|03.08.09 at 9:07 am ET|
Red Sox fans may know Rich Sauveur as the pitching coach in Triple-A Pawtucket. Yet the 45-year-old represents something as a result of a most unusual playing career that spanned just 34 major-league appearances over a 15-year span (from 1986-2000). His statistics at the major-league level suggest little glory: an 0-1 record, 6.07 ERA, no saves, 24 walks and 28 strikeouts in 46 innings.
Why is any of this of interest? Sauveur concluded his career as a practitioner of the knuckleball—an unusual enough class of major-league pitcher. But he was not just a knuckleballer, he was a left-handed knuckleballer.
How rare a breed is that? According to baseball-reference.com, there have been 1,625 pitchers who have made a major-league appearance this decade. According to this fascinating list, exactly one was a left-handed knuckleballer.
How did Sauveur become the entirety of that class?
“I had messed around with it. In about 1985 or 1986, when I came to spring training (with the Pirates), they said, ‘This is about as far as you’re going to get with your stuff, so we need to find a trick pitch,’” Sauveur recalled. “They knew I threw the knuckler. They wanted me to throw it all the time as a starter. But I went over to the Expos in the ‘pen and kind of bagged it.”
But he would later resurrect it. That being the case, one wonders why there aren’t more left-handed knuckleballers.
“No. 1, you don’t see many knuckleballers,” said Sauveur. “Then, as a lefty, if they’ve got any kind of arm at all, they’ll just be a lefty-lefty specialist. Like when I went over to the Expos, coming out of the ‘pen, I didn’t throw the knuckleball because I walked about four guys a start.
“These days, you don’t have the soft-throwers that you had back when I played. I was a soft-thrower, threw about 85, 86. That was pretty much the best I was going to do.”
Sauveur, who went a more conventional lefty specialist and junkballer route for several years after, finished his career as a knuckeballer with the A’s in 2000.
“(Oakland manager) Art Howe said, ‘Let me see the knuckleball,” said Sauveur. “I got Shawn Green and (Gary Sheffield).”
Sauveur was fascinated to learn that Red Sox manager Terry Francona, also a left-hander, also featured a knuckleball during his brief “pitching career.” Francona featured the pitch in his one major-league appearance, a shutout inning as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1989 that featured one strikeout.
“Stan Javier. I don’t think he was too happy about that,” said Francona. “Unfortunately, it was the highlight of my year.”
Francona also made a handful of minor-league appearances as a knuckleballer for the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate the following year, allowing just one run in 7.2 innings. He threw almost all knuckleballs, as well as one curveball.
“It got hit in the seats,” said, who gave up just that one run. “So I canned that.”
Of course, the Red Sox also have the foremost current practitioner of the pitch on their team in the form of Tim Wakefield. The Sox hope have paired Wakefield with Josh Bard thus far this spring, but the team also hopes to have George Kottaras catch the knuckleballer at some point.
Kottaras and Dusty Brown both have experience catching a knuckleball, having worked with Charlie Zink (last year’s International League Pitcher of the Year) in Pawtucket. All the same, that doesn’t mean the Red Sox can simply assume they’re capable of catching Wakefield.
“Wakefield’s a different animal,” said Francona. “He’s ruined guys’ careers. The ball is not a normal knuckleball. That’s why he’s 42 years old and still pitching in the major leagues. It affects our decision-making. It has in the past. It’s something you always have to be aware of, because there’s a lot of guys who just can’t catch it. … You watch someone on another team who seems to be handling a knuckleball, then you put them back there with Wake and it goes right by him.”
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