Getting Used to the Knuckleball—and the Ability of R.A. Dickey to Turn Things Around

Brave R A DickeyAlthough the knuckleball takes some getting used to, reports Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Cunningham, Braves manager Brian Snitker is figuring it out with the help of Braves newcomer R.A. Dickey.

When Dickey is on the mound managers, opposing batters and catchers accustomed to things going a certain way have to adjust their systems to process this foreign body.

For the Braves, who hadn’t employed a knuckleballer in a long time before Dickey signed for this season, that process is ongoing….

“It’s an interesting element when you are sitting in that (manager’s) chair with that pitch,” Snitker said.

Snitker learned a lesson during Dickey’s start against the Mets on Tuesday.

Mets slugger Jay Bruce smashed a two-run homer in the first inning. Asdrubal Cabrera hit another home run to lead off the third inning. Dicky was walking hitters, too, and it looked as if he might have a short night.

Snitker inquired with Dickey, who told him he could give him more innings. And he did so, making it through six without allowing any more runs.

“It’s an interesting dynamic to watch and kind of let him go,” Snitker said. “He knows what he’s doing. It can come at any point and time and carry him through an inning.”

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Is the knuckleball really so hard to catch? In The Knucklebook, Dave Clark relates the following anecdote:

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn a live Internet chat, a fan asked Jason Varitek [a former catcher for the Red Sox]: “Is it true that you can’t catch a knuckleball? My friend said so, but I disagree.”

”Well,” Varitek replied, “I’d say that Wake has thrown over 3,000 knuckleballs and I know I’ve caught at least one of ’em.”

An exaggeration. There are many cute one-liners about how hard it is to catch the knuckleball. It’s hard to catch, but skilled catchers learn how to do it.

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Is the knuckleball underappreciated? Clark thinks it usually is—and that learning to appreciate it better may be the first step toward becoming a knuckleballer.

If you never had a knuckleball come at you or see one wobble by you over the plate, you’re missing the full flavor of the pitch. Most spectators are at a distance and to the side of the ball’s path. Because of that, it’s impossible for them to see the subtle little wiggle, the shift from side to side, the jump in another direction that you could see if you were on either end of one. So if you don’t have a good angle on it, you’re going to wonder why nobody can hit that slow pitch that seems to just lollipop on in….

The best view a regular spectator will get is as a catcher for someone who can gently toss a few knuckleballs to them. Thrown so slowly they may not do much, if anything; but it can be amazing and hypnotic when one comes right at you, and you can clearly see the stitches and often the label too….

If you can round up someone who can throw a knuckleball, and you can throw them yourself, a short-distance game of catch will amuse you more than most spectators, and it may be the seed of greater things. Phil Niekro and his father used to throw them to each other, and Phil and brother Joe naturally played catch with it. So did Tim Wakefield and his father.

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Wright Red SoxBecause of surgery to restore cartilage in his left knee, knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright must sit out the rest of the season. Wright had had problems with his knee since spring training and on May 2 had been put on the disabled list. Getting the surgery was a tough call—there were other options—but Wright decided to get it over with and have plenty of time to recover before 2018.

“[I]t is a lengthy recovery process, and if I keep waiting to get it done and I end up getting it done anyways, then all of a sudden next season is in question,” Wright said. “But because we’re doing it so soon, and we’re getting on it, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be ready for the start of next season.”