Q&A: Hough discusses life as a knuckleballer

June 25th, 2016

Charlie Hough was raised with a sense of determination. His father, Dick, spent 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II before returning home and celebrating the birth of Charlie.
Maybe that's why Hough was always focused on what it would take to survive. He did, after all, spend 25 seasons in the big leagues as a knuckleball pitcher. He established himself as a closer with the Dodgers, and then -- at the age of 34 -- transitioned into a starting pitcher with the Rangers.
Hough finished his career with two seasons as a member of the Marlins, starting the first game in franchise history in 1993.
He compiled a record of 216-216 with a 3.75 ERA in 858 games, 440 of them starts, 107 of which he completed. The right-hander appeared in three World Series with the Dodgers, but the heavy lifting in his career came in the years he started for the Rangers.
He was a combined 133-120 in 307 starts over a nine-year stretch from 1982-91, including a league-leading 40 starts in '87, and 17 complete games in '84. Hough won 10 or more games in all nine of those seasons, including 17 while making the American League All-Star team in '86, and a career-high 18 in '87.
Hough has a thorough understanding for the challenges of surviving as a knuckleball pitcher, which is why he has become a resource for several knuckleballers including current AL ERA leader Steven Wright of the Red Sox.
Hough is subject of this week's Q&A:
MLB.com: Does it surprise you, almost at the midway point of the season, to see a knuckleball pitcher leading the AL in earned run average?
Hough: Let's just say the odds that a knuckleball [pitcher] is going to win an ERA title are not great. It just shows what a good pitcher he is, and what a good knuckleball he has.
MLB.com: You've worked with many knuckleball pitchers. Is Wright one of them?
Hough: Yes. I met him when he was in Cleveland's Minor League system. I worked with him for a few years. I would see him in Arizona in Spring Training when he was with Cleveland. He is good. He is a legitimate big league starting pitcher. Plus, he can throw 90-plus miles per hour. He is from Southern California, and I live in Orange County, so he'd come out in the winter and throw some. I saw him this winter, watched him for a half-hour and told him I didn't know what to tell him except keep doing what you are doing. Now, he's learning to change speeds.
MLB.com: Knuckleball pitchers seem to reach out to one another.
Hough: There aren't a lot of us. I told him to make sure he talked with Phil (Niekro), too. Anyone who has a chance should talk to Phil. He's the best all-time knuckleball pitcher. And a great, athlete, too.
MLB.com: Wright has done well for himself. But it is bit of a challenge for Wright to finally be establishing himself at the age of 31.
Hough: It's not when you usually get that chance. If you haven't made it by then, you are broken down, but that's a knuckleballer. I was 33 and still got to three World Series.
MLB.com: If Wright has a 90-plus fastball, why did he learn the knuckleball?
Hough: He was one of those average guys. He had an average fastball. He had an average change. He had an average slider. Right-handers like that are all over the Minor Leagues. He is a competitor, and he said he was not where he wanted to be. He didn't want to be another guy. And he thought the knuckleball was his chance to be good. He was right.
MLB.com: A different reason than you had?
Hough: Yeah (laughter). I was in Double-A with a bad arm. I couldn't think about throwing 90, much less throw 90. Learning the knuckleball was my chance to stay in pro ball.
MLB.com: Where would you have been without the knuckleball?
Hough: I would have been working at the Hialeah Race Track. Hopefully not at the $5 window.
MLB.com: You played third base and first base as well as pitched at Hialeah High School. How do you wind up a pitcher?
Hough: I was a good hitter in high school, but when I signed with the Dodgers, I was not as good as I figured I needed to be to do what I wanted to do. I was an eighth-round draft choice, and when I went to camp, they had third basemen way better than me. It gave me the feeling that I was better off as a pitcher.
MLB.com: But it did take you a while to get to the big leagues for good, and then you worked in relief. Isn't that unusual for a knuckleball pitcher?
Hough: I just wanted the chance. Bullpen? I felt that was a good way to go, because I felt like I learned how to finish games. I was a closer for a while. I got that final out of a game. And that helped me when I became a starter. Most of the time, I felt the guy against me was better, but if I could outlast him, I had a chance to win.
MLB.com: I remember you showing up for Spring Training ready to throw 100 pitches that first time out.
Hough: I tell everybody you should be able to warm up, throw three innings and feel good the day you show up for Spring Training. You need to be ready to pitch when you get to camp. You might not be sharp every time out, but you won't have a bad arm.
MLB.com: And I guess as a knuckleball pitcher you have to be ready. Not much margin for error?
Hough: I was talking with Tim Wakefield a year or so ago, and we talked about the fact that when you are a knuckleball pitcher, you lead the team in wins one year, and you know that they are trying to replace you the next year. They don't really want you. That's not a complaint. That comes with the territory. You are a freak. So you have to be ready when you show up. There's nobody in the front office who thinks you are going to win 20, 25 games. The thing is, when you are a knuckleball pitcher and you lose, you really look bad. I would get beat throwing a 78 mile per hour fastball. That doesn't look good. A guy throwing 95 with a hard sinker gets beat and they talk about the adjustments he needs to make.
MLB.com: When you pitched, though, you were a staff saver. Seemed like you wanted to stay in games, even in a blowout.
Hough: Sure. Why? Because you want to keep throwing the ball and get the feel back. When you are struggling, it's because you don't have that feel. So you can help yourself and help the team. If it is a blowout, you can save the bullpen, plus get yourself ready.