Veteran Kurt Suzuki will catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey for second time in a regular-season game Saturday. Suzuki had three passed balls in the first one. (Curtis Compton/AJC file photo)

Braves great ‘Murph’ can empathize with Suzuki trying to catch knuckler

Kurt Suzuki will catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey again Saturday in Dickey’s second Braves start, and the veteran catcher can only hope things go smoother than in the first. And Dale Murphy, a former catcher, is among the select group who can empathize.

With his three passed balls in Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh, Suzuki matched or surpassed his season total for passed balls in each of the past four entire seasons. The last time he had more than three passed balls in a season was 2012, when Suzuki had six in 117 games caught (113 starts) for Oakland and Washington.

Such can be the fate of a catcher, veteran or otherwise, when asked to catch a knuckleballer.

Former Braves great Murphy, a catcher at the outset of his career, had the adventure of trying to catch Phil Niekro’s knuckleballs. Murphy once had four passed balls in one game with Niekro pitching, so he can certainly empathize with Suzuki.

“There’s a little bit of a gift to it,” Murphy said. “Everybody goes, ‘you’ve got to relax’ to be able to do it. And I’m like, relax? You’ve got guys on base, and you’re just trying to keep it in front of you.”

Murphy had nine passed balls in 1976, tied for ninth-most in the majors despite playing only 19 games (17 starts) that season in his first major league stint, at age 20. He had 11 passed balls in 1979, tied for sixth-most in the majors, despite playing just 27 games behind the plate.

Murphy had become primarily a first baseman in 1978 and didn’t move to the outfield until 1980. Two years later, Murphy won the first of his consecutive National League MVP awards and the first of five consecutive Gold Glove awards.

By the way, in that 1979 season, Niekro was 21-20 with a 3.39 ERA and major-league highs of 342 innings and 113 walks and finished sixth in the NL Cy Young vote and 20th in league MVP balloting. Bobby Cox’s Braves were 66-94 that season.

Those balls shooting helplessly past Suzuki to the backstop Saturday as runners advanced seemed an appropriate metaphor for the first ugly week of this Braves season. But Dickey has seen catchers struggle before until they become better accustomed to catching his dancing knuckleballs, and he is confident Suzuki will progress. For Suzuki, it’s a thankless assignment but one he has embraced since first asked to do it in spring training.

For a catcher, it requires putting aside one’s ego and knowing your defensive stats will take a beating. Consider that in his All-Star season for Minnesota in 2014, Suzuki had just three passed balls in 1,017 2/3 innings caught in 119 games (115 starts). He had three in Dickey’s 5 2/3 innings on the mound Saturday.

Josh Thole was Dickey’s personal catcher for most of the previous seven seasons with the Mets and Blue Jays. Thole was a free agent last winter, but drew little interest after hitting just .200 with two homers and a .522 OPS in four seasons for Toronto including .169 with a .474 OPS in 2016. He signed a minor league deal with Arizona and was competing for a job at spring training when he sustained a severe hamstring pull that could sideline him for most of the season.

Murphy joked with Niekro that he had 300 wins and would’ve had plenty more if “Murph” didn’t catch him

“You’ll have good days and bad days with (knuckleball) movements,” said Murphy, adding that there was truth to Bob Uecker’s description of the best way to catch it: “What Uecker said: Wait till it stops rolling, then go pick it up.”

Murphy remembers one incident as a knuckleball catcher that illustrated the difficulty. “I caught one in my bare hand, not on purpose, in Dodger Stadium,” he said. “I was trying to get it, it went down here and I caught it with my bare hand.”

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