Orioles Embrace an Unpredictable Pitch ; Baltimore Hires Niekro to Teach Batch of Hurlers How to Use Knuckleball

By Kuttler, Hillel | International Herald Tribune, August 13, 2013 | Go to article overview

Orioles Embrace an Unpredictable Pitch ; Baltimore Hires Niekro to Teach Batch of Hurlers How to Use Knuckleball


Kuttler, Hillel, International Herald Tribune


The Baltimore Orioles have hired Phil Niekro, who won 314 games in the majors, to groom minor-leaguers on how to win with the unpredictable pitch.

Standing in the outfield before a May game in Anaheim, California, Orioles Manager Buck Showalter did not like what he saw in Zach Clark, but it had little to do with Clark's mechanics or repertory.

Showalter noticed that Clark had gnawed his fingernails -- hardly ideal for an aspiring knuckleballer.

"You may want to stop doing that," Clark recalled Showalter's telling him.

Clark eventually had acrylic nails applied to the middle three fingers of his right hand, so he could dig into the ball and release it as if it were a balloon.

"Trying to explain it was weird," Clark said of his visit to a Maryland salon.

Although the Orioles did not put a manicurist on the payroll, they did sign a consultant for 2013, Phil Niekro, who won 318 games in a 24-year career, riding the knuckleball from the moment the Milwaukee Braves signed him in 1958.

Niekro's assignment is to help the Orioles transform three pitchers into full-time knuckleballers: Clark, 30, now with Class A Frederick, Maryland.; Zach Staniewicz, 27, in the rookie Gulf Coast League; and Eddie Gamboa, 28, of Class AAA Norfolk, Virginia.

Baltimore's approach may be unconventional, but leaders in the organization are well aware of how effective the knuckleball can be. While managing the Texas Rangers in 2005, Showalter persuaded a flailing pitcher, R.A. Dickey, to take up the knuckleball. Last year, Dickey won 20 games for the New York Mets and earned the National League's Cy Young Award.

Dan Duquette, the Orioles' executive vice president for baseball operations, also has experience with a successful knuckleballer. When he ran the Red Sox, Duquette signed Tim Wakefield after the Pittsburgh Pirates released him in 1995. Wakefield pitched for 17 seasons with Boston.

The Orioles' strategy is a lifeline for pitchers trying to salvage their careers and a low-risk, high-reward proposition for the organization. It involves identifying prospects who are likely to remain in the minor leagues or to reach the majors only briefly.

But Duquette, Showalter and the Orioles' pitching coach, Rick Adair, said that even middling candidates for conversion must fit basic criteria.

A player must sublimate his ego to embrace an unorthodox pitch; stick with it despite inevitable poundings when the knuckleball refuses to dip, dart and flutter; and be athletic enough to field squib hits when a batter makes contact. He must also limit base stealers, using a quick delivery from the stretch to offset the pitch's slower journey to the plate.

Making that adjustment is not so simple. Charlie Haeger, a pitcher in the Red Sox organization who estimated that he throws the knuckler about 85 percent of the time, said, "As a kid, you don't think of becoming a knuckleball pitcher."

Sitting in his office at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Duquette made a case for developing more knuckleballers.

"I'm not sure why there aren't more out there, because every time you throw the pitch, you have a chance to get an out," he said. "Look at the money the industry spends on conventional pitchers, and most of them end up on the disabled list, not even working. You're not putting as much stress on your shoulder because you're trying to get the ball to float, not throw it past the backstop. …

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