PEORIA, Ariz. - The anonymous rookie catcher, brought up from the minor-league side to catch Seattle Mariners bullpen sessions Wednesday, had the bad luck to draw Charlie Haeger.
A knuckleball specialist.
“It’s a pitch that can save your career, but it’s tough to master,” Haeger said. “I love when catchers drop it because that means it’s moving.”
Haeger’s first two knucklers in the bullpen hit the catcher’s glove – and bounced away. The right-handed pitcher just smiled.
That knuckleball and its possibilities have made Haeger an intriguing non-roster invitee this spring. He can pitch long relief, he can start games and, because his best pitch doesn’t tax his arm, he can do both if needed.
“Some people are afraid of it because it’s such a unique pitch,” manager Eric Wedge said. “You have to trust it, but a man who throws a good one can start or relieve. All things being equal, it’s probably best suited to start.”
Haeger, 27, has been throwing the pitch since 2004, when he realized his 82-84 mph fastball wasn’t enough to keep him in professional baseball.
“I wasn’t nave,” he said.
Since then, he has spent parts of five seasons in the big-leagues – with the Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers – and appeared in 34 major league games. During that same span, he has pitched in 197 minor league games – 156 of them starts.
On every pitching staff he has been on, there has been one constant: Every other pitcher is fascinated by the knuckleball.
“Eventually, everyone asks how I throw it,” Haeger said. “If I execute properly, use the same release point, I can make it move. It’s my fastball and my change-up. I can throw it 72-73 mph, drop it down and throw one 64 mph. If I think a guy is sitting on 72 mph, I’ll throw my real fastball.
“The idea is to make it move, but not move too much. I’ve struck out hitters with one, had it get by the catcher and watched the guy get to first base. It can be frustrating.
“One day it’s great and you think you’ve got it, the next day it’s like you’ve never thrown one.”
Haeger will get a long look in camp, and Wedge plans to let him throw more than most other pitchers to get and keep him sharp. Haeger has worked with Charlie Hough, talked with Boston’s Tim Wakefield and former Mariner R.A. Dickey, who had a marvelous season last year with the New York Mets.
Control of the pitch is always a challenge, and Haeger’s goal is different than teammates who must pinpoint their pitches.
“I aim for the catcher’s mask,” Haeger said. “I try to get the ball through what I call the hula-hoop of the strike zone. I threw it as a kid, and it’s a pitch a lot of pitching coaches have helped me with over the years.”
A year ago with the Dodgers, he went 0-4 with an 8.40 earned-run average – numbers that were a bit deceptive. In his first start of the season, Haeger struck out 11 Florida Marlins.
“I had other opportunities (with other teams) in the offseason, but I thought this was my best fit,” Haeger said.
“The knuckleball is hard to judge, you’ve got to be patient with it,” Wedge said. “You want to see how hitters react to it, if it’s consistently in the strike zone. The beauty of a knuckleball guy pitching is he may win his game – and screw up the hitters for a day or two afterward.”
Outfielder Johermyn Chavez came to the Mariners last year in the Brandon Morrow trade with Toronto, then proceeded to have a breakout season that got him invited to camp.
All Chavez did, in 136 games, was bat .315 with 32 home runs, 96 RBI and 308 total bases in High A ball. That got him noticed.
“I learned how to work hard from Tony Fernandez in Toronto,” Chavez said. “He told me, ‘You can be a good major-league player, but you have to work hard – every day – to earn it.”
Chavez, 22, works hard. On Wednesday, he took 30-35 swings on his own in the covered batting cage, then took part in the Mariners workout and eventually got more rounds of batting practice against a couple of coaches.
“My first round, I try to get my hands loose and quick,” Chavez said. “After that, I swing hard, just like I would in the game.”
Left-hander Erik Bedard’s second bullpen session was as smooth as the first, and Wedge was clearly pleased. “With him, it’s about how the ball comes out of his hand, and it’s been good to see him doing everything everyone else is doing,” Wedge said. “He’s looked great, no restrictions.” ... Right-hander Yusmeiro Petit arrived from Venezuela on Wednesday, having been delayed by visa problems. His arrival meant all 33 pitchers invited to camp are here, including two – David Aardsma and Shawn Kelley – who won’t throw from the mound for at least a few more weeks. ... Speaking of Aardsma, how much does he adore new son David Zachary? Enough to have the boy’s handprints tattooed on his back. ... More position players came in to work out lightly Wednesday, with Chone Figgins, Jack Cust, Jody Gerut and Carlos Peguero among them.