Before we get to the future of the pitching staff, a few bullet points on some recent developments:
- Trey Hillman has gone on record as saying that Miguel Olivo will be the primary starter behind the plate the rest of the season. This flip-flopping will almost certainly cost Hillman the election.
I understand his thinking; Olivo has played somewhat better than Buck this year, he’s thrown out a lot more runners, and if there’s any way to repair the rift between him and Olivo and leave the door open for Olivo’s return, it’s worth pursuing. But let’s not overstate Olivo’s case. He remains, as always, a one-trick pony: he mashes left-handed pitching (.287/.326/.598), but is unplayable against right-handers (.246/.265/.385). If Olivo is amenable to returning next year, an Olivo/Brayan Pena platoon might be the best internal option the Royals have, but having fought for more playing time all year, methinks Olivo isn’t going to quietly accept the short end of a platoon in 2009, especially given Hillman’s legendary communication skills. I hope Posnanski is right that Hillman is trying to make amends, because Hillman has apparently had a worse year in the clubhouse than he’s had on the field.
In the Introduction to “The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers”, James wrote, “There is one indispensable quality of a baseball manager: The manager must be able to command the respct of his players. That is absolute; everything else is negotiable.” I agree with James, which is why Hillman’s fondness for small ball strategies and Ross Gload, bizarre use of the intentional walk, and inability to get his hitters to take more pitches are small fish relative to the fact that his own players are mocking him behind his back. If Hillman doesn’t regain their respect – and once lost, respect is almost impossible to regain – his days as manager are numbered. And fair or not, the fact that Olivo is earning more playing time after blasting Hillman in the press for not getting a fair shake is likely to only add to the perception that Hillman treats different players differently.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that getting Olivo more playing time may help him move up the Elias rankings a little, as Olivo appears to be on the bubble for Class B free agent status, which would earn the Royals a supplemental first-round pick if he leaves as a free agent.
- As you will soon see, the pitching staff appears to have a much happier future than the offense. But you can never have too much pitching, and when a talented pitcher is available for free, you should pounce on him.
Such a pitcher has just become available, as the White Sox have just designated Charlie Haeger for assignment. If you’re not familiar with Haeger, here’s all you need to know in four words: he throws a knuckleball. A few more words: he throws a really, really good knuckleball. As I documented in this column, Haeger’s preternatural ability to throw the knuckler got him to the majors at age 22 – just two weeks older than Charlie Hough was when Hough became the youngest knuckleball pitcher ever to reach the major leagues.
Since I wrote that column, Haeger has regressed some. He spent the last two years toiling for Triple-A Charlotte, and after his outstanding 2006 season (3.07 ERA), he had a 4.08 ERA in 2007 and a 4.45 ERA this year. Even so, those numbers really aren’t that bad; this season, for instance, he allowed just 167 hits in 178 innings, with 77 walks and 117 strikeouts, and surrendered just 13 home runs. (The low homer total is a Haeger staple – he is as stingy with the homer as any knuckleballer in a generation.) More importantly, he doesn’t even turn 25 for another two weeks. It’s not an exaggeration in the slightest to say that he’s at least five years away from his peak.
The last knuckleballer before Haeger to get us all excited was Charlie Zink, who I ranked as the #50 prospect in the game after a promising 2003 season (and I received an incalculable amount of grief for ranking him so high.) Zink was bloody awful in 2004 and 2005, and mediocre in 2006 and 2007, before suddenly re-emerging with a terrific season in Triple-A this year and finally making his major league debut (one admittedly terrible start). Zink is still just 28; his best is likely still to come.
Haeger is just 24. He just had the highest ERA in the five seasons he’s worked with the knuckleballer, and it wasn't even a bad year. I wouldn't hesitate in the slightest to give him a spot in the majors next season in long relief; with a little more experience, he could be ready to be a #3 starter. As Charlie Hough told me when I interviewed him, “when you’ve pitched a thousand innings you’ll know what you’re doing.” Haeger has now thrown 781 innings with the knuckleball, so if Hough’s Law holds, he’s due for a breakout within a year or two. Zink came into this season with 741 innings, and finally reversed his four-year slide.
Zink is still with the Red Sox, because the Red Sox know just how valuable a knuckleballer can be (if memory serves, Tim Wakefield is their longest-tenured player), and they know how difficult the pitch is to master. The White Sox’ impatience can be our gain, and the only cost is a spot on the 40-man roster.
What’s the downside? Sure, the knuckleball is a novelty pitch, but what’s wrong with a little novelty for this franchise? To the best of my knowledge, the Royals have never had a knuckleball pitcher in their history. They’ve also never had a 40-homer hitter in their history. Some traditions are not worth keeping.