Pitching the Knuckleball in 2014

R.A. Dickey, recently seen at the Mohegan Sun Coaches’ Convention, said there that he agreed to be traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014 because that’s “where I felt the biggest challenge was. I felt like my pitch was in a place where I could really challenge myself and see how good I could really be, and I feel like the [American League] East is that place.

“It’s the toughest division maybe in the world…. The parks you pitch in, there is no foul ground…and it’s just a heavy hitters league. I was hoping to do better, but I feel it was a good stepping stone last year for me to get better.”

iDickey says it’s more fun to do better than people expect of you than to confront super-high expectations from the start of a career. “If you follow my arc of my career as a Met, there were no expectations on me early on so every year you are able to exceed what people think you can do. When you’re exceeding expectations, it’s a good place to be basically from a fan standpoint and from a media standpoint, and all that.”

The 39-year-old knuckleballer won the Cy Young Award for his work in 2012 with the New York Mets, but struggled in 2013. He knows he can climb his way out of a trough, though, having done it before.

His pitching coach, Pete Walker, shares the same long-haul perspective. “I don’t think he is a one- or two-year guy and he is going to go home. He loves to pitch and he is going to see this through… He’s got great command and I think he learned a lot about himself last year in Toronto.”

We’ve noted the recent return of Tomo Ohka to American baseball, now as a knuckleballer; he’ll be playing on a minor-league team under the Blue Jays and will spend some time training with Dickey.

It’s also been reported that Zach Clark and Eddie Gamboa have re-signed with the Orioles organization as minor-league pitchers and plan to continue working on their knuckleballs, which they first began to rely on in the 2013 season.

Gamboa, 29, is getting “a little closer to the majors and a little closer to consistency with the knuckler,” according to Steve Melewski. Gamboa, who has been testing his mettle in Mexico this winter.

He began throwing a knuckleball last year in spring training and and began to have success with the pitch at Double-A Bowie. When he moved to Triple-A Norfolk in July, he threw the pitch more often, but the results got worse. After the season ended, he went to winter ball in Mexico and got back to a comfort level with the pitch, going 3-4 with a 2.64 ERA in 11 starts….

The Orioles added Gamboa to their 40-man roster on Nov. 20, but less than two weeks later he was non-tendered and removed from the 40-man. That led to him re-signing with the club on Jan. 7, when he signed a minor league contract with an invite to big league spring training…. The O’s brass suggested he throw the knuckler and they realized it was a long-term project.

“It was destiny for me to come back to the Orioles,” he said. “Because Dan Duquette has been great and treated me with respect. When I pitched lousy, he’s calling me and telling me the positive things about this. Plus having access to a Hall of Famer like Phil Niekro (who worked with him last year) keeps me excited for the start of the year. The Orioles have had faith in me with this pitch.

OriolesBaseball“Every day is different with the knuckleball. I’m still learning with it. It wasn’t the competitive me in Triple-A. I wasn’t as focused on winning as working on something. But I felt like I needed to win and compete in Mexico. As an American player there, if you are not doing well, you come home real quick.”

Gamboa says that he expects to begin the season with knuckleballs constituting half of his pitches, “but if there is a day I can feel I’m really throwing strikes with this thing, I’d go 100 percent.” (IKA News first took note of Gamboa’s prospects last July, in our very first post.)

Last May, Zach Clark was also added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster while still a conventional pitcher, and was used, but got in only four days of major-league play before being returned to the minors and taking up the knuckleball. He too re-signed with the Orioles in January.

Clark told Melewski:

“The thing that was crazy to me was I felt like the expectation was I’m going to pick it up and be in the big leagues by the end of the year. I don’t know if that is the case or not, but that’s the way it felt…

“I had messed around in the past with a knuckler, but had never thrown the pitch in a game, in high school or ever. It was cool they thought I could do it, but there were things I had to learn and still have to learn that only comes with experience.

“I feel better, I feel more comfortable but we’ll know more when I see hitters. This will be the first time I go through spring training as a knuckleballer.”

IKA has more about Clark’s work on his knuckleball in a December 22 post.

Clark, Gamboa and Zach Staniewicz have all been tutored by Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer with 318 major league victories under his belt.

Others trying to knuckleball their way into the big leagues include Charlie Haeger and Steven Wright (both of the Red Sox organization), and Kevin Pucetas (the Rangers). All have re-signed minor league contracts with their outfits for the 2014 season.

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