The number is a rarity in the world of sports, but there is an exception that I find increasingly disturbing. You see, this tiny number refers to the amount of pitchers in Major League Baseball who feature the pitch known as the knuckleball. The only active practitioner, Boston's Tim Wakefield, is in his 14th season with the club, and is closing in on breaking the record for most wins by a Redsox pitcher in history (held by Cy Young and Roger Clemens). The magic number to beat is 192, and this is most certainly within reach if the knuckleballer can stay in the game for another four to five seasons and keep up with his reputation for providing quality starts and giving his team an opportunity to win games. With a career like Wakefields and a pitch that prolongs careers (Phil Niekro played until he was 48), it would seem that clubs would be interested in the possibility of working on developing some good knuckleball pitchers.
This, however, is not the case. It now seems that my favorite pitch in all of baseball slowly seems to be going the way of the Tyrannosaurus Rex... extinct.
While many teams continue to ignore younger pitchers who cant light up 90+ on a radar gun, it is not surprising to find the only organization in baseball that seems to be interested in young knuckleball pitchers is the Boston Redsox. This may stem from the fact that Boston has more of an ability to instruct and develop these pitchers with Wakefield in the mix of things. Nevertheless, with the exception of the Chicago White Sox (who have Charlie Haeger) the Redsox have held a sort of monopoly on knuckleball pitchers in the minor leagues over the past few years with names such as John Barnes and Charlie Zink. While Barnes is now a minor league free agent, Zink is pitching exceptionally well for AAA Pawtucket, and has already been dubbed the next Tim Wakefield by those within the organization. Hopefully his great numbers on the year will result in a short call-up opportunity now that Buchholz has been placed on the DL. While other names of recent knuckleballers come to mind such as Jared Fernandez (who had breif stints with the Reds, Astros, and Brewers), R.A. Dickey (who is currently pitching for the Seattle Mariners AAA team), and Steve Sparks (who is now retired), it is not surprising to note that most of these pitchers have had problems staying in one place for an extended period of time.
In any case, the thing I find disturbing is that many people who follow baseball simply don't give the knuckleball a chance in the first place. Casual fans claim that they could "lob the ball up to the plate in the same way", and coaches are too quick to pull the plug on a bad situation, or simply banish the pitch after one bad outing. I remember my high school coach approaching me after I had just given up a home run during one of my games, and being very angry that I had given up the longball on a "circus pitch". I explained that the home run came on a high curve-ball, and suddenly he was much more sympathetic, and simply told me to keep it down next time. It is this lack of patience and understanding that most greatly hinders the advancement of this type of finesse pitcher. I think Terry Francona is the perfect manager in this regard. In a recent interview he described what a manager needed to do to have a successful knuckleball pitcher. He emphasized having to "sit on your hands" for a good deal of the game. "He'll give up walks, allow the baserunners, and sometimes get hit, but if I'm patient, I'll look up and he'll still be in the game in the 7th inning, giving the team a chance to win." In an era of power pitchers and increased emphasis placed on velocity instead of intelligence and changing speeds, most knuckleball hurlers simply arent fortunate enought to have a manager this sensative to their needs.
The question still arises, however, as to why more young people don't feature the pitch in their arsenal of weapons on the mound. After all, imagine how effective a good knuckleball would be if the pitcher were also armed with a 90 mph fastball. He would be nearly unhittable due to the vastly different speeds and approaches.
The answer comes from an understanding of how the pitch works. First of all, the mechanics of throwing the pitch are unique. In order to deliver an effective knuckleball that kills most spin the wrist must be locked and stiff when throwing, the pitcher must develop a shorter stride towards home plate, and they must focus on throwing more with the upper body. Also unlike conventional pitches such as the fastball and slider, the knuckleball takes an enormous amount of time to become confident with on the mound. To throw a fastball you rear back and throw hard, and this is attractive to younger pitchers who are looking for instant results. Rarely do young pitchers spend the amount of time and effort that are required to throw a baseball at high speeds towards the plate while controlling the spin completely. Any more then 1.5-2 complete rotations on the way to the plate can cause a knuckleball to quickly become a souvenir in a fans glove sitting in the left field seats 450 feet away. Therefore, in order to be successful at a high level of competition, a knuckleball pitcher must train his body and muscle memory to be able to execute a 65mph pitch with under one single rotation 9 out of every 10 times (at least)! What makes the pitch even more frustrating is the fact that it is the hardest single pitch in baseball to control. The ball can be released going in the exact same direction 10 different times, and it will never once end up in the same place. It is this unpredictability that adds another increase in difficulty to learning the pitch. It was once said that it takes one day to learn a knuckleball and a lifetime to learn to throw it for strikes. What a great quote!
Having said all of this, I believe that the future of the knuckleball is still quite bright (despite what the announcers and baseball analysts say). What the game of baseball needs is young pitchers like Zink who are dedicated to the art of throwing the games most elusive pitch. Wakefield has already been a model for all others to look up to and compare against, so the groundwork is set for a resurgence of this type of pitcher in the near future. Baseball, like any other aspect of life, goes through phases, and I believe that a new era of knuckleball pitchers is just beyond the horizon. Recently the Twins were scouting a young knuckleball prospect named Sean Flaherty after observing Wakefields dominance in the dome. Along with this, the New York Yankees were reportedly looking for a knuckleball prospect to counter Tim Wakefield. The Chicago White Sox still have Charlie Haeger throwing the knuckleball for their AAA team, and of course the Redsox organization has become known as an extremely good place for knuckleballers to develop and grow. Hopefully this great pitch will continue to fool batters in the coming decades, and I'll be able to turn on my TV and see a good knuckleball pitcher at least a few times each year.
(P.S.) For any of you who are interested in learning more about this subject, there is an excellent site on the internet called "Knuckleball HQ" that you should check out. There are very knowledgable people on that board who answer questions from aspiring knuckleball pitchers and track the progress of those currently in the professional system. Check out the message boards, and tell Dave "Hi"! Heres the link: http://www.oddball-mall.com/knuckleball