Cooperstown Confidential: Knuckleballs, fielders and pioneersby Bruce Markusen
December 21, 2012
Knucklers north of the borderI'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.
Earlier this month, Steve Lombardi of http://www.waswatching.com 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.
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.
Thinking of 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.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.