After watching a big league ballgame on almost every day of the season for 40 years, I can truthfully say that I see things I have never seen before fairly often, and that I am still learning more about the game.
I learned something last week, for example. Steve Sparks, the former knuckleball pitcher, was talking about Houston's attack against R. A. Dickey on the Astros' postgame show. He said that there are several things that can take a knuckleball pitcher out of his game. The first, as most fans know, is the threat of stolen bases. But the second thing he said made perfect sense, and I don't know why I hadn't considered it.
Crowd the plate!
It's as simple as that. The logic is that when you throw a knuckleball, you are not trying to hit corners. How could you? You don't know which way the ball will move yourself. So you shoot for the middle of the strike zone and cast your fate to the wind. Sparks said he was most comfortable when the batter stood away from the plate and he just focused on "playing catch" with the catcher. The reason it bothered him to face hitters who stood up close was that they entered into his focus.
"What happens," he said, "is that you try to throw the ball to the outer half of the strike zone, so if the pitch moves in on him it won't hit him."
Throwing a good knuckleball into the strike zone is difficult. Spotting it in the strike zone is virtually impossible. Why hadn't I thought about it before?
I featured conventional stuff and was most comfortable facing hitters that stood anywhere except way back from the plate. The hitter was part of my frame of reference. A lot of times, I tried to throw a pitch in, under his hands, to jam him. My focus was more on the hitter than the catcher on that particular pitch. When a hitter stands way back from the plate, you can't throw the ball under his hands, because it would be a foot inside. You have to throw to the mitt instead.
This idea made me think about how the Astros struggled against Fernando Valenzuela. He shut them out the first umpteen times he faced them. He did it by throwing mostly screwballs away from right-handed hitters, and a lot of breaking balls away from the lefties.
Once, after Valenzuela underpowered the Astros, I went down to the batting cage the next day and asked some of the hitters why they didn't move up on the plate when they faced him. The consensus was that they knew the strike zone from where they normally stood, and would have to envision a new strike zone if they moved up. They thought it might throw them into a slump. Well, 0-for-4 can be the start of a slump, and that's exactly where most of those guys stood that day. I didn't buy it at all.
Roberto Clemente was a pretty good hitter. And he stood in different parts of the batter's box all the time -- sometimes he even moved up or back during the same at-bat. I'm sure that took a lot of pitchers out of their comfort zone.
In a situation like facing a knuckleballer or a guy like Valenzuela, I think it is more important to take the pitcher out of his game than to remain in yours. And this applies to more than a few pitchers. Any right-handed pitcher who features a cut fastball, for example, would prefer lefties to stand up close to the plate.
Dave Dravecky was an effective left-handed pitcher for years. He had natural cutting action on his fastball and he made his living off right-handed hitters who didn't move back off the plate. If a guy is really good at jamming hitters, I say. "move back."
Conversely, if you're s right-handed hitter facing Tom Glavine, move up and force him to throw breaking balls. For at least two strikes, you can take that pitch if he makes it. But you know his bread and butter is the sinker low and away. And he will throw that pitch, no matter where you are standing. Move up. Make him consider doing something he's not as good at.
Note: this applies only to excellent pitchers. If you are facing a pitcher whose best pitch is to one corner or the other, but whose control is inconsistent, just stay put and look for a mistake.
I didn't move around on the pitching rubber very much. But there were a few right-handed batters, like Gary Carter, who were vulnerable to sweeping breaking balls away. I moved a little closer to third base when he came up.
It seems to me that almost all the hitters and pitchers in both leagues are entrenched in one spot these days. I suppose it's the curmudgeon in me, but I like a little freelancing. Bring back Bill Lee and the old double-pump windup.
Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.