Knuckleball Pitching As a Team Effort

Yes you did build thatKnuckleball pitchers are the ones who pitch the knuckleball. They are the ones who are on the mound letting it loose. They also deserve the primary credit for choosing to make such a large change in their careers in order to stay in the game; for as we know, knucklers often adopt the knuckleball as their main pitch only after they are well into their careers. Then they have to work hard to sustain their viability as knuckleballers. (“The thing that is most impressive is how much we have to change over the years in order to stay competitive at this level,” says R.A. Dickey.)

Although knuckleball pitchers do “build that”—i.e., do individually achieve whatever success they enjoy by relying on the knuckleball—they often also get crucial help, not least the encouragement to specialize in the controversial pitch to begin with. One team that deserves a lot of credit in the category of knuckleball-pitcher empowerment is the Tampa Bay Rays.

IKA’s Ezra Wise points us to a February 2016 draysbay.com article (“The Rays and the return of the knuckleball ball”) that, says Ezra, at least “scratches the surface” of how the knuckleball has been nurtured by the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league system. According to the article:

The Rays’ current strategy seems simple: sign everyone and anyone in the game that can toss the difficult pitch and stash them in the minors with the hopes that they can be refined enough to be used as a valuable weapon.

The team even hired Charlie Haeger to be a minor league pitching coordinator with presumably the principle task of teaching others his excellent knuckle ball….

The article mentions “two pitchers who can toss the pitch” who had been brought in by the Rays, Eddie Gamboa and Jeff Howell.

To this Ezra adds that Rays’ efforts “of late have extended beyond the degree” reported in the piece. The Rays organization has “scooped up a bunch of younger guys who were not previously in affiliated baseball and have converted a few of their own conventional pitchers and position players” to the knuckleball.

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Bartolo Colon (43) and Ichiro Suzuki (43) have R.A. Dickey beat…in the age department. Dickey (42) is only the “third-oldest active player” in the MLB. (The article mentioning this fact also uses PITCHf/x data to describe Dickey’s pitching.)

Knuckleball pitchers are often able to extend their careers beyond the average length thanks to the knuckleball, which does not inflict the kind of physical wear-and-tear of more strenuous pitches like the fastball.

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The m.MLB.com site has video from 2014 of a Brian Wilson knuckler. After having been out of the MLB for a few years, Wilson is currently trying to use the pitch to make a comeback.

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Steven WrightAccording to Sean McAdam, “one of the reasons [Steven] Wright” was such a consistent player in 2016 was the extent to which he had able coaching assistance, “assistance that Wright readily takes full advantage of”—assistance not as readily available to Red Sox predecessor Tim Wakefield.

When Wakefield encountered mechanical issues, [Red Sox pitching coach Joe] Kerrigan could offer little assistance. The pitch was unpredictable, and in Kerrigan’s mind, so was the pitcher. The same rules that helped Kerigan dissect and analyze a conventional pitcher’s issues wouldn’t work with Wakefield….

Steven Wright has far more at his disposal, and it’s one of the reasons Wright has enjoyed a run of consistency that often eluded Wakefield. There’s help available, assistance that Wright readily takes full advantage of.

If throwing a knuckleball hasn’t exactly developed into a science, it’s certainly far more advanced than it was in 1995, when Wakefield arrived in Boston….

But perhaps Wright’s biggest step forward this season the first in which he began the season as a full-time starter in the rotation—is the ability to detect and correct flaws within a game, sometimes within an inning. Again, this stands in stark contrast to Wakefield, who was notoriously streaky. When Wakefield was trending in a positive fashion, both he and the club could only hope that it continued. When he hit a rut, however, there was telling how long he would scuffle, unable to reverse his downhill slide.

Wright has no such issues. He can often tell—and if he doesn’t, pitching coach Carl Willis can help—when his delivery has gone askew. Better yet, he knows what he needs to do immediately to correct it.

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