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The best knuckleballer over the past 25-30 years….?

In the Blue Jays’ 10-2 victory over the Mariners on September 23, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey pitched a five-hitter through seven innings to thwart Seattle’s fading playoff hopes (while Toronto hammered M’s ace Felix Hernandez for eight runs).

For Dickey, he improved his record to 14-12 with a 3.78 ERA, the third straight season that he’s won at least 14 games.

Well, I was asked recently on Quora.com: Who was the best knuckleball pitcher in baseball in the last 25-30 years?

A lot of fans are going to come up with the names Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield. Some might even say Dickey, who won the National League Cy Young Award with the New York Mets in 2012.

I’m going to, however, go with former Indians and Dodgers knuckleball pitcher Tom Candiotti, who was the most consistent knuckleballer over the last 25-30 years.

2012-R.A.-Dickey-213x300While Dickey had his one big season with the Mets (as well as a couple of other solid campaigns in New York where he pitched well but didn’t get much run support), he has not been that great with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013-2014. He hasn’t been able to duplicate his success from that 2012 season, which kind of makes him a one-hit wonder.

Wakefield will always be highly regarded in Boston because of his longevity and his being on two World Series championship teams with the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007, but he had some very ugly seasons where he pitched poorly. In his rookie year with the Pirates, he was nearly unhittable and was a postseason star as he nearly pitched Pittsburgh into the World Series. However, over his postseason career, he was hit very hard and compiled an overall ERA of 6.75 in 18 career playoff appearances. In his final four career postseason starts, Wakefield was 0-3 with a 10.47 ERA. He especially struggled against Cleveland in the playoffs, allowing at least five runs in each of his three career postseason starts versus the Indians. Yes, he wound up winning 200 regular-season games over a 19-year career, but his ERA was over 4.00 in 15 of those seasons. He had six seasons where his ERA was over 5.00. However, he always seemed to win because of good run support with the Red Sox, as he was 14-13 with a 5.14 ERA in 1996 and 17-8 despite a 4.58 ERA two years later.

As for Tom Candiotti, he pitched 16 seasons in the big leagues, and though he finished with a career losing record and “only” 151 victories, he had an ERA over 4.00 only six times. Candiotti nearly won the ERA title in 1991, finishing with a 2.65 earned-run average that was second in the American League only to Roger Clemens (2.62). Had he allowed just one fewer earned run over the course of that season, Candiotti would have won the ERA championship. In 1993, he finished just 8-10, but suffered from atrocious run support while pitching for the Dodgers. That year, he was the ERA leader in the major leagues, pitching to a 2.43 earned-run average entering September before struggling in the season’s final weeks to finish at 3.12. In fact, for a full decade from 1986-1995, Candiotti had a 3.44 ERA, which was one of the best earned-run averages in baseball during that stretch. He also averaged 30 starts and over 200 innings during that decade, proving to be a very dependable pitcher for his clubs. He and Mark Langston were the only pitchers in the majors to work at least 200 innings in each season from 1986-1993, until the 1994 strike ended both streaks. His career ERAs after the 1995 season were 3.51 in the American League and 3.38 in the National League. Of his 151 career wins, 70 came in starts where he allowed one run or none. Even though he threw the knuckleball primarily during his career, he consistently had a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, meaning he consistently had twice as many strikeouts as he did walks.

Yes, R.A. Dickey was 12-1 with a 2.15 ERA at one point during the 2012 season, and Tim Wakefield started 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA in 1995. However, Candiotti had similar brilliant stretches of pitching…but not the gaudy won-loss records to show for them because the quality of his teams. In 1991, for instance, Candiotti had a 2.01 ERA in his first 19 starts…but only a 9-8 record and was left off the AL All-Star team. In 1993, he had a 1.53 ERA over a stretch of 17 starts, but was 6-1 with 10 no-decisions. The same summer when Wakefield made all the headlines in Boston with that 1.65 ERA in 1995, Candiotti had a stretch of 13 starts where his ERA was 1.74 for Los Angeles. Alas, the Dodgers gave him very little support, resulting in a 4-6 record in that stretch. Naturally, over time his accomplishments are no longer remembered.

Tom Candiotti never truly got any recognition because of the losing records he suffered while pitching for bad teams in Cleveland and Los Angeles. Had he gotten better support, he would have been better remembered. Or, if he had pitched today and gotten the same results, he would be talked about as a hard-luck pitcher because the baseball media now weigh more importance on other statistics and less on wins. During Candiotti’s time, it seemed that wins-and-losses were the be-all, end-all, and with his losing record he didn’t get as much press. Thus, he is forgotten today. On some lists on the Internet that talk about the best knuckleballers in baseball history, some bloggers cite Candiotti’s best season as 1988, when he was 14-8 with a 3.28 ERA. However, he won 15 games in 1990, nearly won the ERA championship in 1991, and from 1992-95 had the fifth-best ERA in the NL (behind only Greg Maddux, Jose Rijo, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz). People have forgotten that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball for a while, knuckleball or not.

To learn more about Candiotti and his career, check out his biography titled Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs, which is available on Amazon.

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They think they know it all, but they don’t…

Ahhhh, every year these so-called experts in the media make these “intelligent” predictions, thinking they’re right. And more often than not, they turn out to be wrong.

For instance, just last week, certain sports-talk radio hosts on Fox Sports (whom I won’t name because I don’t want to give them any additional publicity) were saying how untouchable the Detroit Tigers were. At that time, the Tigers were in New York for a four-game series against the Yankees, with their trio of Cy Young Award winners going in back-to-back-to-back games in the first three contests from August 4 through August 6. That would be Max Scherzer (2013 Cy Young winner), David Price (2012 winner), and Justin Verlander (2011) going for the Tigers in three straight games.

verlanderThe Yankees opened the series by beating Scherzer behind the pitching of Arizona castoff Brandon McCarthy (4-0), before dropping a 12-inning affair in Price’s Tigers debut. That’s when the sports-talk guys started bashing New York, saying stuff like, “Guess what? You just lost a game started by David Price, and now you’ve got to face Justin Verlander!”

Except that this was the Justin Verlander who’s been struggling in 2014. The Yankees got two runs off of Verlander (10-10) and journeyman Chris Capuano outpitched the 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP, as New York won 5-1. The Yankees then made it three out of four in the series with rookie Shane Greene – in just his sixth career major-league start – beating Rick Porcello (13-6) by a score of 1-0.

So, what happened to those so-called experts proclaiming how great the Tigers starters were, how they were going to dominate New York? Heck, what happened to the Tigers in losing three of four to a supposed inferior team with no pitching? Letting Shane Greene and Chris Capuano and Brandon McCarthy outpitch your aces? Not counting Greene’s 1-0 victory, the Yankees starters gave up just three earned runs in 27.1 innings compared to the Tigers aces’ eight runs in 29.2 innings!

oswaltOnce again, this is what the so-called experts do, proclaiming how great such-and-such a pitching staff is. Weren’t the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies’ starting rotation supposed to be the greatest of all-time with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton? That’s what multiple media outlets were suggesting back then. The 2011 Phillies, as it turned out, didn’t win the World Series, and Oswalt spent several weeks on the DL because of a back injury. Actually, the Phillies didn’t even make it out of the NLDS, with Oswalt getting pounded for five runs against the Cardinals in Game Four in a loss to Edwin Jackson (!) as St. Louis evened the series at 2-2. The Cards then finished off the Phillies 1-0 two nights later.

Anyway, getting back to the 2014 Tigers, they had a chance to bury the Toronto Blue Jays, with Scherzer and Price going back-to-back in the final two games of their series at Rogers Centre on August 9-10. Scherzer did his job, but the offense got only two runs off rookie Marcus Stroman (who got lit up by the Chicago White Sox in his next start on August 15, by the way) and the bullpen blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth and lost, 3-2, in 10 innings. Closer Joe Nathan, by the way, has been brutal all season, and that game marked his seventh blown save of the year as his ERA climbed to 5.36.

But not to worry, right, as David Price would start Sunday in the series finale. The Tigers lit up the overrated Mark Buehrle (whom the Toronto media thought was going to win the Cy Young this year when he raced to a 10-1 start) and jumped out to a 5-0 lead, but the bullpen again coughed up the lead in the ninth. The game didn’t end till the 19th, when the Blue Jays won it 6-5 to take two of three in the series and the Tigers were forced to use starter Rick Porcello for two innings at the end. So much for the Tigers’ vaunted pitching. (As for the Blue Jays, they are dead anyway, getting swept in Seattle immediately following the Tigers series. At least the Mariners’ Cy Young winner did his job, as Felix Hernandez shut down the Blue Jays in the opener of that series with Toronto facing Scherzer, Price, and Hernandez in three straight games.)

Since Price (who gave up four runs) couldn’t get the job done against Toronto, the bullpen had to be taxed and the Tigers – who had placed right-handers Anibal Sanchez and Joakim Soria on the DL before the contest – used everyone except for Scherzer and Verlander.

Obviously, that meant the Tigers needed Verlander to give them a lot of innings the following night in Pittsburgh, but the former AL MVP and Cy Young winner was pounded for five runs in the first inning in the Pirates’ 11-6 victory. To make things worse, Verlander was taken out of the game after pitching just that one inning with right shoulder soreness, and the loss along with Kansas City’s 3-2 win over Oakland moved the Royals into first place ahead of Detroit in the AL Central.

hernandezSo much for the Tigers’ vaunted pitching staff. Verlander has had a bad year. In a tight game in the late innings, you can’t really trust the likes of Joe Nathan and Joba Chamberlain in the Tigers’ bullpen. And now, heading into the highly-anticipated David Price-Felix Hernandez matchup on August 16, the Tigers are trailing the Mariners for the second AL wild-card spot because Seattle spanked them 7-2 in the series opener in Detroit. The Royals, who won their third straight on August 15, now lead the Tigers by 1.5 games for the AL Central.

I’m still not convinced the Royals will hang on, but with the Tigers’ woes….perhaps we can stop thinking about the so-called “SI Jinx” but maybe think about the “Sports-Talk Radio Host Jinx” with these radio guys saying how untouchable the Tigers were and then this happens. Who knows, the 2014 Tigers could be the 2012-2013 Texas Rangers, a heavy favorite to win the division that ended up having to play in a 163rd game in order to advance further. (For the record, the Rangers lost both times, first the Wild Card Game to the Orioles in 2012 and then the wild-card tie-breaker game to the Rays in 2013).

Speaking of Tampa Bay, the Rays got to .500 by beating the Yankees on August 15. The Rays were now 61-61, which is remarkable since they were 18 games under .500 at one point (24-42 on June 10) and were the majors’ worst team. According to the AP, Tampa Bay became the fourth team in major-league history to reach the break-even point after falling 18 games under in the same season, joining the 1899 Louisville Colonels, the 2006 Florida Marlins, and the 2004 Devil Rays.

Tampa Bay is not going to make the postseason, but it should at least finish ahead of the Blue Jays (63-60), who are only 1.5 games better than the Rays right now. Ahhhh, remember way back when – it was in May – when the Toronto media thought the Blue Jays would just bash their way into the postseason and were laughing at the Rays? Well, perhaps those Rays will march into Rogers Centre from August 22 to 24 and spank those Blue Jays. Those media folks were the same people who thought a late-September series between Baltimore and Toronto would have some significant meaning for both clubs. Laughable. Perhaps the significance for Toronto would be to see if the Blue Jays can finish above .500 – or how many games within .500.

In any event, it should be an interesting race for the AL’s second wild-card spot the rest of the season. I don’t think Kansas City can hang on in the AL Central, because the Tigers are a more potent team. But if the Tigers somehow can’t recover and have to battle for the second wild-card spot,….then let’s call it the “Sports-Talk Radio Host Jinx” or something as those radio guys seemed to have an ALCS spot locked up for them weeks earlier.

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Flashback to 1995: A 1-0 gem featuring few, few pitches

I was interested in the Cleveland-Seattle game from July 30 because of the major-league record Felix Hernandez was potentially about to break, but as it turned out, it was the Indians’ starter that was making the headlines.

Corey Kluber, who is now the ace in Cleveland after the Indians traded Justin Masterson earlier in the day, threw an 85-pitch shutout to defeat Hernandez and the Mariners, 2-0. In his previous outing, the 28-year-old right-hander had taken a perfect game into the seventh inning against Kansas City back on July 24 in the Indians’ eventual 2-1 loss to the Royals.

According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, Kluber’s gem against Seattle marked just the seventh major-league shutout on 85 or fewer pitches in the 21st century [1].

That stat – so few pitches in a shutout – reminds me of a game in particular, one that featured Greg Maddux against his former Cubs teammate, Mike Morgan. It was an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game back in the 1995 season, where the Atlanta Braves beat the St. Louis Cardinals 1-0 in a contest that took under two hours to complete.

That night, Maddux tossed a two-hit shutout to outpitch Morgan, who allowed only six hits and a walk over eight innings [2]. A quick search on Baseball-Reference.com reveals that that game took place on August 20, 1995, with Maddux throwing only 88 pitches – 66 for strikes – in his nine innings.

mike morganAs for Morgan? He threw 84 pitches – 55 for strikes – over his eight innings of work. It might have been his best start of the season – and he did come within two outs of throwing a no-hitter against the Montreal Expos over a month earlier on July 3.

A tidy, efficient game for both pitchers, with the only run of the game coming in the third inning when Marquis Grissom led off with a double, moved to third on Jeff Blauser’s sacrifice but, and came home on Chipper Jones’ grounder to second base. That was all the scoring for the night, with the game lasting only an hour and 50 minutes.

Any baseball fan knows about Maddux’s dominance that season – where the Braves ace right-hander went 19-2 and captured his fourth consecutive Cy Young Award – so I won’t talk much more about him.

Let’s talk a little bit about Morgan, who went just 7-7 despite a respectable 3.56 ERA in 21 starts. Apparently, if you made him throw enough pitches – something that the Braves didn’t do – you were going to get to him in the late innings. More specifically, Morgan was virtually unhittable in his first 75 pitches in 1995, but became a batting practice pitcher on his 76th pitch onward.

That’s what Dodger third-base coach Joey Amalfitano told first baseman Eric Karros before he stepped up to the plate to face Morgan in the sixth inning on August 9, 1995. Next thing you knew, Karros stroked a two-run homer on the Cardinals right-hander’s 76th pitch of the night, and the Dodgers – with knuckleballer Tom Candiotti on the mound – went on to beat St. Louis, 4-2.

Speaking of Candiotti, he himself also once tossed a complete-game 1-0 shutout where he threw only 85 pitches. The knuckleballer fanned three and didn’t walk a hitter in the four-hit shutout. But that was a spring-training game back in 1987 between the Cleveland Indians and the Oakland Athletics, though the A’s did have their everyday players in the lineup that afternoon. According to an old San Jose Mercury News story from March 28, 1987, Tony Phillips (0-for-3), Carney Lansford (0-for-3), Jose Canseco (2-for-3), Reggie Jackson (0-for-3), and Mark McGwire (0-for-3) all played in that game.

Ahhhhh…great memories, and it’s thanks to Corey Kluber, the new ace of the Indians.

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[1] According to that same Yahoo! Sports story, Kluber faced one batter over the minimum in nine complete innings for his second straight start, which marked the first time it had happened in big-league history.

[2] Poor Morgan. He was also the losing pitcher in Dennis Martinez’s perfect game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 1991, dropping a hard-luck 2-0 decision. He gave up only four hits in a complete-game effort, with both runs off of him unearned.

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Will anyone beat Candiotti’s Cleveland mark for 200-inning seasons?

Right-hander Corey Kluber, who worked 6.1 innings on June 4th in Cleveland’s 7-4 walk-off victory over Boston, has emerged as the Indians’ best pitcher in 2014, posting a 6-3 record with a 3.23 ERA through the club’s first 61 games of the campaign. With 86.1 innings so far through 13 starts, he is on pace to finish with his first career 200-inning season.

Kluber, who made 24 starts in 2013, pitched a career-high 147.1 innings for the Indians last year when he was 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA.

Last season, no Indians pitcher topped the 200-inning mark, with right-hander Justin Masterson (14-10, 3.45) leading the Cleveland staff with 193 innings. The hard-luck Masterson was on pace to surpass 200 innings until he was sidelined in early September with an oblique injury. At the time, he had already pitched 188.1 innings through 28 starts and would have easily gotten past the 200 mark.

Masterson was forced to leave his September 2nd start against Baltimore after only one inning. He was sidelined for the three weeks before returning on September 25th. He made only three appearances upon his return – all in relief.

The significance of Masterson’s injury – other than the fact that the Indians were hurting as they were battling for a wild-card spot then and couldn’t afford to have their ace out of the rotation – was that it stopped him from getting to 200 innings. Had he reached that milestone, it would have been his third straight 200-inning season. Masterson could have been gunning for his fourth consecutive 200-inning campaign in 2014. (As of right now, he is on pace to fall just short of 200 innings this season.)

Other than the fact that the more innings Kluber and Masterson pitch helps Cleveland win ballgames, why is the 200-mark significant? Well, the reason is that Tom Candiotti remains the last pitcher to register five consecutive 200-inning seasons in a Cleveland Indians uniform, having accomplished the feat from 1986-1990. Candiotti would have made it six seasons in a row except the Indians traded him to Toronto in June of 1991.

Think about it. If not for Masterson’s injury in 2013, he would have been more than halfway to Candiotti’s streak. If Kluber gets to 200 this year, it will be his first such season – and he will have four more to go just to match Candiotti.

nagy

Charles Nagy nearly matched Tom Candiotti’s record…but fell just short.

Even though the Indians have had Cy Young pitchers in the recent past – such as Cliff Lee (2008 Cy Young winner) and CC Sabathia (2007 winner) – nobody has been able to match that feat in a Cleveland uniform. Lee and Sabathia, both of whom were workhorses in Cleveland, couldn’t approach that streak. Lee, for instance, managed “only” three 200-inning seasons in a four-year span during his time with the Indians. Sabathia was close, as he pitched 210 innings as a sophomore in 2002 and then 241 in his Cy Young season in 2007. In between, Sabathia logged 197.2 (in 2003), 188 (in 2004), 196.2 (in 2005), and 192.2 innings (in 2006). He would then pitch a career-high 253 innings in 2008, but split that season with the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers.

Jake Westbrook, an All-Star for Cleveland in 2004, had three straight 200-inning seasons for the Indians from 2004-2006. Alas, he made only 25 starts in 2007 and threw just 152 innings. Prior to the streak, Westbrook had tossed 133 innings in 2003.

Going back a few years, Charles Nagy came the closest when he logged four straight 200-inning seasons for the Indians from 1996-1999.

Since no Indians pitcher got to 200 innings in 2013, Candiotti’s record as the last Cleveland pitcher with at least five consecutive 200-inning campaigns will last for at least five more years.

“Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs,” a biography of former big-league pitcher Tom Candiotti, will be released in July of 2014. You may pick up a copy either from Amazon.com or through the McFarland & Company website.

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