Is the Knuckleball Sorcery?

Sorcery of knuckleballThe late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once famously suggested that sufficiently advanced technology is “indistinguishable from magic,” presumably if and when the whys and wherefores of the technology are not understood. Perhaps, then, the dictum should instead be that baffling complexity is indistinguishable from magic. In this form, would Clarke’s principle apply to certain even very low-tech but enigmatic aerodynamic happenings?

Today’s question is whether the knuckleball is sorcery or just a really hard-to-govern and hard-to-predict pitch (or whether these amount to the same thing). Sara Sanchez says that since the knuckleball is sorcery…

…there is a cost to being able to throw that pitch and the cost is this: it doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to, and when a knuckleball isn’t knuckling it’s basically batting practice.

What I’m trying to say is we are either hitting nothing or everything today, so I thought it might be worth trying to figure out which is more likely (you know, taking into account predictable things and not wizardry).

Whenever Wakefield would start in Boston the first thing we’d do is look at the weather. Dry and cold was a good sign. Too wet was a bad sign. Too hot and dry was a bad sign. Hot and humid had a chance. In fact, if you look up weather and the knuckleball you find a lot of pieces like this: “Weather and Wright’s Knuckleball” or “Cold Weather and the Knuckleball.” The knuckleball works best when there is no spin on the ball—the ball spins less in dense, colder air.

Sanchez then defers to The Tenth Inning Stretch blog:

Higher temperature decreases the density of air molecules and low temperature increases their density. When it is cold and the air molecules are denser, this has two effects: a. it slows the velocity of the ball which, in turn, b. decreases the spin of the ball, thus making a knuckleball, flutter better. Here is an extreme example to make it clearer: Cold increases water molecule density. Is it easier to push your finger through liquid water, or through ice? The same principle applies to the air.

Hoyt Wilhelm MagicIn support of this conclusion, Tenth Inning Stretch cites a remarkable game by knuckleball sorcerer Hoyt Wilhelm, who “threw the only no-hitter by a knuckleball pitcher on September 20, 1958 against the Yankees on a cold and drizzly afternoon.” A fine account of the game by SABR.org’s Mike Huber mentions the rain but not the cold: “Wilhelm, a relief pitcher for most of his career, was making only his third start for the Orioles and the ninth of his career, in his seventh season in the majors. He had pitched for the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians, and he was claimed on waivers by the Orioles from the Indians on August 23, 1958. Many thought his career was done.”

The links to links to links about what the knuckleball does and why (wind, air density, seams, grip, etc.) finally brought us to Dave Clark’s 2006 primer The Knucklebook: Everything You Need to Know ABout Baseball’s Strangest Pitch—the Knuckleball. It turns out that we have mentioned this book beforeKnucklebook, in a January 2017 post (“Ode to an Insane Pitch: The Knuckleball”)—but only to extract a metaphor. A knuckleball is “a Chihuahua with a German Shepherd’s tail….” The knuckleball gets wagged by its tail.

Clark’s book covers “How a Knuckleball Knuckles,” “The Knuckleball versus Everything Else,” “How to Throw It,” “Advanced Techniques, Q&A,” “How to Hit It,” “How to Catch It (Maybe),” “How to Coach It,” “How to Umpire It,” “How to Watch It” (isn’t this the easy part?), “The History,” and “How to Chart a Knuckeball Pitcher.”

With respect to “irascible” Hoyt Wilhelm (who died in 2002), Clark says he found him easy to interview, “even though the legendary sportswriter Joe Falls says Wilhelm was his toughest interview. All I did was ask him questions until I found some he wanted to answer.” Sometimes you just have to keep on pitching until the magic happens.

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