Chris Nowlin on Finding Your Own Personal Knuckleball

Program Director Chris Nowlin training with Hall of Famer Phil Niekro

Phil Niekro and Chris Nowlin

In a recent post at his Knuckleball Nation site, IKA’s Chris Nowlin (bio here) suggests that which of various equally effective knuckleball grips you adopt depends on personal “feel” that can’t be determined by formula—and also depends on how short you cut your fingernails.

Once you’ve reduced any variables and put yourself into position to give yourself chance, it’s up to you to feel the ball out of your hand with no spin at the proper moment. This is when the knuckleball becomes a “feel” pitch rather than a mechanical one. And as Charlie Hough used to tell me, “I can teach you how to get your body and arm into the proper position, but the release is up to you to feel out of your hand.”…

How deep does the ball sit in your hand with your grip? Do you wedge the ball up against your palm like Phil Niekro, R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield, or do you cradle the ball with your fingers, cause the ball to hover above your palm like Hoyt Wilhelm and Charlie Hough? The depth of the ball in your hand is completely up to you. And, as you can see, there have been very successful pitchers that have used varying levels of depth. But the depth of your grip might be cause by the length of your fingernails….

Shorter fingernails will allow you to have a lighter grip on the ball and may cause the ball to hover above your palm like Hoyt Wilhelm. You don’t have to curl your fingers very far in order to dig those stubby and strong nails into the rawhide of the ball. This allows for a light, dangly  grip that some may find uncomfortable, especially when trying to throw the ball hard, because you’ll be forced to throw the ball almost exclusively off your fingernails without the aid of your fingertip.

Longer fingernails will cause the ball to sit deeper into your palm. This is because you’ll be forced to curl your fingers more to get your fingertips on the ball, which will sink the ball deeper in your palm. Longer nails cause you to sit both your fingernail and a portion of the tip of your finger flush onto the ball. Long-fingernail knuckleball pitchers tend to have more surface area for leverage and may be able to throw the knuckleball harder. But velocity isn’t always the name of the game with the knuckleball.

Play around with different nail lengths. Start longer, use both your nail and your fingertip and then slowly work your nails shorter, using less of your fingertip. See how it affects the depth of your grip and determine what feels best for you.

Joe NiekroThe post is part of a series by Chris on the knuckleball grip. He has also reported recently on his collaboration with Phil Niekro during a knuckleball clinic in Atlanta attended by ten aspiring knuckleball pitchers.

Then came the big day: Niekro day. Phil showed up right at 2 p.m., when we were set to start. Everyone gathered around the mound and Phil Niekro spent the next 30 minutes giving a lecture on a variety of topics surrounding the knuckleball. He talked at length about how the knuckleball is the back door into professional baseball, that the knuckleball is elusive and will give everyone fits, and that you have to commit—eat, sleep and drink the knuckleball. Do that, he said, and you have a chance….

Niekro was then nice enough to watch every kid throw about ten pitches, giving everyone who attended some encouragement and a few personal tips.

“What Niekro did was baffle hitters with his knuckler day in and day out for 24 years,” is how HowStuffWorks.com sums up the career of the former MLB player, present-day tutor.

In 1977, ’78, and ’79, Niekro garnered more than 40 starts each year and led the NL in complete games with 20 or more each of those seasons. He won 20 games or more only three times, but for most of his career he was hampered by pitching for a poor team. His 49 shutout losses are the third most in major-league history. He threw 45 shutouts himself.

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Knuckleball black and whiteSeveral years ago, before he retired, Tim Wakefield gave Esquire magazine a quick summary of how to throw the knuckleball. The five steps involve gripping the ball “with your thumb and ring finger, placing the nails and tips of your index and middle fingers inside the horseshoe of the laces”; throwing with a “really stiff wrist,” releasing it in such a way as to “eliminate spin,” and, for the same reason, “shoving” the ball.

Number five? “Then you just hope the ball does what it’s supposed to.”

A few years later, Wakefield went into somewhat more detail with Fatherly.com on how to each the mechanics of pitching the knuckleball to your kids.

Knuckleballs are easy on the pitcher’s joints because they don’t need to be thrown hard, which explains how Wakefield struck out MLB sluggers by lobbing the ball 66 MPH (and why he didn’t retire until age 44). Safety-wise, your kid can learn this pitch as young as you want to teach it.

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