Knuckleballer and Dodger Charlie Hough Speaks; PLUS: Finding Your Slow and Gnarly Knuckleball

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Charlie-Hough-baseball-card.jpgJon Weisman, author of Brothers in Arms: Koufax, Kershaw, and the Dodgers’ Extraordinary Pitching Tradition, has published his interview with former Dodger Charlie Hough in the December 16 installment of the Word to the Weisman podcast. The half-hour interview includes much information that Weisman wasn’t able to use in the book.

Hough was an active player from 1966 to 1994. “Drafted by the Dodgers as an infielder/pitcher, Charlie Hough was headed for a quick demise until he discovered the knuckleball,” writes Weisman. “Instead, he pitched in the majors until he was 46 and spent a lifetime in baseball.”

Knuckleball pitchers have often traveled a rocky career road before taking up the knuckleball. When asked “What happened?” after he began his career as a pitcher and putative position player (third base and first base), Hough replied: “What happened? A couple of minor problems. I couldn’t play third and I couldn’t play first and I didn’t hit very good.” It was the knuckleball that he developed in 1969 which propelled him to the big leagues.

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This just in from Reddit commenter iayork, explaining why knuckleballers are so hard to find:

There’s only a couple knuckleballers [in the MLB] today, but that’s pretty typical. Throwing a knuckleball is easy, but throwing a knuckleball for a strike is hard, and throwing a knuckleball for a strike 50-60 times in a game is really hard and always has been. At any given time, there are between 2-3 players in pro ball who can do it, and it’s pretty much been that way since 1910.

It’s not that it’s a lost art, it’s an art that has never really been found.

Let’s say rather that finding the art of the knuckleball is in the process of becoming. Although there have been few full-time pro knuckleballers at any one time, we keep hearing about regular players with a nifty knuckleball up their sleeve. Something they fool around with. But a player who early in his career has little motive to give the knuckleball a more serious spin (or, um, non-spin) may have reason to do so a few years down the road.

In the same Reddit thread, iayork contends, less reasonably, that “Every washed-up position player tries to come back as a knuckleballer. None of them ever make it.”

Every? None? First, the number of position players with stalled careers must be much greater than the number, relatively few in any given season, reported to be actively training to be a full-time knuckler. And, second, many of the knuckleball pitchers who have succeeded over the years indeed started out doing something else, then turned to the pitch because they were injured, sick of being average, or had reached an equivalent dead end (Wakefield, Dickey and Wright are three recent examples).

Not every aspiring knuckleballer gets to the big leagues. But the percentage who do make it (or who at least thereby extend their careers in the minors) must be a lot higher than the percentage of kids who aspire but fail to be pro baseball players.

In any case, you can’t win if you don’t play. Can you throw a decent knuckleball? Keep practicing.

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MLB.com’s Mike Petriello surveys “The most extreme home run pitches of 2018,” and the knuckleball is not neglected.

As you’d expect in what became a historic year for position players getting on the mound, non-pitchers allowed plenty of homers off of pitches we wouldn’t exactly describe as “competitive.” The five slowest pitches hit for homers in 2018 all came from position players pitching, including Arcia throwing the slowest two in the same Sept. 20 game.

If we’re more interested in the slowest pitch thrown by an actual pitcher…ah, yes. It’s Steven Wright and his knuckleball, just like it was last year, and in 2016, and four of the six slowest pitches in 2015.

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See the gnarly slowpoke pitch in devious action in the MLB Knuckleball Reel, also known as MLB’s Gnarliest Knuckleballs.

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