The Knuckleball Why Not Now?
—Ron Luciano, former AL umpire
Aside from anything thrown by Rick Ankiel in the 2000 playoffs, the knuckleball is the most unpredictable pitch in baseball.
The knuckler moves uncontrollably, and is nearly impossible to hit when thrown properly. Not only is the pitch effective—it has allowed older players like Tim Wakefield (who's 41) to stay in the game.
Unlike any other pitch, the knuckleball is MOST effective when thrown with less effort, thus reducing strain on pitchers' arms. Knuckleballers like Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Jesse Haines have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
So what's the problem?
With the exception of Charlie Haeger, who occasionally gets called up by the Chicago White Sox, Wakefield is the ONLY knuckleballer in ALL of Major League Baseball.
Let me get this straight—there's an effective pitch that reduces wear and tear on the arm...and there's only ONE GUY who went out of his way to learn how to throw it?
In an era of Kerry Wood's and Mark Prior's (or any other Cub I missed), you'd think longevity would be a priority for pitchers. Jim Bouton blew out his arm—then picked up the knuckler and added a few years to his career.
For the uninitiated, the knuckleball was initially thrown by holding the top of the ball with the knuckles and using the thumb for balance, à la Eddie Cicotte. It has since come to be thrown by digging the fingernails into the ball, or even just by it gripping with the fingertips.
The objective is to throw the ball so that it has only a slight topspin—think half a rotation before it reaches the catcher—so that the seams will pick up the wind and create unpredictable movement.
An ideal knuckler would have no spin at all—but without movement, the ball becomes a grapefruit for the hitter. As a result, it became common to throw the pitch with a slight topspin, thus ensuring that it drops even if it doesn't get caught in the wind.
Of course, not everything is great about the knuckleball. Because no one knows where the ball's going, the catcher is left in the dark trying to catch it. Geno Petralli, for one, allowed four passed balls in a single inning while catching Charlie Hough in 1987.
Many knuckleballers require their own designated backstops. Doug Mirabelli caught for Wakefield until Mirabelli was traded for Mark Loretta. The Red Sox used Jason Varitek in his place, and Wakefield accumulated an ERA of 9.00 while notching three passed balls in the 2004 playoffs.
Needless to say, the Sox reacquired Mirabelli.
The knuckler is also tough on catchers physically. Dale Murphy, a former catcher with the Braves, had to move to center field because Phil Niekro's knuckleballs were too tough on his knees.
And the pitch isn't only tough to catch—with an average pitch speed of 55 to 70 mph, every knuckleball is a stolen base waiting to happen.
Aside from some fantastic quotes—Willie Stargell once said, "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox"—the knuckleball seems to be on its way out. Should Haeger not make it in the majors, in fact, Wakefield would likely be the big leagues' last knuckleballer.
Unless of course Roger Clemens reads this and decides to play for another five seasons.
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