May the Force Be with the Knuckleball and Minor-League Position Players Who Excel on the Mound with It

Last month, outfielder Blake Gailen with the Oklahoma City Dodgers displayed his knuckleball from the mound. The Oklahoman tells the tale in its April 15 story:

It was supposed to be a last-ditch effort to survive the night. An inning, maybe two. It turned out to be so much more….

On a night where the Dodgers looked on their way to a blowout loss to Omaha, Gailen found his moment to shine with 3 1/3 innings of shutdown baseball to allow OKC to rally for a wild 13-12 victory late Tuesday night.

The left-hander has never advanced past Triple A. He’s spent the majority of his 12-year career in independent baseball. But he stifled Omaha hitters with a mix of a 75-mph fastball and a dancing knuckleball he’s polished with legendary knuckleballer Charlie Hough. Gailen allowed just one hit and four walks while striking out three.

He earned the victory on a night OKC threw three pitchers—Brock Stewart, Zach McAllister and Kevin Quackenbush—who have combined for 519 appearances and more than 883 innings of MLB baseball.

Another protégé of Charlie Hough! It looks like the knuckleball just might help Gailen to break out. We’re rooting for you.

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Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Paul Dickson talks about Tyler Kepner’s take on the knuckleball in his new book K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches (which we discussed in our last post).

A properly thrown knuckleball…slows down and drops slightly just as it reaches the plate, causing the batter to swing “where it was, not where it is.” For batters used to facing down fastballs, it’s a pitch that suddenly appears in slow motion. It’s also simple to throw, yet extremely difficult to master. Mr. Kepner calls it “one of the more colorful patches on the baseball quilt.” And while pitchers once used their knuckles pressed against the ball, the author quotes former Boston pitcher Tim Wakefield, who explains that the pitch is now thrown using the fingertips, with the ball “positioned between the thumb, index and middle fingers, as if it were a credit card being held up for display.”

Of the knuckleballers, Mr. Kepner concludes that they may be among the nicest folks in the game, perhaps because most of them were driven to the pitch after the rest of their arsenal started to fail and they needed a new weapon to stay in the game. The author adds that, when knuckleballers meet, they bond instantly: “They are all Jedi knights, possessors of a shadowy power few can understand or believe.”

The simile about how the knuckleball is gripped “as if it were a credit card being held up for display” appears in Wakefield’s 2011 memoir (written with Tony Massarotti), Knuckler: My Life with Baseball’s Most Confounding Pitch.)

The Jedi knight metaphor meshes with Peter Duffy’s idea that the knuckleballer elite has “a certain Jedi knight vibe…as if they are the last guard of an ancient order.” And let us not forget that R.A. Dickey has been known to pal around with a Wookie. After a while it all adds up…

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The central Michigan Daily News reports that the knuckleball is part of the pitching repertoire of some central Michigan high school pitchers. Ryan Schlehuber’s story is “Game of Throws: Several local starting pitchers showing off arsenal of throws on the mound this season.”

Local pitchers fooling around with the knuckleball include:

  • Hayden Rentschler, a junior who “learned the knuckleball from his travel ball coach, of which he said, ‘It’s become a nasty pitch for me. It helps a lot.’ ”
  • Trevin Springsteen, a junior who was a “Daily News Sensational Sophomore” last year, “learned to throw the knuckleball from his dad.”
  • Senior Vaughn Faasen, who has a “knuckle-curve,” not a knuckleball.

Any of these guys may eventually become a full-time knuckleballer. Is our hope justified in Faasen’s case?

One of our consultants says that the knuckle-curve “is a different animal” from the knuckleball because the knuckle-curve “spins big time.” A glossary at MLB.com describes the pitch as “one of baseball’s greatest paradoxes, given that a curveball is defined by its spin and a knuckleball is defined by its lack thereof. Still, the knuckle-curve produces the desired effect of the two pitches—a slow, curveball break mixed with the unpredictable fluttering of the knuckleball.”

Very few pitchers have mastered the knuckle-curve, and those that throw it generally don’t do so often. It’s a deceptive weapon for those pitchers, often stashed away until they think a hitter will be fooled by it.

There are a few different ways to grip and throw a knuckle-curve. The basic premise is that at least one of the pitcher’s fingers is bent while holding the ball—like a knuckleball—while the pitcher maintains the snap of the wrist that is synonymous with a curveball.

Think of the pitch as [being on a] spectrum between a knuckleball and a curveball. For pitchers who emphasize the curveball aspects of the pitch (bending one finger so that a knuckle is on the ball), a knuckle-curve is basically just a curveball that spins and moves slower. And for pitchers who emphasize the knuckleball aspects of the pitch (gripping the ball like a knuckler, while ever-so-slightly snapping the wrist), a knuckle-curve is basically just a knuckleball that spins more and moves faster.

Despite all doubts and qualifications, we’re going to go out on a limb and say that a person who can pitch the knuckle-curve well may well one day possibly also pitch the knuckleball well. So we will add Faasen to the list of young Michigan pitchers to watch.