When Charlie Zink returns home to El Dorado Hills, Calif. after the Pawtucket Red Sox season, life will become more difficult for two reasons: 1. When he goes golfing with his friends, he’ll have to give strokes.
2. He won’t be pitching to International League batters.
Zink, who at one time seriously considered going to “Q” school in hopes of joining the PGA Tour, was a scratch golfer but now plays to a 1.9 handicap.
“When I go back home and golf with my friends, we play off our indexes so I’m giving away 10 strokes a round,” said Zink. “Luckily (my teammates) play me heads up so I like that better.”
Without question there’s much to like about Zink’s pitching, which is to say he’s enjoying a career year.
Through his first 19 starts, he was 10-2 with (which tied him for second in victories among International League pitchers) and a 2.28 ERA (which ranked second). And his total hits (85) plus walks allowed (35) nearly equaled his innings pitched (118 2/3, which ranked second).
But this isn’t the same Charlie Zink who for the previous five seasons, was primarily a knuckleball pitcher.
Zink essentially has transformed himself from a conventional pitcher to an unconventional pitcher to one who now could be classified as a “hybrid.”
“I always threw a fastball and cutter along with my knuckleball,” said Zink, who was recruited out of Sacramento City College by Luis Tiant -who at the time was coaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. “But in the first game of the season in Indianapolis, I gave up six runs in three innings (and lost, 8-0). I didn’t have anything else to throw in that game.
“My knuckleball wasn’t working. I wasn’t locating anything well, including my fastball and cutter. All of a sudden they could sit on my fastball – at 80 miles per hour.”
The Indians almost stumbled over themselves en route to the batter’s box.
Shortly thereafter, Pawtucket’s new pitching coach, Rich Sauveur, had a little “chat” with Zink.
“Rich decided after that game that it would be a good idea to use a changeup to pitch off my fastball,” said Zink. “If I could get ahead with my fastball and come right back with my changeup, it would be a good way to throw off hitters.
“It’s not that big of a difference but it would be enough to mess them up.”
That’s exactly what’s happened, although Zink has far from abandoned his knuckleball.
“His knuckleball is so good that he can pitch in the major leagues,” said Sauever, who threw a knuckleball that was good enough to earn time in the majors for parts of six seasons. “I think there are teams that could use him in their starting rotation, but it’s a matter of having trust in him as a starter.”
Granted, there isn’t that much separation between Zink’s pitches.
His knuckleball flutters to the plate in the high 60s. His changeup’s around 70-73. And his fastball is around 80-83.
“They see fastball coming out of my hand and its 10 miles per hour slower,” said Zink. “The motion has been the hardest part to master in order to keep hitters from being able to tell what’s coming. I’ve tried to disguise it where I’m throwing everything with the same arm action.”
What Zink has been unable to disguise is the satisfaction he derives from fooling batters with all of his pitches.
“Obviously, this has been like a dream season where I have control and confidence in every pitch I throw at any time,” he said. “I have no problem if the catcher puts it down. I have confidence that he’ going to be right and I’m going to be able to execute the pitch.
“This is probably the first time in my career that I haven’t had a problem throwing any pitch they put down.”
Zink seemingly has a problem when he reads his strikeouts-to-walks ratio which is a tad better than 2-to-1 – a problem that he can’t believe the stat sheet is accurate.
“As a (straight) knuckleball pitcher, I’ve never even been close to that ratio,” he said. “It’s usually been pretty close to 1-to-1. Now, the one thing I dread the most is walking someone. I don’t want to give anyone a free pass. I’ll throw a fastball right down the middle and let them try to hit their way on. I can’t give them a free pass anymore because too many guys have scored.
“I’m also not afraid to throw a knuckleball in a full count. But, if I’m not feeling it that day, I’ll throw a fastball. Nobody’s seen that many fastballs from me so it’ll still jump on them and they’ll have a tough time hitting them solid.”
Which is exactly what’s happened. But Zink might not have been in Boston’s farm system and been able to expand his repertoire were it not for an “awakening” following a disastrous 2004 season.
“The main thing for me was right after my really bad year in ’04 (when he was a combined 1-10 between Portland and Sarasota) I came back in ’05 and actually saw Tim Wakefield working out and he was a beast,” recalled Zink. “He was going everything, including a lot of weights. I was like ‘Oh, wow! This guy’s almost 40 years old and is in great shape, and this is probably what I need to do.”
The obvious question is why didn’t Zink realize this in the first place? The answer, as much as anything, is attributable to inexperience.
“Once I converted to being a knuckleball pitcher all the players said ‘You’re a knuckleball pitcher so you don’t need to work out,'” said Zink. “I said ‘OK. I don’t need to work out at all (because) I’m only throwing 65.
“I just bought into it because I had so much success my first year (Zink was 7-9 with a 3.90 ERA for Sarasota and 3-2 with a 3.43 ERA for Portland) being a knuckleball pitcher without doing anything. I didn’t work out at all. That’s when I had my worst year ever (2004) because I didn’t lift at all and gave my arm some rest.
“It really had a negative affect on me.”
Now, there are only positives about Zink’s performances.