Thursday afternoon in Seattle, Steven Wright pitched 5⅔ scoreless relief innings to earn the first of his 174 career major-league victories.*
* I have a time machine.
On the Mariners' postgame show, host Brad Adam asked partner and ex-Mariners catcher Dave Valle the obvious question ...
Q: Did you enjoy facing knuckleball pitchers?
Valle: For whatever reason, I hit knuckleballers good. Charlie Houghs, and Phil Niekros, and Joe Niekros ... The saying is "You see it high and you let it fly," because the more the knuckleball starts low, the more it's going to dance. So you want to look for something up high, and when you see it, you just get that bat moving. "Turn the fan on," as Frank Howard used to say.
Oddly, earlier I'd been listening to the game on the radio and one of the guys said something about "that guy in the booth next door" -- that would be ex-Mariners third baseman Mike Blowers -- having done quite well against knuckleball pitchers, too.
As you might guess, this sort of stuff is catnip for a cat like me. Did both of the Mariners' analysts really fare well enough against knuckleball pitchers to be remembered (or in Valle's case, remember) that way?
Well, Baseball-Reference.com is a wonderful thing. For both Blowers and Valle, we've got a complete list of every pitcher they ever faced, and they didn't face so many pitchers that it's not baby-simple to scan the lists and spot the knuckleballers, of whom there have never been many.
Here's the first thing I noticed: Dave Valle never faced Phil Niekro. Not in the regular season, anyway. He did face Joe Niekro a few times, going 1 for 3 with a double. Valle did face Rough Tough Charlie Hough, and went just 3 for 24 against the old fella. Ah, but two of those three hits were home runs, which gooses the slugging percentage pretty good. Valle also went 6 for 17 against Tom Candiotti, with a homer and a double. And there were two others: Steve Sparks (2 for 5) and Dennis Springer (0 for 1)
In toto, Valle came to the plate 57 times against knuckleball pitchers, and batted .240 with three homers. He wasn't great or even good against them, but his 776 OPS against knuckleballers was nearly 90 points higher than his career mark. So by Valle's own standards, he did hit them pretty good. I score this one a 65 on the 20-to-80 Truth-O-Meter scouting scale.
Meanwhile, Blowers faced only three knuckleballers in his career: Hough, Sparks, and Tim Wakefield. He went 2 for 5 against Hough, with a home run, and 0 for 2 against Sparks. But it's undoubtedly against Wakefield that Blowers earned his reputation: 7 for 14 with three homers (and four walks). It's a tiny sample size, but Blowers hit .429/.538/1.000 against knuckleball pitchers. This one gets an 80 on the 20-to-80 Truth-O-Meter.
Now, do those numbers really mean anything? Do they qualify Valle and Blowers to expound upon the optimal techniques for thriving against the flutterballers? Well, no. Those just aren't enough at-bats to tell us anything particularly meaningful. But who cares? These guys did hit knuckleballers, and even if they didn't, they would be offering exactly the same advice, because the same advice has been around for as long as anyone can remember. It's great advice, except it doesn't work unless the knuckleball doesn't knuckle. Or the knuckleballer falls behind in the count and grooves a fastball.