An Ode to the Knuckleball
All the rage these days is which pitcher can throw the hardest. This one can touch 97 mph, that one can hit 100 mph, a couple of prospects can hit 103 mph, and recently traded White Sox prospect Michael Kopech hit 110 on the gun in what’s called a pull-down drill, which is meant to determine maximum velocity in a throw possible.
It makes sense, too. At that velocity, a hitter has to almost guess where the ball is going to end up, and sometimes they lose sight of the ball altogether in what’s a very sinister optical illusion. If you pair that heat with a breaking pitch or a changeup, you become even harder to hit, because if you don’t prepare for the high cheese, you will never be able to hit it.
Additionally, the reverse psychology means that if you prepare for the fastball and get the soft stuff, you’ll swing right over the top. Don’t be ashamed if it makes you look silly, it happens to major leaguers all the time.
That leaves a big something to be said about those pitchers who live on the knuckleball. The knuckleball is typically thrown between 60 and 75 mph, a far cry from those pitchers who make their living off the country hard ball. At that speed, a hitter has time to see the ball, judge where it’s going to land, and hit the stuffing out of it. Well, at least they think so.
A typical breaking pitch is thrown with maximum spin on the ball, to achieve wind resistance against the seams of the baseball, which causes the ball to “break” or move in one direction. The knuckleball is thrown differently. The idea is to push the ball out of your hands, using your fingertips and fingernails, to try and throw the ball with little to no spin at all, causing the ball to dance, flutter, float, dodge, dip, dive, duck, and dodge in whatever direction it feels like. I asked my physics TA in college to explain the science behind it to me, and in short, he told me to (expletive) off.
Check out this pitch from Boston’s Steven Wright. Baltimore’s Chris Davis can hit 50 home runs in a season, and here looks like he hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. The catcher can’t catch it, and forget about calling it one way or another as an ump.
Bob Uecker, legendary commentator for the Brewers famously said, “The best way to catch a knuckleball is to wait for it to stop rolling, then pick it up”. Charley Lau, a famous hitting coach, once said “There are two theories on hitting the knuckler. Neither of them work”. There are many fabulous quotes about the knuckler.
Knuckleball pitchers are a very rare breed of players. Currently, there are only two in the majors, the aforementioned Steven Wright and R.A. Dickey of the Atlanta Braves. These pitchers typically start their major league success later on, some in their early to mid 30’s, and can keep going for years.
If you look at the stress a conventional pitcher’s arm goes through every time they throw a fastball or a slider as hard as they can, it can wear the arm down significantly, and can cause injuries that could shorten careers. Knuckleball pitchers have much less stress, because they are throwing much softer, and can pitch into their mid to late 40’s sometimes. Phil Niekro made the All Star game at age 45, with a 16-8 record and an ERA of 3.08, pitching for the Yankees.
These pitchers also usually start off in life as something else, be it a power pitcher, position player, etc., and they use the knuckleball as a last resort to keep playing the game they love.
Tim Wakefield was struggling to hack it as a first base prospect for the Pirates, until they discovered he could throw the knuckler for strikes, and then enjoyed a long, successful career with the Red Sox. R.A. Dickey pitched without a UCL in his right elbow, and almost left baseball until he started throwing the knuckleball. There are a bunch of stories about these guys building their career off this pitch.
I love watching these guys pitch. The knuckleball is a freak pitch, yes, but it’s always fun to watch these guys throwing the equivalent of a grapefruit at these big league hitters, and making them look absolutely silly up there. These guys are hard to root against, whether it’s because of their back story, their struggle to make it to the show and earn the trust of the manager, or because who doesn’t like cheering for the old guy?
In a generation where everyone digs triple digit heat, we gotta give some love to the guys who buck the trend. If for nothing else, it’s just fun to watch.