The newest member of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre rotation, Jared Fernandez, will be starting for the Barons tonight. Slap a "49" on the man's back and let's get started.
Rob Neyer wrote a piece about Fernandez in 2002, wherein he discussed Fernandez's "hard knuckleball," a pitch delivered at around 75 MPH, rather than the typical 60 MPH or so of modern knucklers like the Niekro brothers, Charlie Hough, and Tim Wakefield.
I've always had a soft spot for knuckleballers. As a high school freshman, at the height of Pittsburgh-era Wakefieldmania in central Pennsylvania (sort of like Fernandomania, but with less mariachi music and lots more Primanti Brothers' sandwiches), I tried out for the JV baseball team with a half-assed knuckleball and a fastball that couldn't go through wet paper. Everyone had a ton of trouble hitting my slop, but no one could catch me either. I failed to make the team because, according to the coach, "no one can catch that." As a result, I've sworn to stump for knuckleball pitchers whenever possible, even though my dismissal from the squad probably had more to do with a flagrant lack of talent than any kind of oppressive coaching regime.
Thanks to the decisions of brilliant baseball people, the knuckleball has been brought to the brink of extinction, its modern practicioners including Wakefield, the erstwhile Steve Sparks, Red Sox farmhand Charlie Zink, and Fernandez.
Signed by the Red Sox as an amateur free agent in 1994, little in his minor league career indicates that Fernandez is any kind of overlooked gem, aside from a nice half-season in Pawtucket in 2000. Bad K/BB ratio, lots of hits, high ERAs. In the past few years, Fernandez has bounced back and forth between the bigs and the minors in the Red Sox, Reds, and Astros systems, with pretty poor results. However, due to the fact that so many knuckleballers not only survive but thrive into their mid-40s, the 33 year old Fernandez might blossom late. After compiling a 5-5 record with a 4.38 ERA for AAA Louisville (Cincy) this season, Fernandez requested his release in early July, feeling that he'd have a better chance elsewhere.
Of course Fernandez is a longshot. But this is the kind of move with low risk and a non-zero chance of significant reward. Maybe we can hope for him to get hot for half a season sometime soon, and at an opportune time. Just hope they can find someone to catch him.
For your reading pleasure... A good article from The New Yorker about knuckleballers.