Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Knuckle Sandwich

The Knuckleball is the strangest pitch ever invented. It perfoms like the five D's of Dodgeball; dodge, dip, duck, dive and dodge (I know dodge is in there twice, but I'm just quoting the movie). It always amazes me when someone can become a successful pitcher throwing a pitch that is for all intents and purposes, uncontrollable. It's basically a freak pitch that baffles the people trying to hit it, catch it and often times, the people who are throwing it. Watching Tim Wakefield last night and the adventures of his catcher was quite amusing at times. He actually gave a run without giving up a hit, thanks to three passed balls in one inning. He actually struck out Arod, but he reached on a passed ball (which is, by the way, one of the seven ways to reach first base without a hit). Arod then advanced to second on a passed ball and then scored from third on a passed ball.

The Knuckleball, in it's current incarnation, is not thrown with the knuckles but with the fingertips. The basic idea is to impart as little spin as possible and let the ball to float to home plate on the wings of fate. The knuckleball has been thrown with the knuckles in the past and I'm sure there are pitchers somewhere who still do it that way, but recently, at the major league level at least, it's been all about the fingertips. I'm not sure why the more recent crop only uses the fingertips but perhaps it has something to do with the success enjoyed by Phil Neikro or perhaps Hoyt Wilhelm or Wilbur Wood. I can't say for sure. Neikro and Wilhelm are both in the Hall of Fame and Wood won 20 games a season for four years in a row in the seventies, so clearly the fingertip grip worked very well for them.

There is definitely a bias against knuckle ball pitchers. No knuckleballer has ever won the Cy Young award although Wood and Phil Neikro certainly had seasons in which they were worthy. Baseball scouts would probably dismiss most prospects who relied too heavily on the pitch. Today it's all about making the radar gun light up and the knuckleball is never going to do that. The most likely scenario of a pitcher reaching the majors as a knuckleballer would involve an arm injury to a prospect who then converts to throwing the knuckleball in order to salvage his career. A team that has invested money would be willing to give that pitcher a chance to show that he can still be effective. However, a college or high school pitcher who throws it, would probably never get signed in the first place.

There are pitchers who use a variations of the knuckleball to great effect. Mike Mussina is the most famous proponent of the knuckle curve and the knuckle change. Once again he uses his fingertips, but with only one finger. The other finger is used in a conventional style. His pitches have neither the movement nor the randomness of the regular knuckleball. In fact he can throw them with pinpoint control. They have the same movement that one would associate with a normally thrown curveball or change up. It seems that the knuckle portion of these pitches doesn't really add much too them. Mussina would never have made it off the campus of Stanford if he relied on a conventional knuckleball.

Knuckle ball pitchers are a rare breed. In fact Tim Wakefield is in fact the only major league pitcher who uses it almost exclusively. Steve Sparks was a knuckleballer as well, but he's not pitching in the majors this year and it would be a stretch of the imagination to call him successful. Clearly the pitch is difficult to master but it can lead to a very long career. The pitch is rarely thrown at speeds above a batting practice fastball. Phil and Joe Niekro along with Hoyt Wilhelm pitched effectively well into their forties using the Knuckleball as their primary weapon. Wakefield has enjoyed a long career relying on the pitch. He came up as a 25 year old and immediately went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA. The following year he 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA. The year after that, he was back in the minors and then released by the Pirates. The year after that he resurfaced with the Red Sox and went 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA. That is what makes the knuckleball so frustrating. It can be just as big a mystery to the people who throw it as it is to the people trying to hit it.

It's not hard to imagine a day when there will be no knuckleballers in major league baseball. At this point there is only one knuckleball pitcher who is enjoying success in the minors and Wakefield is holding up the tent in the majors all by himself. He is 38 years old, but if past successful knuckleballers are any indicator, he probably has at least 5 years left in his tank. Hopefully the pitch doesn't go the way of the dinosaurs. It would be a shame if the pitch were lost to major league baseball forever. The pitch is fairly simple to throw and does not require great arm strength (Wilbur Wood actually pitched both ends of a double header in the seventies), so I can always imagine the day when some kid or some almost senior citizen out of nowhere makes it to the majors by learning to harness the magic and mystery that is the knuckleball.



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