Knuckleballer Dan Johnson, Picked Up by Dodgers, Will Play For Class AA Tulsa

Dan Johnson is a SaintThirty-seven-year-old career-reviver Dan Johnson changed the mind of St. Paul Saints manager George Tsamis about the knuckleball. Michael Rand reports in his RandBall Blog that Johnson

has been plying his new trade with the local St. Paul Saints, to strong results. In his past three American Association starts, he’s allowed a total of one run in 18 2/3 innings.

And Saints manager George Tsamis, who said he has never liked knuckleballs, said Johnson is changing his opinion—in part because Saints opponents are telling the team the pitch is “unhittable.” Multiple MLB organizations are tracking Johnson’s progress, so there is a real chance he could make it back to the majors—perhaps as a versatile, 2-for-1 type player who could be a spot starter both in the field and on the mound.

Yes, that old “unhittable” complaint sure is a plus for the team with the knuckleballer, not to mention for the knuckleballer himself. Speaking of which, Johnson, reports Rand in a follow-up, has “made it at least part of the way toward his goal” of returning to the MLB.

[T]he Dodgers purchased his contract and assigned him to Class AA Tulsa….

When I interviewed Johnson for the story, he said several organizations were tracking his progress, and that he hoped his sudden versatility as a guy who could pinch hit or work in long relief while also making a spot start at first base or on the mound would make him attractive to teams.

“I wouldn’t just do this to do it,” Johnson said. “I know what it takes, and I know what I have to do.”

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Baseball of unknown pitchAre seams required to instigate the fluttering of the knuckleball, as has often been assumed in explanations of its unpredictable flight? In a report on sightings of knuckleballs (in a range of sports) in the Olympics, Inverse.com points to the study published last month in the New Journal of Physics.

[Baptiste Darbois] Texier and her team used wind tunnel testing to better characterize the behavior of knuckleballs and reproduce their movements in a controlled setting. Using a custom-built “kicking machine” apparatus to recreate knuckleballs in soccer, the team found that “all balls flying in the air at such speed and having no spin may follow a zigzag trajectory, even if they have no seams,” Texier tells Inverse. “This fact proves that a non-rotating and smooth sphere moving in the air experiences fluctuating lift forces which are able to produce non-straight trajectories.”

In the Abstract for their paper (which you can download as a free PDF document), the authors write:

The different scenarios proposed in the literature (such as the effect of seams in baseball) are first discussed and compared to existing data. We then perform experiments on zigzag trajectories and propose a new explanation based on unsteady lift forces.

This doesn’t mean that the way expert knuckleballers in baseball take care to grip the ball with respect to the seams is mistaken, just that the aerodynamics of the knuckleball is hard to fathom.

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