June 21st, 2012

Knuckle Up


            There’s no doubt who’s been the best pitcher in baseball this year: R.A Dickey.  He’s been on a season-long hot streak.  And, somehow, things only seem to be getting better for Mr. Dickey.  On June 18th, he finished his second straight complete game one-hitter, the first to do so in the National League since Jim Tobin accomplished the feat…in 1944.  For the season, he is dominating the NL in just about every statistical category: 99 Innings Pitched (2nd), 103 Strikeouts (1st), 11 Wins (1st), .89 WHIP (1st), and a 2.00 ERA (1st).  Along the way, he’s been making big-league hitters look downright foolish (Check it out HERE).  He has had at least eight strikeouts in his last seven starts.  He hasn’t given up an earned run in five starts (three of which were complete games), and currently holds a streak of 42 consecutive scoreless innings.  He’s as hot as July and it’s only June.  And while his numbers are special for any pitcher, when people talk about R.A. Dickey and the success he’s had this season, they only mention one thing: the knuckleball.

            The knuckleball holds a singular position in the sporting world.  Nowhere else could one find such a specifically unique style of performance.  In basketball, everyone has their own shooting form, but they are all overhead throws more or less of similar force and trajectory.  In football, different quarterbacks throw at different arm angles, and some (like Bret Favre) vary their throwing motion based on the situation, but the resulting throw is always meant to be a tight spiral to the right spot at the right time.  Pitching in baseball is similar, in that the object is to throw hard and with accuracy.  Knuckleballs, however, are neither hard throws nor accurate throws.

            Professional sports are played at a lightning-quick pace and success is achieved through brute force.  The knuckleball, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: its pathetic velocity is almost meant as a tease to counteract that athletic over-aggression.  It’s hard to imagine such a strategy working in a sport other than baseball, which is, in some regards, already the slowest sport out of the major American sports (which I define as Baseball, Basketball, Football, and Hockey).

            Famously, the Mighty Ducks movie franchise depicted the possibility of a knuckleball-type style crossing over to a different sport.  The film imagined a knuckleball slap-shot in hockey called, “The Knucklepuck” (See it HERE).  But it was meant as a farcical joke, not some legitimate, new-fangled strategy youngsters should try to emulate, as a “Knucklepuck” would really be nothing more than a lukewarm slap-shot (and you probably would never have the time to prop the puck on its side and shout out “It’s Knucklepuck time!” before shooting).  The impossibility of the Knucklepuck in hockey exposes how strange it is that a similar strategy works in baseball.  Because the truth is that R.A Dickey is a real-life Knucklepucker, pitching in a style that is as rare as it has been effective.

            And the question is fair in light of his success: If R.A. Dickey has proven the viability of the knuckleball, why aren’t there more hurlers tossing knuckles?  R.A. Dickey is, in fact, the ONLY knuckleballer in Major League Baseball.  How can the best pitcher in baseball also be the only one throwing knuckleballs?  It’s a small sample size (just one), but judging from the excellence Dickey has exhibited over the last few months, it would seem that every Little Leaguer in America should be working on their knuckler.

            The list of historically great knuckleball pitchers is similarly short.  There are only three (Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Jesse Haines) in the Hall of Fame.  And perhaps it takes a knuckleball legend to explain the mysterious lack of young players trying to master their craft.  Jim Bouton (notorious knuckler) said, “If they don’t learn it when they’re young, it’s very, very difficult to learn it later on in life.”  Phil Niekro, the Godfather of knuckleballs, has stated, “Knuckleball pitchers are born, not made.”

            But despite the genealogical barriers, it seems like there would have been more knuckleball pitchers throughout the history of baseball, as the knuckleball is no new phenomenon; it’s been around for a hundred years.  No one quite knows who invented the pitch, as progressions of that type are always difficult to source (consider the impossibility of tracking down the very first person to do a reverse slam dunk, or the very first person to use the shovel pass in football).  The definition of the pitch is even mystifying: “The pitch is thrown so as to minimize the spin of the ball in flight.  This causes vertices over the stitched seams of the baseball during its trajectory, which in turn cause the pitch to change direction – and even corkscrew – in mid-flight.”  Basically, knuckleballs are thrown with no spin to allow the ball to react to the elements, resulting in all sorts of wacky routes towards home plate.  The variations assumed by the pitch resulted in people not even knowing what to call it for a long time.  Throughout the history of the pitch, it was variously called the flutterball, the floater, the dancer, the butterfly ball, and the ghostball, before the baseball world settled on labeling the peculiar pitch a “knuckleball,” because the pitcher seemingly grips the ball with his knuckles.  When thrown right, knuckleballs are as confusing to the pitcher as they are to the batter or the catcher (or the umpire).  Unfortunately, it is exactly this unpredictability that has kept knuckleballs from garnering widespread use.  How can the pitcher rely on a pitch that he can’t control?  In effect, the knuckleball’s greatest strength is its biggest obstacle. 

            Today, the lack of knuckleballers results from the realities of the prospect system.  The knuckleball, according to everyone who has ever attempted to master it, is a process.  It takes a long time to learn – assuming you ever will.  That uncertainty means that taking a knuckleball pitcher as a prospect is a huge risk for a team, as you are investing a lot of time and energy (and money) into a ballplayer that has no margin for error.  The truth is: throwing the knuckleball is a last resort for pitchers who don’t have a live-enough arm to throw the velocities required to beat Major League hitters.  This was certainly the case for R.A. Dickey.  After sputtering through an up-and-down career, he decided to dedicate himself to the knuckleball, “In order to continue chasing the dream of being a Major League player, I had to come up with something that could get hitters out.”  No big-league talent would “waste” their time learning to throw a knuckleball; all knuckleball pitchers have failed at the traditional styles of pitching.  In many ways, Dickey proves Niekro wrong: he clearly wasn’t born a knuckleball pitcher.  In fact, he didn’t become one until he was over thirty years old and finally admitted to himself that he would never find success as a fastball/curveball run-of-the-mill mound jockey.

            Many pitchers are humbled by the talent required to compete at the highest levels of baseball; the sad truth is that many will not make it.  Even sadder is that a percentage of those failures who spend their prime years struggling against their own physical limitations aren't aware that they would be better off giving up and committing to specialty pitches, like knuckleballs.  R.A. Dickey is 37.  Don’t you think he would give anything to have the success he’s having now when he was 25?  Don’t you think he would have been better served by lowered expectations that would have prevented him from spending so many years pursuing a style that, for him, would never work? 

Pitchers with a “big” arm have some leeway in the Minors, as they rely on their God-given abilities to get hitters out, even if they aren’t progressing their talents.  Once again, learning the knuckleball is a process.  A knuckleball pitcher’s success depends upon acquisition of a very difficult skill.  To make matters worse, knuckleball pitchers aren’t athletically-gifted enough to buy time until they perfect the pitch.  And Minor League managers can’t be giving innings to long-shots; they need their more promising prospects to have a chance to develop.  The result is that knuckleballers aren’t given much development (coupled with the potential-stunting truth that most coaches don’t have the knuckleball expertise to help with the process).  Charlie Hough, one of the all-time great knuckleballers, echoes this sentiment, “It’s hard to do (throw a knuckleball).  And it’s difficult to get the chance.”  A prospect would have to already be a polished knuckleballer when they get drafted (which is almost impossible) or be lucky enough to find an organization with the patience and balls to take a chance.

And yet, there are many advantages to being a knuckleball pitcher.  For starters, the scarcity of the style makes it hard for hitters to get used to.  Dickey is the only knuckleball pitcher in the MLB; his uniqueness has given him a huge edge, pitching to hitters that might never have faced a knuckleballer in their entire career.  Also, success for knuckleballers tends to breed more success, as they perform much better out of the wind-up, when they can get their full arm motion geared towards knuckling the ball correctly.  So, when knuckleball pitchers do well, keeping players off the base-paths, they tend do very well (though this concept also works in reverse, as knuckleball pitchers do poorly out of the stretch, and when the knuckle isn’t knuckling, they tend to get hammered).  But most importantly, the knuckleball doesn’t require the violent shoulder motion that other pitches do, allowing for a much longer career.  Phil Neikro notched 121 wins after the age of 40 (an MLB record).

But despite these advantages, knuckleballers remain at the extremities of the baseball map, which makes the public’s continued fascination with them all the stranger.  In fact, a documentary film was recently made, called Knuckleball!, chronicling the 2011 MLB seasons of R.A. Dickey and (legendary knuckleballer) Tim Wakefield.  E-60 did an extended expose on a 12-year old Little Leaguer (Chelsea Baker), who is notable not only because she is successful in a sport dominated by boys, but because she is a pitcher who throws knuckleballs.  But our fascination with knuckleballs is always tempered by the belief that they aren’t a viable strategy in professional baseball.  The few knuckleball pitchers that slip through the cracks (like Wakefield and Dickey) are considered aberrations or exceptions to the rule.  Most casual observers think they can hit a knuckleball.  Even worse, many think they can throw one.  These are wholly false misconceptions that cheapen what Dickey and other knuckleballers have accomplished.  Dickey, for his part, is straddling a line of near impossibility.  He’s throwing knuckleballs when no one else is.  He’s throwing knuckleballs in the low-eighties, when no one else can.  Best of all, he’s throwing knuckleballs for strikes, which, owing to the unpredictability of the pitch, is just as paradoxical as it is incredible.

            Knuckleballs will always be an anomaly.  They are soft throws in a game of hard throws.  They employ an unpredictable strategy in a game of rigid order.  Most importantly, in a game dictated by ferocious athleticism, knuckleballs are an effective strategy qualified by nothing more than a knuckled grip and a soft toss.  Most men, at some point in their life, could hurl a baseball 70 miles per hour.  It would seem that anyone could throw knuckleballs if they really wanted to.  But there lies the mystery at the tangled intersection of sports and talent and skill and success: why R.A. Dickey?  Why now?  Above all, why knuckleballs?