Cooperstown Confidential: Knuckleballs, fielders and pioneers

Knucklers north of the border

I’m a fan of the knuckleball. Its critics dismiss it as a “trick pitch,” but it’s really no more of a trick than a curve ball, a slider or a change-up. Outs registered with a knuckleball count just as much as any other outs. If a pitcher can master the knuckleball—something that is very hard to do—he deserves just as much credit as a so-called “conventional” pitcher.

The knuckleball has remained a hot topic this winter because of the trade of reigning National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. It will sound clichéd, but the trade makes logical sense for both teams.

The Mets acquire two legitimate top prospects, including a much needed catcher in Travis d’Arnaud, who is ready to play in the major leagues now and will be a major upgrade over Josh Thole (assuming he is given the chance). The Jays acquire a full-fledged No. 1 starter who will take pressure away from fellow acquisition Josh Johnson and comebacking left-hander Ricky Romero. He also figures to benefit from the neutral weather conditions at Rogers Centre (at least on days when the roof is closed). Dickey’s acquisition makes the Jays favorites, or at least co-favorites, in the AL East, as Toronto goes for it all in 2013.

There is also the issue of Dickey’s long-term value. Much has been made of his status as a 38-year-old pitcher, but knuckleball throwers don’t age like other pitchers. During my lifetime, six other starting pitchers have gained notoriety for throwing the knuckler: Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro, Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti and Tim Wakefield.

Phil Niekro pitched until he was 48, and was effective until he was 46. Joe Niekro pitched until he was 43, maintaining success until he was 40. Hough pitched through his 46th birthday, remaining effective until he was 44. Candiotti lasted until age 41, with his last good season coming at the age of 39. Wakefield pitched until he was 44, remaining relatively effective until age 42.

Of the six, only Wood failed to pitch into his 40s. He retired at age 36, with his last good season coming at the age of 34. Wood, who was significantly overweight, saw his career short-circuited by a freak injury: A line drive by Detroit’s Ron LeFlore struck him in the leg, shattering Wood’s kneecap.

If the numbers of the other knuckleballers are any indication, Dickey has several seasons ahead of him, with a reasonable expectation of remaining effective until his early 40s. He also has the advantage of having exceptional control—among starters, only Cliff Lee threw a higher percentage of strikes last year—which may enhance his staying power. I would say that the Blue Jays, who have Dickey under their roof for the next three seasons, have a good chance of seeing their new ace remain effective for the duration of his contract.

The defenders

Earlier this month, Steve Lombardi of posted an interesting article that provided statistically based ratings for the best defensive players in history at each position. In putting together the list, Lombardi used Baseball-Reference’s Fielding Runs, which is based on the Total Zone system devised by Sean Smith. Lombardi included players who had played at least 80 per cent of the time at the given position. He then divided their totals by the number of games played.

Based on that system, here are the players who graded out as the greatest of all-time:
Catcher: Yadier Molina
First base: Keith Hernandez
Second base: Joe Gordon
Shortstop: Mark Belanger
Third base: Brooks Robinson
Left field: Barry Bonds
Center field: Paul Blair
Right field: Jesse Barfield

They were followed by a second team of honorable mentions:
Catcher: Jim Sundberg
First base: John Olerud
Second base: Mark Ellis
Shortstop: Jack Wilson
Third base: Clete Boyer
Left field: Bernard Gilkey
Center field: Devon White
Right field: Roberto Clemente

The list provides a number of surprises, which are sure to create a variety of reactions. My most immediate response involves Barfield ranking No. 1 ahead of Clemente. I don’t see that at all. Clemente had the range of a center fielder and the stronger throwing arm, and also had the longer career, for whatever that is worth. Clemente had such a great arm that he occasionally threw out runners at first base on what appeared to be routine singles to right field. He also had the ability to throw the ball from the outfield warning track to the catcher on one short hop.

Other than the Clemente/Barfield showdown, I was shocked that Jack Wilson ranks ahead of Ozzie Smith. Recently retired, Wilson was a fine defensive shortstop, but I don’t recall him making the number of highlight plays turned in by “The Wizard.”

At second base, I never saw Gordon play, but I’m surprised that he rates ahead of Bill Mazeroski, who is generally regarded as the greatest at the position. In fact, Maz doesn’t even make the second team.

On the flip side, I’m glad to see Paul Blair get some recognition, even if it might come at the expense of Willie Mays. I’ll have more on Blair later.

So whom would I rate as the greatest at each position? I put together my own list, which has almost nothing to do with statistical analysis and is based on sight and anecdotal evidence. I’ve included only those players I’ve seen, either live or on tape, so my apologies to Vic Power, Clete Boyer, Tris Speaker, and others.

Catcher: Johnny Bench: He was the standard bearer. He could do it all: dig pitches out of the dirt, block the plate, and throw cannon shots with accuracy. He also had to play in an era when the stolen base shared popularity with the home run, so his arm strength came into frequent use.

First base: Keith Hernandez: Best known for his ability to charge bunts and initiate the 3-6-3 double play, he also had soft hands, great range, and a high degree of intelligence. If he had been a right-handed thrower, he might have been a Gold Glove third baseman.

Second base: Roberto Alomar: I never saw Mazeroski play, so Alomar has to be my choice. He was particularly adept at going to his right, his backhand side, and then making the difficult across-the-grain throw to first base. During pregame warmups and workouts, Alomar used to do something I found remarkable. He would redirect ground balls by deflecting them off the back side of his glove, ricocheting them behind his back and toward the shortstop covering second base. Amazing.

Shortstop: Ozzie Smith: Yes, he had the benefit of playing much of his career on artificial turf, which made his job a little easier than Belanger’s or Wilson’s, but he had range, quickness, dexterity, soft hands and an accurate arm. What else is there?

Third base: Brooks Robinson: There were third basemen who were better athletes and had stronger arms, but none who had the lightning quick first step, vacuum-like hands, and shortstop-type range of Brooksie. If you’ve never treated yourself to the 1970 World Series highlight film, please make a point of doing so. They could have called it the Brooks Robinson Circus.

Left field: Rickey Henderson: He covered left field like a center fielder, which allowed him to make plays from the foul line to the left-center field gap. All that he lacked was a strong throwing arm, but that weakness was not enough to detract from his exceptional range and quick jumps.

Center Field: Blair: I didn’t really see Mays in his prime, so Blair is the choice. He provided the template for playing center field, from his extremely shallow positioning to his ability to go back on fly balls. It should come as no surprise that Blair started his career as a shortstop, where he had all of the requisite quickness and dexterity. When Blair saw that the Mets, his original organization, lacked numbers in the outfield, he gladly made the switch, initiating one of the greatest career moves in history.

Right field: Clemente: Other than a failure to hit the cutoff man at times, Clemente had no weakness defensively. He could cover ground to both sides and could throw better than anyone. If you ever have a chance to watch the 1971 World Series highlight film, do it. Clemente was 37 and near the end of a Hall of Fame career, but he made two of the most remarkable throws I’ve ever seen. He didn’t retire the runner on either play, but the throws were still eye poppers.

Thinking of Dave McNally

Marvin Miller’s death in November produced a large and diverse volume of reaction, which is only appropriate given the way that he drastically altered the game’s financial structure from the 1960s through the 1980s. Yet, Miller could not have done it without the cooperation, and in some cases the sacrifices, of the players for whom he worked. One of those players was Dave McNally.

Ten years ago this month, baseball lost a fine pitcher and one of its game-changing pioneers when McNally died at the age of 60. He was one of the lynchpins to that great Orioles rotation of the early 1970s, a group that included Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson and Mike Cuellar. And then, when he was no longer serviceable as a player, he found a way to contribute to another cause.

McNally succumbed to lung cancer in December of 2002. He was one of several Orioles of that era who died from cancer, along with Belanger and Cuellar; all three were smokers. (Belanger was a brutally heavy smoker who often puffed on cigarettes between innings.) In the ’60s and ’70s, smoking was much more prevalent among ballplayers, in large part because we were still learning about the devastating effects of a prolonged smoking habit.

One of the best left-hand pitchers of the pre-free agency era, McNally piled up four consecutive 20-win seasons on his way to 184 career victories. Some have called him the greatest left-hander in the history of the Orioles’ franchise. Yet, he was humble about his achievements. When a reporter asked him if he had any chance to make the Hall of Fame, McNally offered this response to Sports Collectors Digest: “I don’t think so. I didn’t have enough wins. Sandy Koufax had only 165 wins, but he was really dominating. I think a pitcher has to be in the neighborhood of 250 wins unless some rare thing went with it. I think the Hall of Fame has done a tremendous job making sure it’s not easy to get in.”

McNally’s selflessness matched his refreshing honesty and modesty. After being traded to the Montreal Expos as part of the Ken Singleton/Mike Torrez deal, his new team offered him a contract paying him $125,000, which would have been one of the highest salary figures of the day. But McNally refused to sign, in part because he felt the Expos had reneged on some other aspects of the deal. McNally instead played the 1975 season at a reduced salary and without a signed contract, so that he could support the Dodgers’ Andy Messersmith (who also refused to sign a contract for 1975) and help the Players Association in making a stronger case for free agency.

After the 1975 season, arbitrator Peter Seitz delivered his ruling on the case. He awarded both McNally and Messersmith their freedom, making them free agents and thereby allowing them to negotiate with any of the 24 big league teams. The decision really didn’t benefit McNally, since he had already decided to retire in midseason, but his participation in the case helped the players win an important gain in their struggle against major league owners.

One year after the McNally/Messersmith decision, major league players embarked upon their first season of real free agency. Without the courage and servitude of pioneers like McNally, players of the current day would not be enjoying the salaries and benefits that make their jobs as favorable as they are. Just like Marvin Miller, McNally helped shake the foundation of the game.

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  1. Ron said...

    So Al Kaline is punished for not playing 80% of his games in rightfield? Winning GG’s in centerfield.
    Nobody was better in right than Kaline, nobody. Fielding, arm strength AND Accuracy, Kaline was right there with Clemente.

  2. David said...

    Roberto Alomar over Frank White?  I don’t think so.  Frankly, I don’t think Alomar was a better defender than Fernando Vina.  He was just a better offensive player, and on better teams.  Vina was more than his equal.  But Frank White is maybe better than Maz.  Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia, Aaron Hill… there are a lot of still-active guys that I would rank above Alomar.  I never found all the diving to be that impressive.  He DID have a great glove, though.  But his range strikes me as “meh” compared to a LOT of other guys.

  3. butch said...

    Bruce,You Forget The Greatest Knuckle Baller, And The Greatest Relief Pitcher, Of All Time, Hoyt Wilhelm!! He’s Also My Favorite HOFer!!
    Happy Holidays, Bruce!!

  4. John said...

    I’ll play this game.  My *opinion* is restricted to ballplayers I watched in action, not in retrospective highlight reels.  Of course, my opinion carries lesser weight than many here, as I did not see EVERY player in my lifetime, and very few of them often enough to adequately grade their skills.

    C – Ivan Rodriguez
    1 – Keith Hernandez
    2 – Frank White
    S – Mark Belanger
    3 – Graig Nettles
    LF – Joe Rudi
    CF – Paul Blair or Garry Maddox
    RF – Jesse Barfield or Dave Parker

    Admittedly, my right field choices are based mostly on arm strength.  Barfield is under-recognized and I must admit at being surprised by his selection based on statistical theory.

    Another name worth a mention here is Dick Green.  I sure thought he was great, but can we trust an eight year old?  I’m afraid not.


  5. hopbitters said...

    B-R doesn’t seem to have advanced fielding stats for everybody, at least the first one I went to look up (Joe Tinker). I should probably head over to ww to read the full article.

    Steve and Bruce in one place makes me all nostalgic for the old Netshrine forums.

  6. Dave Cornutt said...

    Not all of those knuckleballers used the pitch the same way or to the same degree.  IIRC, Joe Niekro had 4-5 pitches and the knuckler was just one that he mixed in.  On the other hand, Phil Niekro and Wakefield used the knuckleball almost exclusively; I recall Phil once saying that he threw about 10 fastballs per game and pretty much everything else was the knuckler.  Hough’s pitch was usually described as a “knuckle curve”, which I’m not quite sure what that is.

  7. Paul G. said...

    Jesse Barfield made some of the most jaw dropping throws I have ever seen.  I remember one game when he was with the Yankees.  He caught a ball by the wall along the right field line and then threw out a runner tagging from second to third.  Ball never touched the ground.  Not saying he is better than Clemente but he was really good.

  8. wingnut said...

    kaline and clemente were virtually the same player, value wise.  both of them gave you anything you could possibly want from a right fielder.

    i’ve always thought ellis valentine had the best right field arm of anyone i’ve seen…and i remember al and roberto…grew up a tigers fan.

    isn’t dickey just the first guy in a long, long time to throw the hard knuckler?  used to be, it was the hard knuckler you’d see way more often than the floater…which is why so many guys had a knuckler in their repertoire, i always thought.  the hard knuckler is easier to control, but still works as a kind of change up…

  9. wingnut said...

    …oh…and i’m partial to aurelio rodriguez at third base, even though i know he can’t really be the guy.

    boy, did he have a gun for an arm, though…

  10. Ivan Weiss said...

    When I was a kid in Philadelphia I was privileged to watch Billy Cox play third base for the Dodgers. Since then I have seen Eddie Mathews, Ken Boyer, Clete Boyer, Brooks Robinson, Aurelio Rodriguez, Graig Nettles, and Scott Rolen in their defensive primes, among the great glove men at third base.

    Now I live in Seattle, where I got to watch Adrian Beltre play third base for five years. IMO Beltre is as good defensively as anyone I have ever seen or heard of at the hot corner. If Bill Mazeroski (deservedly) can be in the Hall of Fame for his defense, then there should be a strong case for Beltre when his time comes.

    I’m also glad to see Belanger get the recognition here for his shortstop defense. I always thought he was right up there with Ozzie defensively.

    Two personal observations about center field defense from the 1950s. According to Bill James, the numbers show that no center fielder alive at the time tracked and got to more fly balls than Richie Ashburn. Richie’s lack of a stronger throwing arm must legitimately keep him from being mentioned with elite all-around defensive center fielders, but his range value did set a standard.

    The other is arm strength and accuracy. He played in the same outfield as Carl Furillo, in the same city as Willie Mays, and in the same league as Roberto Clemente, but anyone who doubts that Duke Snider could throw with all those guys never saw him play. I also remember distinctly that people considered that the strongest arm—not necessarily the most accurate—at the time belonged to Rocky Colavito.

    All this, of course, FWIW. Others might well have different recollections. Thanks for a fun read.

  11. Dennis Bedard said...

    Aurelio Rodriguez?  Damn.  I remember him well.  Great left side of the infield with Ed Brinkman on the post Denny McClain Tigers of the early 70’s.

  12. Cliff Blau said...

    In left, I’d go with Willie Wilson, who actually got good jumps more often than Rickey, and may have been even faster.  Both had left fielders’ arms.

    You left out one position: pitcher.  Based just on the kinescope of Game 7 of the 1960 WS, I’m going with Bobby Shantz.

    A knuckle curve is thrown with the index and middle finger under the ball; Burt Hooton made it famous.  Charlie Hough didn’t throw that.

  13. Shane Tourtellotte said...

    I second Cliff’s nomination of Bobby Shantz, and on the same evidence.  That man covered first base faster than any other pitcher I’ve ever seen, and he was a lefty, falling off to the third-base side.  Watch his two plays against the Pirates in Game 7—and then watch Jim Coates mess up the same play on Clemente’s bunt in the eighth, and what that led to.  Let no one say pitcher fielding doesn’t matter much.

  14. Anon said...

    Really? Your list of surprises from that list doesn’t include Bernard Gilkey?

    I don’t ever remember GIlkey being noted for his defense.

  15. dennis Bedard said...

    Two more points on this post.  I disagree that Pat Dobson was a mainstay on the early 1970 Oriole teams.  He played two seasons with the O’s, 1971 and ‘72.  He went 20-8 in 71 and 16-18 in 72 and was then traded.  The 3 workhorses of that rotation were McNally, Palmer, and Cuellar, each posting stellar numbers in 69, 70,and 71. 
    On McNally’s free agency:  Peter Seitz was fired by the owners literally seconds after he delivered the opinion in his office.  Marvin Miller in his autobiography paints a somewhat comical scene as Seitz hands out copies of his opinion and is fired as soon as the owner’s rep gets to the last page.  It was all pre-ordained.  But the decision should not have come as a surprise.  Seitz had ruled in favor of Rick Barry a few years earlier, holding that the NBA contract’s reserve clause could not be enforced once a player held out for one year.  The NBA contract was identical to the one the MLB used at the time.  While Seitz gets the credit, as he should, there was a panel of three arbitrators.  Each side picked one and the other was agreed upon by both as “neutral.”  It was gross negligence for the owners to agree on Seitz knowing his previous opinion.

  16. Bruce Markusen said...

    Just a couple of points:

    I intentionally left out Wilhelm because he was primarily a reliever. The others—the Niekros, Wood, Hough, Candiotti, Wakefield, and Dickey—have had most of their success as starters.

    Also, I didn’t touch pitchers because Steve Lombardi didn’t mention pitchers in his post. He included only position players.

  17. bucdaddy said...

    Maz had to be seen to be believed, and it’s long been my wish that somebody would compile a video of Maz turning two and Clemente making throws, because most fans today who never saw them in action wouldn’t believe it. Santa has yet to deliver on that wish.

    Some of Maz’s pivots were so perfect it was hard to tell if he actually touched the ball or if Alley just threw straight to first and Maz pantomimed the turn as the ball went by. He used a ridiculously tiny glove too, by today’s standards, which IIRC he said helped him not lose the ball in the glove. It was barely bigger than his hand, looked like something Johnny Evers would have used.

    Still holds the career record for DPs by a second baseman, doesn’t he?

  18. David said...

    I remember reading a story about Frank White, when he was asked who the best person at the double play pivot was.  He said, “Bill Mazeroski.”  When asked when he saw him play, White responded that he didn’t – he saw him at a fantasy camp nearly 20 years after Maz had retired, and he was STILL faster than anyone else White had ever seen.

  19. Bill McKinley said...

    I had to weigh in on this with some names and comments:
    C: Johnny Bench/Bill Freehan
    1B: Keith Hernandez/Wes Parker
    2B: Bill Mazeroski/Nellie Fox
    3B: Brooks Robinson/Clete Boyer
    SS: Ozzie Smith/Mark Belanger
    LF: Rickey Henderson/Barry Bonds
    CF: Paul Blair/Jim Landis
    RF: Al Kaline/Roberto Clemente

    I’ve been watching baseball for 55 years and only included the guys I’ve watched play in person or on TV.

    Big Mac

  20. Scottso said...

    Andruw Jones is perhaps the greatest centerfielder.  Anything in or back was his.  And he made it look so easy.

    I-Rod was a fantastic catcher.

    Ozzie Smith was just a vacuum cleaner at short.  While he had true bounces on the turf, he also had to deal with balls getting thru the hole faster.  Yet he got to almost everything.

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