Wilbur Wood

Knuckleballers were somewhat common in the baseball of my youth.  The most famous ones were the Niekro brothers, of course, but in those early Strat-O-Matic years I came to really admire Wilbur Wood.  He was a left-handed starter, famous for racking up insane inning counts — the peak was 377 innings in 1972.  To give that number perspective, note the MLB leader in 2018 totaled just 231.  As a high-schooler, I tried my best to develop a knuckler but failed miserably.  Perhaps it was because I didn’t grip it correctly — I literally used my knuckles and not my fingernails (as we see Wilbur doing in the sidebar).

Wood and Wilhelm

The pitch that was sometimes called a dry spitter seems to have been invented in the early 1900s.  By my pitching heyday a lot of teams carried a knuckleballer, with the list of practitioners including Jim Bouton, Eddie Fisher, Charlie Hough, Joe & Phil Niekro, Bob Purkey, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Wilbur Wood.  Bouton is an example of a player who turned to the knuckler after an injury, but most of the others relied on it from an early age.  Wood learned the pitch from his dad in junior high, but initially it was just a complement to his traditional fastball and curve.  Traded to the White Sox at age 25, teammate Hoyt Wilhem convinced him to really commit to the knuckler and it certainly paid off.  1968 was the first in a 3-year string in which Wilbur led the AL in appearances, and after that he started a 5-season run of 40+ starts in which he averaged 325+ innings.  An interesting side note: Wilbur Wood is the last pitcher to start both games of a doubleheader, and one of just two to do so in my lifetime (the other was Al Santorini of all people, who just pitched to one hitter in Game One).

Because the pitch is hard to control, current dogma has it that the knuckler is inappropriate for use out of the pen.  But back in 1968, the Southsiders’ closers fed opponents a steady 9th-inning diet of them from the right-handed 45-yo Hoyt Wilhlem (1.73, 94 IP, 12 saves) and the lefty Wilbur Wood (13-12, 1.87, 159 IP, 16 saves).  Perhaps it is no coincidence that Waterloo, with 250 great innings from its pair of closers, has the IBC’s deepest pitching staff (by the WAR totals computed in the “Ray Culp” piece).  Two terrific righties are available to bridge the middle innings, Cecil Upshaw (2.47, 117 IP, 13 saves) and Bob Locker (2.29, 90 IP, 10 saves).  A trio of lefties are more limited in their usefulness: Dick Kelley (2.75, 98 IP), 21-yo George Stone (2.76, 75 IP), and Jerry Nyman (2.01, 40 IP).  That is one fine set of relievers!

Cosmic forces also blessed this club with Phil Niekro (14-12, 2.59, 257 IP), who is ranked by this article as the greatest knuckle-baller of all time.  This was not his best year, but he’s a solid part of the font-end quartet that also includes Tommy John (10-5, 1.98, 177 IP), Joe Horlen (12-14, 2.37, 224 IP), and Pat Jarvis (16-12, 2.60,256 IP).  Available for spot duty are Jack Fisher (8-13, 2.99, 181 IP) and rookie Ron Reed (11-10, 3.35, 202 IP).  Reed, by the way, had played two seasons with the NBA Detroit Pistons before switching to baseball.

A quartet of starters with the sorting requirement of 120+ IPs and/or a WAR of 0.5+ didn’t make the final 30-man roster for Waterloo: Milt Pappas (12-13, 3.47, 184 IP), Gary Peters (4-13, 3.76, 163 IP), Ken Johnson (5-8, 3.47, 135 IP), and Cisco Carlos (4-14, 3.90, 122 IP).  The final victim to the numbers game on this loaded staff was yet another decent reliever, Jim Britton (3.09, 90 IP).

This concludes my look at Week 8.

© John Kisner 2019