Standing in the outfield before a May game in Anaheim, Calif., 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 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, Md.; Zach Staniewicz, 27, in the rookie Gulf Coast League; and Eddie Gamboa, 28, of Class AAA Norfolk, Va.
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 to 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.
Above all, Showalter said, “you have to have failed at a very high level.”
The Orioles’ approach, if it works, could prompt a reassessment of pitchers’ development in the short and long terms. Throwing knuckleballs puts far less strain on the shoulder and arm than throwing conventional pitches, possibly extending innings pitched and careers.
“You forget everything you learned about pitching when you throw a knuckleball,” Niekro said in a telephone interview.
But it is hard to trust a pitch whose speed is not the object and whose destination is unpredictable.
“With the knuckleball, you have to make the commitment,” Niekro said. “You’ve got to throw it in all situations.”
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.”
He added: “About half our players are pitchers on a given team. Why not knuckleballers - why not? Our goal is to have them pitch until they collect Social Security, or at least their major league pension.”
To tutor Wakefield, Duquette once hired Niekro and his brother Joe, another knuckleballer. Wakefield consulted with Charlie Hough, who had recently retired, and Tom Candiotti, who was also learning the pitch. And when Dickey began to focus on the knuckleball, first with Texas and then with the Seattle Mariners and the Minnesota Twins, he sought out Wakefield.
Wakefield, who retired with 200 wins, now works as a Red Sox broadcaster while advising Haeger, 29, and another knuckleballer, Steven Wright, 28. Haeger and Wright adopted the pitch on their own, as members of other organizations.
Despite Duquette’s and Showalter’s pivotal roles in developing the major leagues’ two most recent successful knuckleballers - Wakefield and Dickey, who now pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays - coincidence rather than design underlies the Orioles’ approach.
In June 2012, Staniewicz, then an inspector of cargo planes at Pope Field near Fayetteville, N.C., visited Camden Yards to be honored as a member of a military all-star team. At the batting cage before the Orioles played, Staniewicz told Duquette that he had developed a knuckleball. Duquette urged him to work on it.
In January, at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner in New York, Niekro told Duquette that Staniewicz had visited him.
“Phil said to me, ‘The guy’s got enough of a knuckleball that you should sign and train him,’” Duquette said.
Duquette went further, signing Staniewicz and Niekro to one-year contracts. At spring training in Sarasota, Fla., Niekro was working with Staniewicz when he glimpsed Gamboa throwing and added him as a pupil, too. When Niekro observed Gamboa at Class AA Bowie, Md., Clark’s pregame tossing of knuckleballs caught his eye. Clark then climbed aboard the Niekro bandwagon.
“Phil’s the pied piper,” Duquette said.
The players, like the pitch itself, have had ups and downs.
In consecutive starts for Bowie in June, Gamboa allowed one hit in 7 1/3 innings and threw seven no-hit innings. Going into his start Sunday night, however, he was 1-2 with a 5.54 earned run average since being promoted to Norfolk in July. This season, Clark has been rocked for a 2-13 record and an 8.71 ERA while pitching for four minor league teams and in one game with the Orioles.
Haeger, who took up the knuckleball in 2004, has pitched in parts of five seasons for three major league teams, most recently with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2010. He missed last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. After being signed by the Red Sox, he has posted a 6-7 record with a 4.70 ERA for Class AA Portland, Maine, and Class AAA Pawtucket, R.I.
Then there is Wright, who has shuttled between Pawtucket and Boston this year. He gave up five runs and six hits in 3 2/3 innings of relief in his major league debut, but he was solid in his next outing, allowing no runs and three hits in 5 2/3 innings. Last Tuesday, facing Houston in his first major league start, Wright lasted one inning. He allowed three runs and one hit, walked two, hit a batter and threw a wild pitch, and his knuckler had much to do with catcher Ryan Lavarnway’s four passed balls. Wright was sent back to Pawtucket two days later.
None of that concerns Niekro.
“I remember when I was with Richmond, my stats weren’t great, but they brought me up and it changed my life completely,” said Niekro, who checks in occasionally with his protégés.
The difficulties in controlling the knuckleball, let alone mastering it, are hardly lost on Duquette.
“We knew this wasn’t a short-term project,” he said. “We were willing to invest some time in them if they were willing to spend some time on the knuckleball.”
These Orioles and Red Sox players are dedicated to mastering the pitch, although Clark acknowledged that he was not comfortable with relying on his knuckleball. He throws it about half the time, he said, and feels he has to “protect it with my conventional stuff”: a sinker, a two-seam fastball and a curveball.
As the pitchers develop, it becomes more likely that knuckleballers will once again face each other in the major leagues. A knuckleball matchup could materialize in Baltimore or Boston, with postseason implications.
But it would be tough to match the Atlanta Braves’ unusual achievement on Sept. 30, 1969, when they defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 3-2, on a combined seven-hitter by the knuckleballers Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm. The win clinched the first National League West crown, and Niekro and Wilhelm were eventually voted into the Hall of Fame.
For now, the prospects would probably be happy just to earn an extended stay in the majors, even if they had to hang on by their fingertips.