Dodgers Minor Leaguer Worth Watching

The Dodgers signed an interesting free agent in 25-year-old right-hander Charlie Haeger. He has a minor league career record of 47-58 with a 3.91 earned run average and three brief major league appearances that have resulted in a 3-6, 6.35 ERA record. But before you dismiss him as nothing speical, you must know that he is a knuckleballer (that tops out at 67 mph) and he reached The Show at age 22.

6-1 202 BR TR
Born-September 19, 1983 in Livonia, Michigan
Obtained- Signed as a free agent 2009

Haeger was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the 25th round of the 2001 draft as a conventional pitcher. After two season of less than great success in the Sox rookie league, he was 1-7 with a 5.13 ERA.

That was enough for him and he had enough and went to Madonna College and played golf. Between times on the practice range, he experimented with a knuckelball and was so pleased with the results he returned to baseball, still at the tender age of 20.

He streaked up the White Sox system, making stops in Classes A, A+ and AA. He crafted a 14-5, 3.50 record between the Carolina League and the Southern League in 2005.

Considered the best knuckleball prospect since Tim Wakefield, his efforts earned him his first major league start on May 10, 2006. He was 22 years, seven months, and 21 days old when he made his first appearance.

Haeger only lasted into the fourth inning, walking six and allowing six runs. Recalled in September, his 1.29 earned run average over his final six games, with the Sox dropped his big league ERA to 3.44 in the big leagues.

Between recalls by Chicago, is minor league record in 2006 nearly duplicated his 2006 record, finishing 14-6 with a 3.41 ERA.

In 2007, he was recalled in July and made seven appearances with the White Sox, but his effectiveness decreased after allowing only one run in his first five. He left with a 6.25 ERA. A single game in August saw him face on batter and allow a home run.

He made the record books when on July 22, he relieved starter Jon Garland against knuckelballer Tim Wakefield and the Red Sox. It was the first time in years that two knuckleballers faced each other in the same game.

His minor league record slid to 5-16 with a 4.08 earned run average and San Diego claimed him on waivers in September.

Last season, with the Padres AAA club, he was 10-13 but with a creditable 4.45 ERA. He struck out 117 in 178 innings, over 26 games (three of them starts).

He pitched four games for San Diego without a decision. All were in relief and over those four games the Padres were hammered, scoring eight runs and allowing 39. Haeger's ERA ballooned to 16.62 even after his final, scoreless appearance against the Dodgers.

San Diego non-tendered him after the season and the Dodgers signed him.

Haeger's first start in the major leagues at age 22, put him well in front of Hoyt Wilhelm, perhaps the greatest knuckleballer in the world, was three months away him his 30th birthday when he made his MLB debut. Tom Candiotti didn't throw his knuckleball consistently until he was 29.

Obviously, the reason for the late debuts is the fact that the knuckleball is a difficult pitch to perfect and a bad knuckler is a 67-mph batting practice pitch.

A few showed up in the majors at a younger age, Phil Niekro at 25, (brother Joe started throwing his seriously at age 30). Wilber Wood was 25 before he started to use the pitch primarily.

But only Charlie Hough reached The Show at an earlier age, beating Haeger's record by a couple weeks. Hough was an eighth rounder in 1966 as much for his hitting skills as for his work on the mound. He was sent to Ogden, where Tom Lasorda converted him into a pitcher.

He did well until he reached Triple-A, then had arm problems and after a couple bad years at Albuquerque Lasorda approached him and said, "If you have any other pitches, you better start using them."

Another coach suggested to Hough he should try the knuckler and taught him how to throw it. "I threw the pitch for the first time in September 1969, and within a year I was in the big leagues, and I hadn't a clue what I was doing," Hough joked.

Haeger throws maybe 80-85% knucklers, mixing in a mid-80s fastball and a curveball every now and then. Much as did Dennis Springer who pitched for the Dodgers and who many think gave up the craft much too soon.

It also bodes well for Hager that most of the very successful knuckelball pitchers lasted far longer than the conventional fastball, curveball hurlers. Hough, for example, pitched for 25 years, as did Wilhelm who ended his career with the Dodgers at age 49.

Haeger has another thing going for him. Flying in the face of most pitchers who throw the thing, he doesn't seem to give up many home runs, just 42 over 663 innings during his last five seasons and only one in 19 major league innings.

By comparison, Tim Wakefield led the AL with 35 homers allowed in 2005, the fourth time in his career he has given up 30 or more homers.

Another advantage Haeger has is that he will be able to work with Charlie Hough during spring training.

When asked about Haeger, Hough told Baseball Prospectus, "oh, he's got the best knuckleball since I saw a young Wakefield in the minors. Haeger might have a slight advantage over Wakefield, in that he was a pitcher before he started throwing the knuckleball, whereas Wakefield was a converted first baseman."

And Hough thinks that Haeger should start, not relieve. "It's a lot easier to throw the knuckler as a starter," Hough said, "and another 100 or 200 innings in the minors wouldn't hurt him compared to throwing 30 innings in the bullpen this year."

He quoted an old coach who used to tell him of the knuckler, "when you've pitched a thousand innings you'll know what you're doing." There's no substitute for the experience that comes from pure repetition, Hough says, because when a knuckleball pitcher struggles "there aren't a whole lot of guys around who can help you."

But for Haeger, sure there is Charlie.

Charlie Haeger

year	team     w-l  era  gm   gs   in   h    bb   so  whip
2001  WSox rk   0-3  6.39  13   4   31   44   17   17  1.97 
2002  WSox rk   1-4  4.17  25   0   41   46   13   24  1.44
2004  WSox rk   1-6  5.18  10  10   57   70   22   23  1.61
      WSox A    1-3  2.01   5   5   31   31   12   21  1.39
2005  WSox A+   8-2  3.20  14  13   82   82   40   64  1.49
      WSox AA   6-3  3.78  13  13   86   84   45   48  1.51
2006  WSox AAA  14-6 3.07  26  25  170  143   78  130  1.30 
      Chicago   1-1  3.44   7   1   19   12   13   19  1.36
2007  WSox AAA  5-16 4.08  24  23  148  138   67  126  1.39
      Chicago   0-1  7.15   8   1   11   17    8    1  2.21
2008  WSox AAA 10-13 4.45  28  25  178  167   77  117  1.37
      San Diego 0-0 16.62   4   0   34   37    5    4  3.00
 Minor Totals  47-58 3.91 118  11  823  805  371  570  1.43
 Major Totals   3-6  6.35  19   1  115  125   26   24  1.85 	

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