J.P. Arencibia won’t soon forget the nine times he stepped in the batter’s box against now-retired Boston Red Sox knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield during the 2011 season.
It was a case of mixed results for the Toronto Blue Jays catcher, whose only two hits off Wakefield went for home runs while he also struck out three times.
"I know that it didn’t look fun for the catcher [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] because I could always hear him and I knew he wasn’t comfortable [behind the plate]," Arencibia recalled during a phone interview this week from the Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla.
"Watching [a knuckleball] come in as a catcher is a little bit easier but I would say there’s more pressure. If I’m hitting I don’t have to swing, but if you’re catching, obviously you have to be able to catch the ball, so there are a lot more intangibles. You definitely want to be on the catching side."
That will be the case for Arencibia in the upcoming season as he’s expected to see some time behind the plate when Toronto newcomer R.A. Dickey unleashes variations of the knuckleball.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos traded for Dickey, last year’s Cy Young Award winner as the top pitcher in the National League, in mid-December and the 38-year-old joins a revamped starting rotation with fellow newcomers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle along with returnees Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero.
Arencibia had never caught a knuckleball in his career, dating back to his teenage years at Westminster Christian School near Miami, but he met up with Dickey — who, like Arencibia, hails from Nashville — for a few pre-spring training pitching/catching sessions.
"I never thought about having to catch a knuckleball, but once you do it, it’s pretty cool. And to be able to work with a person like R.A., who’s a wonderful human being … it’s pretty special."
Arencibia talked to CBCSports.ca about the early days in his working relationship with Dickey, catching the veteran Buehrle at camp and what was behind Romero’s struggles last season.
1. Describe R.A. Dickey’s reaction to your first handling of his knuckleball, a pitch that weaves and waffles, that the right-hander can throw up to 79 miles per hour. Most knuckleballs average 65 miles per hour.
Arencibia: The first day he told me, ‘I know it’s tough [to catch a knuckleball]. I would never get on you about not catching the ball. I see it from behind and sometimes I’m like, wow, there’s no way you could have caught that ball.’ From Day 1, he calmed me down. He respected that I wanted to learn how to catch it and was eager to work with him.
You gotta want to catch that pitch. I’ve heard some catchers say it messes them up, but for me I was eager.
2. The way the Blue Jays’ starting rotation projects to open the season, Dickey gets the start on opening day followed by the hard-throwing Josh Johnson. Do you think such a significant difference in the speed of pitches from these two pitchers will confuse hitters?
I caught R.A. the other day and behind him came Josh Johnson and it looks like a thousand miles per hour after catching a knuckleball. I don’t think it’s as much of a difference the next day. A hitter might mess up his timing trying to hit the knuckleball. But if you face R.A. Dickey and he’s throwing his knuckleball and out of the [bullpen] comes Sergio Santos throwing 95 miles per hour, that’s when it’s tough.
When you have a day to regroup and work in the [batting] cage I don’t think it affects you as much. The more effectiveness is when you have a guy who throws hard out of the ‘pen in the same game.
3. What have you learned from your pitching sessions with a control pitcher like left-hander Mark Buehrle, who has pitched at least 200 innings in 12 consecutive seasons?
One of the biggest things is how confident he is in his pitches at any time in any situation. That’s what makes him special. He knows himself, what it takes to get outs and trusts himself. He firmly believes that if you [the catcher give him the sign] for a certain pitch and he executes it, then he’ll be on the good side of it.
That’s why he’s successful. He doesn’t overthink it. The pitches that get hit, most of the time, are pitches that are mistakes. If you execute a pitch down and away, 98 per cent of the time the [batter] is not going to do any damage. He’s quick [on the mound], makes [hitters] uncomfortable in the batter’s box, and it elevates the play of our defence because everyone’s in the game [mentally] and the game pace is fast.
4. Lefty Ricky Romero seemed to lose his way on the mound at times last season, finishing with a 5.57 earned-run average and 105 walks in 181 innings pitched after posting 15 wins and a 2.92 ERA in 2011. Were you perplexed at his lack of command?
Your thought process is, what pitch do I call? What do I say [to him]? Where do I set up [behind the plate] to get him locked in? It’s my job to make him the best pitcher for that day and the next time after and the time after that. You’re never bothered that he’s not throwing strikes.
It was tough because he would lock in for a few pitches and then lose control for a few pitches. That’s what makes it hard to stay consistent, but he’s going to be fine. His stuff is unbelievable.
Part of the reason he had command issues last season is because his stuff is that good. He’s the hardest guy, by far, that I’ve ever caught. That’s why it’s so tough for him to command it sometimes because he does have that much movement [on the ball].
5. Is the ball coming out of his hand differently than at the end of last season or is his arm slot different?
I think he may have touched up a few things mechanically. He’s healthier. He battled [left] elbow [soreness] last year and [doctors] cleaned it up in the off-season. He’s a strong guy. He’s been knocked down before in the minor leagues. When [it was said] he was the most overrated top-six [draft] pick [in 2005] he came to the big leagues [in 2010] and dominated. He’s still going to be a dominating pitcher.
Everybody that’s had success in the big leagues [has had] a bump in the road and he’s not the first one. [Former Blue Jays pitcher Roy] Halladay got sent from the big leagues to High-A [ball] to rework his stuff. Adversity makes people better. It’s just how you react and how you come back from it. I think he has the will, passion and perseverance to come back from [those struggles] and be better.