Bosox gave up on Charlie Haeger last year, sending him on to San Diego. And now, they've taken Charlie Zink off their 40-man roster. And nobody took the bite to grab a cheap potential surprise in the box.

And I'm really disappointed the Minnesota Twins weren't the team to see the potential of having Zink around, amidst a pretty decent collection of hard-throwing youngsters. (And yes, I know they have R.A. Dickey available on a minor league contract. Can't have TOO many options) Granted, Zink is no Wood nor even a Wakefield. But so much of baseball success is presenting other teams with problems and surprises. Much is written about teams complaining about facing youngsters fresh from the farms and 'not knowing anything about what he throws.' Sure, teams get over that issue by the second, or sometimes the third, time through the order. But 9-18 outs is a treasure trove in any game.

Zink and/or (less probably) Dickey would represent that surprise for at least the first month or two of the season. A LOT of pitchers have gotten fulll seasons out of unorthodoxy. Remember Mark Eichhorn? He almost won an ERA title throwing frisbees. And how about Hideki Okajima. Really masterful that first year, wasn't he. Not so much last year. There's other guys who's initial surprises hid the fact that they could really pitch and went on to long careers. Marichal, Valenzuela, and others had unique deliveries, AND long-lasting careers.

I've set it before and I'll say it again. With wins being precious in October, I'd invest in a line of pitching coaches for specific pitches. At EVERY stop along the way in my minor leagues, I would have one pitcher (at least) who threw the knuckleball. And I'd have a sidewinder and a sub-mariner if I could find any with potential. That would give my developing catchers experience in catching unorthodox pitchers. And, of course, I'd spend the money and go out and get coaches who could coach those pitches. Not enough for every team. But I'd make them roving instructors. I'd even bring them up to the majors periodically when one of their charges made the big show. Get Eichhorn to teach the slingers and whoever taught Wood for the knuckleballers. Phil Niekro if that guy isn't available.

I know the Twins think they've filled their unorthodox quota with Dickey. But Zink remains more of an unknown. And that's what surprises are made of.

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