Dodgers’ pitcher Charlie Haeger made only his second MLB start last night against the Cardinals at Dodger Stadium, and the young knuckleballer had certain measures of success.
Well, the knuckleball is something of an enigma. Few pitchers know how to properly throw one anymore, and as such, pitching a knuckler has become something of a lost art. Particularly for those hitters in the National League (and therefore do not run across Tim Wakefield, hitting the knuckleball can be a challenge.
Understanding the knuckleball pitcher is a bit of a study in itself, one that bucks most traditional thinking on pitching and strategy. It is widely believed that for the knuckleball to be successful, you have to throw exclusively knuckleballs. If you’re still holding onto a mid-80’s fastball that you’ll throw on 3-1, it’s going to get crushed every time.
Following on that, a knuckleballer must be able to control the pitch. Throwing the knuckle for a high percentage of strikes is necessary, because as always, the name of the game is still to get ahead in the count.
Finally, a knuckleball has to actually “knuckle” right? There is nothing more enticing to a big-league hitter than a pitch that is intended to be a knuckleball but starts to tumble over itself. Once that spin gets on the ball, it might as well be batting practice.
So all of that is prelude to this:
Haeger did throw mostly knuckleballs. 75 of 80 pitches, according to MLB Pitch F/X data. He threw 4 changeups and 1 curveball. I’m not entirely convinced of this data from MLB, which is known to be a bit wonky at times. The cool graphs produced from the Pitch F/X stuff at BrooksBaseball.net seems to back me up:
Looks like a couple of heaters in there early, then he learned his lesson and just stuck with the knuckleball.
Ok, so mostly knuckleballs. Good start. What about control?
This is where things got dicey for the Cardinals and their usual attacking philosophy at the plate. You’ll see that many of the strikes and balls in play on the above pitch map are out of the dimensioned strike zone, but the Cards swung anyway. If you watched the game, you probably know why. Cardinal hitters were salivating at the 65-75 mph pitches they saw coming at them, and if my eyes were true, many of them were rolling into the plate rather than knuckling. Chalk it up to bad luck for the Cards?
However you choose to view the data above, and whether the Cardinals were helping him or not, Haeger threw strikes according to the box score. 61 of them in 80 pitches. What the above data doesn’t show is that many of those strikes were foul balls. It’s not as if Haeger was missing bats. According to StatCorner.com, Cardinal hitters made contact on 56.3 percent of Haeger’s pitches. Without doing too much research into a league average for that stat, let’s just leave it that the ultimate “pitch to contact” guy for the Cardinals this season, Joel Pineiro, has 41.4% of his pitches make contact with a bat.
So last night, the Cardinals were swinging often, but had almost as many foul balls as those put in play. The one hiccup in Haeger’s control was hitting Ryan Ludwick in the shoulder in the top of the seventh. Said Haeger after the game:
“…a couple got away from me, especially that one to Ludwick. If I don’t hit him, the game’s still tied.”
Indeed, and shortly thereafter he tumbled one to Ankiel, who promptly deposited it into the right field stands.
So, control was okay, could’ve been better – and again, some of those knucklers looked a little “tumbling” to be really successful in freezing or deceiving the hitters.
Ultimate result? Haeger has nothing to hang his head about, the Cardinals managed to eke one out in a game that certainly could’ve gone either way. He probably had some help from the Cardinals, but the career of a knuckleball pitcher always seems about one bad tumble away from triple-A anyway, doesn’t it?