Knuckleballers: Here To Stay? (Yes); Comedian Will Ferrell’s Mysterious “European Knuckleball”

Knuckleball gripBecause full-time knuckleballers are typically rare on the field—even if in the last year or so, the total number of regularly pitching MLB knuckleballers has jumped by 100%, from one (R.A. Dickey) to two (Dickey plus Steven Wright)—the question periodically comes up whether knuckleballers are becoming “extinct.”

The Chicago Tribune’s recent answer is “Unlikely anytime soon.”

So will the knuckler still be around in another 10 years?

“I don’t think it’ll die out,” Blue Jays starter David Price said. “Somebody is going to come around with a very good knuckleball. I’m waiting for a guy who’s going to be able to have a really good slider and a good fastball to go with it.

“Somebody is going to be able to throw a hard knuckleball and still be able to throw 92, 93 [mph] with another really good pitch to go along with it. When that guy comes along, he could definitely have a chance to do something special.”

Dickey said that would be difficult because knuckleballers have to focus on their main pitch so much they wouldn’t be able to mix in fastballs much….

“To throw a good one, it’s hard to go back and forth, to have your foot in both buckets,” Dickey said. “I’m not saying it can’t be done, and if you ever found the guy who could do it, watch out.

“But it’s hard to throw it consistently for strikes. If you’re not throwing it all the time as your primary pitch, it’s really tough.”

The Tribune’s informative piece also includes the dubious claim that “In this day and age, with so many pitchers throwing in the middle to upper 90s, there doesn’t seem to be a need for trick pitches like a knuckler or screwball.”

The opposite is true. Whose need are we talking about? Tell it to players like Dickey, Wakefield, and others in MLB history who have enjoyed productive careers far longer than average precisely thanks to a pitch that, however obstreperous, is much easier on the body than always throwing 90-plus…a pitch which permits distinguishing oneself from and breaking away from the pack of average 90-plus pitchers. If the career of the knuckleball proves anything, it’s that a pitcher can baffle batters even without super-high pitch speeds. Something to consider if you’re a player who needs to jump-start your career.

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Some players may regard the idiosyncratic knuckleball as a joke.

WillFerrellBe that as it may, it’s not a pitch just any comedian can deliver. Yet we hear that incessantly insouciant funnyman Will Ferrell has a killer pitch up his sleeve that he’s calling a “European knuckleball” (a supplement to the “traditional knuckleball”). He says he’s also mastered something called “the Slurge,” which, if it exists, sounds even more intimidating than the double-incarnation of knuck. (The slurge is a “slider curve ball with a bit of a screwball…and the action of the pitch urges you to swing at it…it’s so hard to learn…. A lot of guys haven’t even picked up on it yet. It’s predominantly used in Japan.”) All are part of his vaunted 63-pitch repertoire

The MLB is not in jeopardy. What happened was that this spring Ferrell went on a ten-position, ten-team tour of the Cactus League to benefit the Cancer for College charity. His experience is the subject of an HBO documentary (see the trailer). Batters have nothing to worry about (from Ferrell’s knuckleball and other pitches, anyway—they should continue worrying about the Dickey, Wright, Gamboa et al. knuckleball).

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