White Sox

On Tim Wakefield, Charlie Haeger and the knuckleball

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On Tim Wakefield, Charlie Haeger and the knuckleball

If you haven't read Joe Posnanski's fantastic piece on the knuckleball, do so immediately.

The knuckleball is a beautiful pitch. As Posnanski writes, "It is the only thing in sports I know of that is a constant surprise not only to the opponent or the fans, but also to the person who is actually initiating it." Every athlete, at least those who throw or shoot objects, knows what will happen if he or she executes their motion perfectly. A knuckleballer hopes.

Nobody goes out for a casual catch with their father or friend and says "let's throw a few split-finger fastballs." You toss a ball around all while messing with a knuckleball grip in the hopes of miraculously discovering the right way to throw it. Usually, the ball has just enough cruel rotation on it so that it doesn't work.

But when you get a knuckleball right, it's like you just won the lottery. Only instead of getting money, the little white orb you just threw doesn't have any spin. It dances, it dives, it does seemingly whatever it wants.

With Tim Wakefield announcing his retirement, though, there doesn't appear to be a true knuckleballer coming through the ranks. There doesn't appear to be the next Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield or Niekro ready to break through. Sure, R.A. Dickey throws one, but he only began to use a knuckleball when his regular stuff -- which was good enough for him to make the majors -- failed him.

Six years ago, Charlie Haeger was a young knuckleballer who had worked his way to the top level of the White Sox farm system. He was drafted in the 25th round by the Sox out of high school in 2001, back when his 90 mph fastball was good enough to get him picked. He left baseball for a year in 2003 to play golf, but before he did, he started messing around with a knuckleball.

In 2004, he was back in the White Sox organization as a knuckleballer. By 2005, he had reached Double-A Birmingham, where he threw two shutouts. In 2006, he posted a 3.07 ERA with Triple-A Charlotte and made his big-league debut. In the majors, Haeger posted a 3.44 ERA in 18 13 innings.

But Haeger, who spent plenty of time working on his knuckleball with Hough, never was able to find the touch with his knuckeball in the majors. After allowing 11 runs (nine earned) in 11 13 innings with the 2007 White Sox, Haeger landed in San Diego, where he allowed 10 runs (eight earned) in 4 23 innings.

Haeger had some stabs of success with the Dodgers in 2009 and 2010, but never was a serious threat to stay in the majors. His first two games with Los Angeles in 2009 went great, as Haeger allowed three runs in 14 innings with nine strikeouts and four walks. But he was lit up by the Reds in his next start and was booted from the starting rotation.

He began 2010 by striking out 12 Marlins in six innings, but was shuffled between the bullpen and rotation after that before being sent down to the minors for good in late June. Haeger was released and spent 2011 with Seattle's Triple-A and Boston's Double-A affiliates, marking the first time since 2005 he didn't throw a pitch in the major leagues.

Haeger's future is uncertain -- I can't find out if he's still with Boston, some other team or is a minor league free agent.

But hopefully he keeps on fighting the good fight, armed with a 70 mile-per-hour pitch and a prayer as to where it's going. Because, to steal a line from Theo Epstein, baseball is better with the knuckleball.

White Sox sign Enoy Jimenez, the 17-year-old brother of Eloy Jimenez

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USA TODAY

White Sox sign Enoy Jimenez, the 17-year-old brother of Eloy Jimenez

One Jimenez just isn't enough for the White Sox.

The White Sox signed the younger brother of top prospect Eloy Jimenez this weekend. Enoy Jimenez is a 17-year-old infielder, and the 21-year-old outfielder ranked as the No. 3 prospect in baseball was on hand for his brother's big moment.

Eloy figures to hit the big leagues early next season, though it will likely be a while longer before his teenage brother could do the same. Still, they're likely hoping for the chance to play together one day.

According to this pretty exhaustive list from MLB.com, four sets of brothers have played together on the White Sox: Homer and Ted Blankenship in the 1920s, Dick and Hank Allen in the 1970s, Roberto and Sandy Alomar in 2003 and 2004 and John and Jordan Danks in 2012.

Should we be getting ready for the fifth pair?

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

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USA TODAY

Matt Davidson's incredibly interesting 2018

This season, Matt Davidson became the fourth player in MLB history to hit three home runs in a season opener. It definitely raised a few eyebrows, especially after Paul Konerko noted during spring training that a 40-home run season and an All-Star selection isn’t out of the question for the California native. After clobbering nine home runs (seven of them coming at Kauffman Stadium) in his first 21 games, anything seemed possible.

Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way, though he did rack up his second straight 20-homer season. But it’s hard to argue that 2018 wasn’t a success for Davidson — mostly because of the swings he didn’t make.

Everything else aside, Davidson walked as often as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in 2018.

OK, the more meaningful comparison would be Davidson to himself.

What stands out is his walk rate. One hundred fifty three players had at least 400 plate appearances in both 2017 and 2018. Among them, Davidson had the second-highest increase in walk percentage this past season.

Consider this: In 2017, Davidson and Tim Anderson became (and still are) the only players in MLB history with 160-plus strikeouts and fewer than 20 walks in a season.

Davidson, while logging 20 more at-bats in 2018, had the same number of strikeouts, 165, but he increased his walk total from 19 to 52. Give him credit for that. It’s a tough adjustment to make at the minor league level let alone in the major leagues. The increased walk rate brought his on-base percentage from .260 in 2017 (well below the AL average of .324) to .319 in 2018 (a tick above the AL average of .318) and pushed his overall offensive production from 16 percent below league average (as measured by his 84 weighted runs created plus, or wRC+) to four percent above league average (104 wRC+).

And I haven’t even mentioned the most fun aspect of his 2018 season: He pitched! And he pitched well.

Thirty pitchers took the mound for the White Sox in 2018, all of whom made at least three appearances. And only one of them didn’t allow a run: Davidson.

He topped out at 91.9 MPH and had as many strikeouts, two, as baserunners allowed in his three innings of work. The two batters he struck out, Rougned Odor and Giancarlo Stanton, combined for 56 home runs in 2018. They combined for 89 home runs (and an MVP award) in 2017.

In his career, Stanton had a combined 16 plate appearances and zero strikeouts against Barry Zito, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Edwin Díaz. He struck out in his one plate appearance against Davidson.

Davidson is one of just three players with 20 or more home runs and at least three mound appearances in a season in MLB history:

— Babe Ruth (1919): 29 home runs, 17 games on the mound
— Davidson (2018): 20 home runs, three games on the mound
— Shohei Ohtani (2018): 22 home runs, 10 games on the mound

Facts are facts. Davidson is actually serious about expanding his role on the mound.

“To be honest, I would love to maybe explore that idea,” he said in July. “Pitching was a dream. As a young kid, everybody wants to hit that walk-off homer, right? I was the guy striking that guy out. That’s how I first loved the game. My favorite player was Randy Johnson and doing that.

“So, it’s something I would be interested in. I don’t know if the game would necessarily allow that or something like that. It’s something that is really close to my heart is pitching.”

Whether or not it ever happens, Davidson’s 2018 was all about finding ways to increase his value. For the White Sox, that’s a good problem to have.