Former MLB knuckleball pitcher Charlie Haeger has joined the minor league pitching staff of the Tampa Bay Rays. Does this mean that Haeger will be detecting and encouraging incipient knuckleballers who may one day break into the MLB?
According to the Rays’ press release about its coaching and medical staffs for 2016:
Charlie Haeger has joined the Rays organization as pitching coordinator. The former knuckleballer spent parts of five seasons in the majors with the Chicago White Sox (2006-07), San Diego Padres (2008) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2009-10). He missed the 2012 season following Tommy John surgery, and last pitched stateside with the Boston Red Sox organization in 2013. Haeger was most recently a pitching coach for Madonna University in Livonia, Mich.
If he does end up tutoring anybody in knuckleball knowhow, what will Haeger be telling them? We find clues in an 2011 interview conducted by David Laurila of FanGraphs:
DL: How do you throw a baseball with little or no rotation?
CH: There is a particular way that I hold my hand, hold the baseball, and release it. But I don’t think there is one set-in-stone way that it has to be thrown. There is kind of a norm in the industry, although there obviously aren’t too many of us throwing one anymore.
What I try to do is keep my wrist as straight as I can when I let go of the baseball. I try to have my hand behind it, with my palm facing home plate.
My palm is [contacting] the ball, as well as two fingers — my index finger and middle finger. Technically, my nails are into the ball, not my knuckles. I kind of want the ball to pop out. That’s how you get it to leave your hand without spinning.
DL: How loosely, or firmly, are you gripping the baseball?
CH: It depends on the day. There are days where you want to hold it a little firmer, because it feels better to you, and there are days where you want to hold it a little looser. It’s such a feel pitch.
DL: Where are your fingers on the ball?
CH; If you look at a baseball, and where they write “Rawlings,” right underneath the horseshoe — both of my fingertips are pretty much right on the Rawlings. I try not to contact the seams. There are times where it feels better in a particular spot, but for the most part I don’t touch the seams. Any time your finger is touching a seam, you have a chance for the ball to be manipulated, just from catching a snag on a seam, or not letting go of the baseball in the correct way.
Haeger was so discouraged by his early efforts in professional baseball that he switched to golf for a little while—before switching to the knuckleball “as a last-ditch attempt to salvage a career that was heading nowhere,” according to a 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times.
Haeger wasn’t sure where his knuckleball would take him when he learned the pitch.
Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2001, Haeger figured his career was over after two rough seasons in rookie ball. He left the game for a year, enrolling at Madonna University and walking onto the golf team.
But he wanted back in baseball. The knuckleball gave him another chance.
“I don’t want to say it was a desperation move, but it was almost a desperation move,” said Haeger, who was encouraged to learn the pitch by minor league pitching coach Chris Sinocori.
Two and a half years later, he was in the majors.
Only Charlie Haeger knows whether he was only almost-desperate, or indeed fully desperate, to advance his baseball career when he took up the knuckleball. But there’s nothing wrong with being desperate to achieve a goal if it leads you to discover and learn and succeed with a practical means of achieving that goal.