Posts Tagged Blue Jays

Why is the knuckleball such an important style of pitching in the game of baseball?

First off, congratulations to the Vancouver Canadians and Hillsboro Hops for advancing to the Northwest League Championship Series, which begins on Saturday, September 6th. Vancouver, after finishing ahead of Tri-City for the second-half pennant and sweeping Spokane in the North Division Finals, is gunning for its fourth straight Northwest League title. Hillsboro, meanwhile, is in the finals for the first time in only its second season in the league, after the franchise relocated from Yakima, Washington.

Congratulations to both organizations.

Now, moving on to another topic…. On Quora.com, which is a Q&A website where questions are created, answered, edited, and organized by its community of users, I was recently asked the following question:

Why is the knuckleball such an important style of pitching in the game of baseball?

Here was my response on Quora:

Very few pitchers throughout the history of baseball have mastered the art of throwing the knuckleball, which is a difficult pitch to learn. It is also a difficult pitch to hit as well, as even the best hitters in the major leagues have trouble with the pitch because they are used to seeing 90-mph fastballs and the knuckler throws their timing off.

Bobby Bonilla was one of many major-leaguers who hated facing Candiotti's knuckleball.

Bobby Bonilla was one of many major-leaguers who hated facing Candiotti’s knuckleball.

Tom Candiotti, a knuckleballer who pitched in the majors from 1983 to 1999, told me on several occasions that All-Stars such as Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, and Bobby Bonilla always told him they never liked facing him and that knuckleball because it messed up their swing for a whole week after seeing it! Bonilla, a switch-hitter, didn’t want to bat left-handed against the right-handed Candiotti, because he was afraid it would mess up his left-handed swing.

Fred Claire, a former Los Angeles Dodger general manager, also once told me that having a knuckleball pitcher as part of your starting rotation helps to give opposing hitters a different look, to take their timing off. Claire’s Dodgers in the 1990s had only right-handed starting pitchers for several years, and he mentioned having Candiotti on the staff was valuable because his knuckleball broke up the pitching pattern, so that the opposition would be seeing different pitches and different speeds during a three-game series, instead of the same 90-95 mph fastballs all the time. The knuckleball simply messes up hitters’ timing.

candy torThe Toronto Blue Jays thought so highly of that knuckleball too that they specifically had Candiotti start Game One of the 1991 ALCS so that he could try to mess up the Minnesota Twins hitters’ timing. So, manager Cito Gaston went with a rotation of Candiotti-Juan Guzman-Jimmy Key-Todd Stottlemyre in that series, with a soft-tossing knuckleballer going first followed by a hard thrower (Guzman), then a soft-tossing finesse pitcher (Key) and another hard thrower (Stottlemyre).

Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame general manager who acquired Candiotti in Toronto, told me that he liked the change of pace that Candiotti brought to the Blue Jays pitching staff, because he could be put in the rotation in between a guy like Guzman and David Wells, another hard thrower.

Yes, there were other knuckleballers in the major leagues such as the Niekro brothers, Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, and R.A. Dickey since the 1960s. But Tom Candiotti was almost just as effective with the knuckleball. To read more about Candiotti’s career, check out Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs, which can be found 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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