Wakefield’s Heir?

I have a soft spot in my heart for soft-tossing, trick-pitch throwing hurlers, which means that I’m a card-carrying member of the Charlie Haeger bandwagon…and the R.J. Swindle bandwagon…and I would be on the Dallas Braden bandwagon if he threw more than a couple of screwballs per game. That being said, I was excited to see Haeger make just his second big league start against the Cardinals last night.

The baseball world does not seem to share my affinity for junkballers as the Dodgers are the third team to give Haeger a try in the last three seasons. Coming up through the White Sox organization and making his big league debut at just 22-years old, Haeger was haled the best knuckleballing prospect since Tim Wakefield. Regrettably, the Sox had little lenience for Haeger when he struggled. He made his first big league start on May 1st, 2006 and allowed 5 ER over 4.1 innings pitched. Haeger didn’t get back to the majors until he was a September call-up later that season. In 2007, he was roughed up in eight big league relief appearances and sent back to Triple-A. He was a waiver claim by the Padres last September, but pitched poorly again over 4 relief appearances for the Friars and his contract was non-tendered. Talk about a quick hook. I would have thought that a young knuckler in Petco Field was a match made in baseball dork heaven.

The Dodgers assigned Haeger to their Triple-A affiliate Albuquerque, where he posted a 3.55 ERA and a 103/55 K/BB ratio in 144 2/3 innings, along with a HR/9 rate of 1.0. Isotope Park is the minor league equivalent to a pre-humidor Coors, so adjusting for park, Haeger’s HR/9 rate would be .78. In his eight year minor league career, Haeger’s HR/9 rate is just .6. Considering that a knuckler that doesn’t “knuckle” turns into a pitch you’d see thrown in batting practice, this indicates that Haeger knows his business.

While Haeger did throw a couple of BPers that ended up in the stands at Chavez Ravine the other night, the Dodgers have to be impressed by his performance. Rather remarkably Haeger needed only 80 pitches to cruise through seven innings; 61 of those pitches were thrown for strikes. He allowed three earned runs on five hits, with the damage coming from the big flies.

I am by no means a Pitch F/x guru, but here’s a look at his movement graph. As you can see with the knuckler, it breaks all over the place. There are a couple of 82 MPH fastballs that are easy to pick out in there as well.

Haegermovement

(Click on any of the images for a larger view)

Haeger’s most beautiful flutter-ball came in the 3rd inning when he got Yadier Molina to go down swinging, who happens to be the 4th most difficult hitter to strikeout in all of baseball. To get a look at this from Molina’s perception, let’s turn to Dan Brooks’ site who gives us Batter’s Box plots, which simply is the pitch as viewed from the batter’s box.

YaMO

Let’s look at this from a lefties’ perception to get another glimpse of the random movement. This would by Skip Schumaker’s at-bat in the 5th inning. Skip grounded out.

virtualTraceBatBoxCorr.php

Haeger’s just 25 years old, so he’s probably a decade or so away from his prime being that he’s a knuckleballer. I hope the Dodgers give him more of a shot that his two previous teams did. It will be a sad day if the knuckleball ever goes extinct.



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Erik Manning is the founder of Future Redbirds and covers the Cardinals for Heater Magazine. You can get more of his analysis and rantings in bite-sized bits by following him on twitter.


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scott
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scott
6 years 11 months ago

I had always wished the White Sox would’ve had a longer leash with this kid. Wake didn’t really do anything of note until he reached his late 20s, early 30s, right? It’d be great to see him get a chance and be the next knuckleballer to have sustained success in the majors.

walkoffblast
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walkoffblast
6 years 11 months ago

Two of Wakefields best seasons were his debut in 1992 where he turned 26 in august of that year and his 1995 debut with the red sox.

I love me some knuckleballers just not necessarily buying they reach their prime at 35, although ironically that is the only season wakefield had that comes close to the two I mentioned.

Marcel
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Marcel
6 years 11 months ago

I don’t think that 35 is some set-in-stone age; it’s just that knuckleballers take a long time to home their craft, and since most them start throwing the pitch late they don’t peak until late.

scott
Guest
scott
6 years 11 months ago

He only pitched in 13 games that year and proceeded to post FIPs well around the 5 mark until he got “consistently decent” from 2001 on. It appears, really, that Wake didn’t hone his knuckler until later on in his career.

Xeifrank
Guest
6 years 11 months ago

7IP, 3ER, is a very respectable line. If you told Joe Torre before any Dodger game that his starting pitcher would give up 3ER in 7 innings of work he’d take it. Haeger is what the Dodgers need, especially from their 5th starter, and that is someone who can efficiently eat up innings. I hope he sticks and has continued success.
vr, Xei

Pete
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Pete
6 years 11 months ago

I watched Haeger last night and he really had the Cardinals in a knot. They had a few hard hit balls but couldn’t sustain anything. The mistake he made was when he hung one to Rick Ankiel, who can really only hit high, hung slow stuff.

PhD Brian
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PhD Brian
6 years 11 months ago

I love the knuckleball. It is by far my favorite pitch. I love that a guy can strike out tons of major league hitters throwing 60 MPH. Just love it! Plus, the pitch usually makes fools a of a few major league catchers as well. So the pitchers own catcher looks jumpy the entire game. Man it is fun to watch!

Sparerib
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Sparerib
6 years 11 months ago

(Charlie Hough + Steve Yaeger) / 2 = Charlie Haeger
Anyone else notice the coincidence?

Alireza
Guest
Alireza
6 years 11 months ago

Sparerib – Really cool, though it is Steve Yeager, not Yaeger.

Anyway, Haeger actually has far better stuff than Wakefield could ever imagine. In fact, in his prime, Wakefield wasn’t even the best knuckleballer in the game. That was Tom Candiotti.

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