Whither the Knuckleball?

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IFebruary 1, 2012

My last post on Tim Wakefield got me thinking about the seeming decline in knuckleball pitchers in recent years and wondering if the universal adoption of five-man pitching rotations and more regimentation of relievers has had an adverse effect on knuckleball pitchers.

Specifically, the thing about the knuckleball pitcher is that he runs counter to the vast majority of major league pitchers.  Throwing knucklers takes very little out of a pitcher’s arm because they aren’t thrown hard and don’t involve any significant arm torque.  A knuckle ball pitcher can throw inning after inning with no ill effects.

On the other hand, throwing the knuckler is all about “feel” and consistency — being able to make the ball knuckle every single time — a knuckleball that doesn’t knuckle is about as fat a pitch as any professional hitter will ever see, not even as fast as a batting practice fastball.

It takes a great deal of practice to master the knuckler, and knuckleball pitchers may be hurt by the fact they don’t get as many game repetitions as they did in the days of four-man starting rotations and the best relief pitchers routinely pitching well more than 100 innings a year.

On the other hand, times are different from the days of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (the 1969 season), when Bouton wrote about the trouble he had finding bullpen catchers to give him the practice he needed to master his knuckleball.

Catchers hate catching the knuckleball, because it is the most dangerous pitch for them to catch.  This seems counter-intuitive since the knuckleball is thrown so slowly.  However, a good knuckleball breaks so sharply and unpredictably that knucklers routinely hit the catcher’s glove wrong, bruising the hand and cracking the small bones.  Also, catching the knuckleball means taking a lot more balls off the legs as the knuckleball jumps away from the target.

Nowadays, one would think that teams could afford to have extra bullpen catchers for this kind of duty.

I found this great website which lists all the knuckleballers the creator could find.  Going over it, I realize that the number of knuckleballers now might not be historically low.  Instead, I am remembering an era (from approximately 1960 to 1990) when great knuckleballers were especially numerous.

The Niekro brothers, Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough and Eddie Fisher to name the top six of that era. That’s a lot of great knuckleball pitchers for one 30 year period.

Looking more closely at what may well be Tim Wakefield’s final career numbers, I note that they look a lot like Charlie Hough’s and Wilbur Wood’s (I don’t think a lot of people remember or have ever known what a great pitcher Wood was between 1967 and his getting hurt in early 1976 when a line drive off the bat of Ron LeFlore (the star center fielder and base stealer Billy Martin discovered in the Michigan state penitentiary) shattered his knee cap.)  Or, for that matter, the career numbers of Emil “Dutch” Leonard or Ted Lyons.

My perception of Wakefield’s career is perhaps a bit jaundiced, as for many years I hoped that he would develop into the next Phil Neikro.  In hindsight, that was probably never very realistic.

If Wakefield’s career is in fact now over, the great erratic hope is most certainly R. A. Dickey, who has stealthily established himself as a fine starter in his mid-30′s while playing under the very noses of the New York media.

Dickey was aided in this by going only 8-13 last year.  However, he pitched a lot better than that, posting a 3.28 ERA and setting career highs in innings pitched (208.1), Ks (134) and K/BB ratio (2.48/1).  It was his second fine year as a starter for the Metropolitans.

The beauty of a knuckleballer like Dickey is the same as for all major leaguers facing the start of a new season, only more so.  At age 37 this coming season, the odds are about as good of Dickey running off five more seasons as one of the NLs better starters as they are of him flaming out before the 2012 season is over never to return again.

Let’s hope it’s the former, as the big leagues always need at least one great knuckleballer frustrating the hell out of the world’s best hitters with his assortment of slow and slower dipsy-does.