n 1960, when he was playing in the South Atlantic League, Phil Niekro was told that he could pitch in the big leagues if he could get his knuckleball over the plate more consistently. Those words, which came from manager Red Murff, were the springboard to a Hall of Fame career.
“No one had ever told me that before, and it was my motivator,” Niekro told me recently. “It was then that I hunkered down and really worked on my knuckleball.”
Niekro’s younger brother, Joe Niekro, had to wait much longer for similar encouragement. He wasn’t pushed to throw the pitch that made his family famous until he’d been in the big leagues for nearly a decade.
“When Joe came up through the minor leagues, he was your normal, conventional pitcher,” explained Niekro. “He did have a knuckleball, but the Cubs didn’t want him to throw it. When he got to Detroit, they wouldn’t let him throw it. He had a good one, but his managers weren’t comfortable with him using it in games.”
Joe had “much better stuff” than Phil. He was reasonably successful as a conventional pitcher, but “once teams started catching up to him, he was going to hang it up.” Older brother had a better idea.
“I said, ‘Let’s get the knuckleball out of your back pocket,’ explained Niekro. “We worked on it, and once he got to Houston, he turned into a real knuckleball pitcher. It took us about a year and a half to make that transition from fastball, curveball, slider, changeup to knuckleball, knuckleball.”
Unlike most knuckleball pitchers, the younger Niekro didn’t go strictly butterfly. It became his primary pitch, but his back pocket was now filled with his old weapons.
“Of all the knuckleball pitchers out there, Joe was probably the hardest to figure out,” said Niekro. “He could get you out with something other than the knuckleball. If I wasn’t getting the knuckleball over the plate, I was in trouble. Joe had other pitches he could go to. He also threw his knuckleball a lot harder than I threw mine. He was a very good pitcher.”
Joe Niekro won 221 games — 144 of them with the Astros — between 1967-1988. He passed away in 2006.
At 6-foot-5 and pushing 250 pounds, Sean Manaea looks like a power pitcher. He is, to a certain extent. The 23-year-old left-hander struck out over a batter per inning at Double-A Midland after being acquired by Oakland from Kansas City in July’s Ben Zobrist deal. Along the way, he won all six of his decisions and logged a 1.90 ERA.
Manaea, who has battled injuries since being drafted 34th overall in 2013, out of Indiana State University, isn’t sure exactly how to define himself.
“I’m maybe kind of in-between,” said Manaea. “I feel that if you’re a power pitcher, you’re throwing really hard — like Noah Syndergaard hard: 97, 98. I get a lot of strikeouts and stuff, but I’m only in the 90-95 range. I’m not overpowering like a Syndergaard, or a Matt Harvey or a Stephen Strasburg.”
Manaea’s fastball is a four-seamer, but it’s not straight.
“According to guys I play catch with, and some hitters I’ve talked to, I get a lot of movement on it,” said Manaea. “It also comes out at a weird angle sometimes — I’m kind of low three-quarters — and they just can’t pick it up.”
Coming back from a spring training abdomen strain, his arm angle was even lower.
“I was basically sidearm and that was really weird, because I’d never been that low before,” said Manaea. “Sidearm just felt good to me. At first it was OK, but after I got moved up to Double-A, I couldn’t find the strike zone. When I finally looked at video, I was like, ‘Wow, That’s not me at all.’”
Manaea claims he felt healthy upon his return, so why the lower angle?
“I guess I just forgot where I was supposed to be,” theorized Manaea. “ It took a couple of weeks to get it back to where it normally was — to get the muscle memory right again — and once I did, things started going better for me.”
When the Indians signed Mike Napoli to a $7 million, one-year contract last month, they brought on board a patient slugger. Seeing pitches and bludgeoning baseballs are the 34-year-old first baseman’s primary traits.
Napoli saw 4.35 pitches per plate appearance in 2015, third-most among players with at least 400 PAs. He topped the category in both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Four of Napoli’s 18 home runs last year traveled at least 440 feet, with one of his moon shots measuring a Paul Bunyan-esque 463.
He’s more than a burly basher. A solid defender at first base, Napoli is — in the opinion of Boston bench coach Torey Lovullo — a student of the game.
“He’s always well-prepared,” Lovullo told me this past season. “He works on the little parts of the game. He isn’t fast, but he’s one of our best base runners. He’s a good bunter. He’s motivated to being more than just a power-hitting first baseman. Given how well he sees the game, I could actually see him managing someday.”
Last Sunday’s column included mention of how Pedro Martinez named the Giants, Indians, Orioles and Yankees when asked, in 1997, where he’d most like to be traded. That tidbit came from his autobiography, which came out last year.
According to Martinez, “Talks with the Giants and Orioles never materialized.” They did with the other two teams.
One of Montreal’s trade targets was Cleveland’s Jaret Wright, but the Indians apparently weren’t willing to part with the 21-year-old phenom. As for the Yankees, the names bandied about — per Pedro — included Jorge Posada and then-prospect Mike Lowell. Another, purportedly brought up by New York, was Mariano Rivera.
Yesterday on Twitter, Baseball Past and Present’s Graham Womack linked a box score for a 1965 game that many of you may not be familiar with. You should be. Starting that night for the Cincinnati Reds, against the New York Mets, was 25-year-old right-hander Jim Maloney.
Through 10 innings, the only base runners Maloney had allowed came via a second-inning walk and a fourth-inning strikeout-wild pitch. He had 17 strikeouts, seven of which had come in innings 8-10.
In the top of the 11th, Maloney lost his no-hitter when New York’s Johnny Lewis led off with a home run. Later in the inning, Maloney gave up a single and struck out his 18th batter of the game. The Reds failed to score in the bottom half, making Maloney a 1-0 loser in one of the greatest games ever pitched.
Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix had a perfect game through 12 innings in a 1959 game in Milwaukee. The southpaw allowed both a hit and a run in the 13th and lost 1-0. The subject of an outstanding song by The Baseball Project, Haddix was nicknamed “Kitty.”
In case you missed it, the Seattle Mariners have added Amanda Hopkins to their scouting staff. The daughter of former Rangers scouting director Ron Hopkins will be an area scout. Per Baseball America, Ms. Hopkins “becomes the first full-time female scout in more than 60 years.”
In order to accurately compare players across eras, it is necessary to neutralize numbers to account for offensive environment. This is particularly true when it comes to Hall of Fame voting, lest we return to the days of inducting 1930s hitters who weren’t markedly better than league average.
With eras in mind, why are so many voters penalizing Edgar Martinez for spending much of his career as a designated hitter? Suppose Martinez had played prior to 1973? His bat would have kept him in the lineup, as was the case for countless low-on-the-defensive-spectrum players, for nearly 100 years. Or what if he’d simply played in the National League? Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell, first basemen who boast the same 147 adjusted OPS as Martinez, were first ballot Hall of Famers. Neither was known for his glove.
Looking ahead, Jim Thome will be on the ballot for the first time in 2018. The former Indian (he played with five other teams as well) retired with the same adjusted OPS as the aforementioned trio. His 612 home runs top the totals of McCovey (521), Stargell (475) and Martinez (309).
Is Thome a first-ballot guy like McCovey or Stargell, or will he be viewed similarly to his contemporary, Jeff Bagwell (149 adjusted OPS and 449 home runs)? Thome and Bagwell both debuted in 1991, and while the former has never been linked to steroids, the latter hasn’t either.
Perusing Ryan Thibs’ Hall of Fame tracker, I was struck by the number of voters who checked off two, three or four names. There’s nothing wrong with being a “small hall” guy, but a few of these voters — not all of them — aren’t taking their privilege seriously. Judging by their ballots, they’re simply trying to draw attention to themselves. Unfortunately, it’s understandable. If you’re a columnist who makes his living by being controversial and values page clicks over integrity, you’re going to do that.
As a sixth-year member of the BBWAA, I’m not yet eligible to cast a Hall of Fame ballot. If I were, my votes would go to Jeff Bagwell, Ken Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Alan Trammell, Billy Wagner, and Larry Walker.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens? I’m fairly confident they’ll be elected a few years hence. Given this year’s stacked ballot, and the mixed feelings I have on the PED issue, I’d be comfortable leaving their names unchecked for now.
My biggest regret would be not voting for Jim Edmonds, as there is a decent chance he’ll fall off the ballot in his first year of eligibility. That’s unfair, because he’s arguably Hall-worthy. Even so, it wouldn’t have seemed right to vote for him over players I feel are more deserving. My logic may be flawed, but the system itself is flawed.
A few days ago, Eduardo Encina of the Baltimore Sun made note of the fact that Dylan Bundy is out of options. The oft-injured hurler is thus at the crossroads. Bundy has to remain on the Orioles roster or be subject to a waiver claim. so as Encina wrote, he’ll be a player to watch come spring training. Along with Oriole evaluators, scouts from 29 teams will have their eyes on him.
In yesterday’s Boston Globe, columnist Chris Gasper informed us that the Bruins and Canadiens have met in nine Game 7s, the most of any teams in North American sports history. Not surprisingly the Yankees and Dodgers hold that distinction in baseball. All four of those match-ups came between 1947 and 1956 when the Dodgers were based in Brooklyn.
Sticking with the Globe, Nick Cafardo’s Sunday Notes column includes a graphic showing that Joe Girardi had the highest percentage of successful manager challenges this year (73.3%) while Kevin Cash (31.5%) had the lowest. That reminded me that a manager admitted, this past summer, that he sometimes challenges plays he knows he has little chance of having overturned. He does so because he doesn’t want to leave the challenge in his back pocket, and “Anything is possible.” (Given some of the odd replay decisions we’ve seen, this is by no means a bad strategy.)
On a related note, some manager challenges have presumably been of a tactical nature — the object being to break the flow of the game and allow extra time for pitchers to rest between innings, or to warm up in the bullpen. Pace of game be damned.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
On this date in 1975, CBS sold the New York Yankees to a group led by George Steinbrenner for $10 million. Last season, five Yankees players had a salary of $20 million or more.
The 1982 Zander-Hollander Complete Handbook of Baseball listed Dennis Boyd and Roger Clemens as Boston’s top prospects. Clemens’ blurb lauded his “90-plus-mph fastball” and said the University of Texas product “Needs to improve his stamina.”
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