Is Charlie Haeger the heir apparent to Tim Wakefield? I certainly hope so, because Major League Baseball is a better place when a knuckleballer is part of it.
Wakefield, now 43 years old, was the only pitcher in the league still featuring the knuckler before the Los Angeles Dodgers recalled Haeger earlier this month. Today was his second career start, a nationally televised game against the Chicago Cubs, and Haeger was magnificent.
The rookie scattered three hits over seven-plus innings and kept the Cubs off the scoreboard in what ended a 2-0 Dodgers victory. Haeger finished with 110 pitches - and as a true knuckleballer, you can bet at least 100 of them were his bread-and-butter pitch.
I was particularly impressed that Dodgers manager Joe Torre even let Haeger start the eighth inning, despite holding only a two-run lead and having already thrown 104 pitches. Knuckleballers, since they primarily throw one pitch and do not put signficant strain on their arm while doing so, should be able to pitch deeper into games than starters with a traditional repetoire.
I'm not sure if Torre realizes this, or if he merely lacks confidence in his middle relievers right now, but I choose to believe that the Dodgers manager is aware that he can leave Haeger in longer when his knuckleball is fluttering. Haeger, of course, repaid Torre's faith by promptly walking Sam Fuld to start the eighth and the manager immediately went to Jonathan Broxton to end the threat.
(And when did Broxton become a set-up man? Torre used George Sherrill to close out the game today. Very interesting ...)
Anyway, Haeger has shown more than enough in his last two starts to remain in the Dodgers' rotation for now. I am considering buying the MLB.TV package for the final month of the season just for the chance to watch him pitch.
Sadly, knuckleballers are a dying breed. Wakefield has relied on his knuckler for 17 years, and since he broke into the league no one else has had sustained success with the pitch. The knuckler is thrown by scrunching the second and third fingers higher up on the seams of the ball and pushing the ball toward home plate. Ideally, it is thrown with little or no spin, which makes the ball dip and dive unpredictably.
That unpredictability is exactly why so few pitchers throw knuckleballs today. Sometimes, the pitch simply does not dip or dive and insteads floats right down the middle at about 70 miles an hour. Those pitches usually end up about 420 feet from home plate. It's a risk to throw a knuckleball, and in this increasingly risk-averse society the pitch may not have much of a future.
Charlie Haeger may be the knuckleball's last hope. That alone is enough of a reason to root for his success.