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MLB: Ranking the 10 Greatest Knuckleballers of All Time

Douglas SiborContributor IMay 2, 2012

MLB: Ranking the 10 Greatest Knuckleballers of All Time

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    When a manager asks his pitcher if he can throw strikes and the pitcher replies with something along the lines of “your guess is as good as mine,” one wouldn’t expect the manager to keep said pitcher in the game.

    For some pitchers, though, this type of response actually earned the confidence of their managers. These men were and are knuckleballers, players whose entire existence depends upon their ability to control the seemingly untamable.

    Yesterday we took a look at a recent documentary made about the unpredictable, dancing knuckleball. Now it’s time to look at the pitch’s importance not just on the silver screen, but also for the men who made it come to life better than anyone else. While nearly everyone who has thrown a baseball has tried it, the reality is that very few can harness it enough to throw it with confidence in a game.

    Some players, through guile, talent and a lot of practice, managed to turn this gimmicky pitch into a career-altering staple of their repertoire. What is unique about these hurlers is that they span across generations ranging from pre-integration all the way to the steroid era and present day.

    Almost universally, they managed to parlay their new-found skill into a much longer than usual career, with many players' careers lasting well into their 40s.

    Through both their skills and longevity, these 10 players have become the greatest knuckleballers in the history of baseball:

Honorable Mention: Jim Bouton

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    As someone who possessed a strong fastball, Bouton did not become a true knuckleballer until arm trouble had rendered his other pitches nearly useless. After enjoying strong success early in his career as a starter, winning 21 games with the Yankees in 1963, Bouton began to throw his knuckleball full time in 1967.

    Bouton had a solid 1969 season as a reliever for the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros, compiling a 3.96 ERA and two saves over a staggering 122.2 innings out of the bullpen. However, it is for his book chronicling that season, “Ball Four,” that Bouton is often best remembered.

    This tell-all book was one of the first to violate baseball’s “unwritten code” of keeping all clubhouse-related stories private. Bouton did not appear again at Yankee Stadium until 1998 as a result.

10. Bob Purkey

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    Purkey pitched for the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals over the course of his 13-year MLB career, and his successful implementation of the knuckleball enabled him to be enshrined in the Reds’ Hall of Fame.

    Pitching primarily in relief for the Pirates, Purkey posted a very modest 16-30 record with a 4.36 ERA in parts of five seasons. After being sent to Cincinnati, though, the right-hander flourished.

    Purkey earned 103 wins in his seven years with the Reds, making three All-Star teams and finishing third in the 1962 NL Cy Young balloting.

9. R.A. Dickey

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    After a career of uncertainty, Dickey has finally emerged as a legitimate, effective knuckleballer for the New York Mets. After tinkering with the pitch in Texas, Dickey was given a chance to use it as a full-time starter for the Mets, and he has delivered.

    Over three seasons and 63 starts in New York, Dickey has amassed a 3.18 ERA and a solid 1.212 WHIP. He has shown a unique ability to change speeds with his knuckleball as well, with speeds ranging from the low 60s all the way up to the mid-80s.

    At just 37 years old—young in knuckler years—Dickey should have many strong seasons in front of him. Given the era in which he is pitching, he still ranks just ahead of some of the older pitchers despite his relatively small body of work.

8. Tom Candiotti

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    “The Candy Man” ranks a bit lower on this list despite putting up good career numbers due to his ability to throw other pitches beyond the knuckleball. Candiotti was nevertheless a reliable pitcher, exceeding 30 starts a remarkable nine times during his career.

    His finest effort came in 1991, where despite a 13-13 record, the right-hander amassed a 2.65 ERA and six complete games over 238.0 innings. Though he started that season in Cleveland, Candiotti was traded to the Blue Jays along with Turner Ward for Denis Boucher, Glenallen Hill, Mark Whiten and cash.

    Candiotti made two starts for the Jays in the ALCS against the Twins that year, and neither went particularly well. He took the loss in Game 1 of the series after allowing five runs in just 2.2 innings, then earned a no-decision in the Blue Jays’ Game 5 loss that sent them home for the season.

7. Joe Niekro

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    Though less famous than his older, Hall of Famer brother Phil, Joe Niekro was an excellent pitcher in his own right. Niekro pitched in parts of 22 MLB seasons with seven different teams, and the only reason he isn’t higher on this list is due to the fact that his knuckleball was more of a complimentary pitch.

    Niekro was a solid pitcher through his 20s, exceeding 10 wins three times. His two years in Atlanta united him with his brother and allowed him to perfect his knuckleball, which he began using to great effect after his contract was purchased by the Houston Astros.

    His finest two seasons came back to back in 1979 and 1980, where Niekro won 21 and 20 games and finished second and fourth in Cy Young voting, respectively.

6. Wilbur Wood

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    The only left-hander on this list, Wood was actually the first knuckleballer to pitch for the Red Sox. He made his MLB debut in 1961 at the tender age of 19 years old, throwing four innings in relief of the immortal Billy Muffett.

    After several up and down years for both Boston and Pittsburgh, Wood arrived in Chicago to pitch for the White Sox and was advised by grizzled veteran Hoyt Wilhelm to use only the knuckleball when on the mound. Heeding Wilhelmn’s advice, Wood promptly enjoyed several of the finest seasons of his career.

    He set the MLB record for appearances by a reliever with 88 in 1968, although that record has since fallen. After becoming a starter in 1971, Wood rattled off an unprecedented five consecutive seasons of 40-plus starts, winning 20 games four times and making three All-Star teams over that time frame.

5. Dutch Leonard

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    Leonard was one of the earliest pitchers to enjoy great success with the knuckleball. He won 191 games over the course of his 20-year career, and continued to be effective will into his 40s.

    He won 10 or more games in 12 seasons, failing to reach that mark only once as a full-time starter. He also made five All-Star teams and was known for his excellent control, leading MLB in walks per nine innings twice and finishing in the top five 12 different times.

    Leonard was also part of history in 1945, when his Washington Senators sported what is thought to be the only four-man starting rotation comprised exclusively of knuckleballers (Leonard, Roger Wolff, Mickey Haefner and Johnny Niggeling). 

4. Hoyt Wilhelm

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    Wilhelm will best be remembered not just for his knuckleball, but for his longevity. His 21 seasons may not seem that remarkable, but when one considers that Wilhelm made his MLB debut at age 29, was an All-Star at 47 and made his last appearance at age 49, the significance of his achievements becomes a bit clearer. His 1,070 career appearances have been surpassed only by Jesse Orosco and Dennis Eckersley.

    A five-time All-Star whose first and last appearances were separated by an absurd 17 years, Wilhelm spent all but one of his professional seasons as a reliever. However, his one full season as a starter was not without incident; he won 15 games and the AL ERA title with a 2.19 mark.

    For all his extraordinary achievements, in 1985 Wilhelm became the first reliever ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

3. Charlie Hough

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    Hough is another in a long line of ultra-durable knuckleballers who pitched well past their athletic primes. In a career spanning 25 years, Hough threw an astounding 107 complete games and earned 216 wins.

    After working as a reliever for the Dodgers, Hough converted to a starting role when he was sold to the Texas Rangers prior to the 1980 season. Beginning in 1982, Hough rattled off nine consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins, and his 139 total victories are still a Rangers record.

    After pitching two seasons for the expansion Florida Marlins in 1993 and 1994, Hough retired at the age of 46 as the last active player born in the 1940s.

2. Tim Wakefield

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    Few pitchers in Red Sox history will be as beloved as Wakefield. After bursting onto the scene with an 8-1 record and a 2.15 ERA with the Pirates in 1992, Wakefield found his way to Boston after being released by the Pirates following a disastrous 1993 season.

    What followed was a remarkable 17-year run with the Sox that saw Wakefield amass the most innings pitched (3006.0), third-most wins (186) and second-most strikeouts (2046) in franchise history. He also won two World Series rings and at the tender age of 42 made his first All-Star team.

    Wakefield ranks so highly on the list because he accomplished all of this during an era in baseball where use of performance enhancing drugs was rampant. Through it all he managed to win 10-plus games 11 times, and cemented his status as a Red Sox legend.

1. Phil Niekro

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    Unquestionably, Phil Niekro is the king of the knuckleballers. His 318 career wins put him at 16th on the all-time list, and his 121 wins after turning 40 are an MLB record.

    He also won five Gold Gloves and played for five All-Star teams in his 24 seasons, throwing a no-hitter in 1973 for good measure. Perhaps the most remarkable of his individual seasons was 1979, where he won 21 games despite playing for an Atlanta Braves team that won only 66 all season.

    Niekro was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997, cementing his legacy as the greatest knuckleballer in the history of professional baseball.

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