The MLB Advent Of Knuckleball Pitcher Ryan Feierabend

Once again we have recourse to the words “only knuckleball pitcher in the MLB.”

Before the start of this blog (in 2013), Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey had been a dynamic knuckleball duo in the major leagues. Their career story and the story of their 2011 season pitching the knuckleball would be the subject of the 2012 documentary, “Knuckleball!”

Come the 2012 season, Wakefield had retired. R.A. Dickey, soon to be the winner of the Cy Young Award, was the only knuckleball pitcher in the MLB.

Then Steven Wright arrived on the scene. After having shuttled between the minors and the majors for a while, Wright joined Dickey for a few years as one of the only two knuckleball pitchers in the MLB. After the 2017 season, however, R.A. Dickey retired. Steven Wright was now the only knuckleball pitcher in the MLB.

But Steven Wright had a difficult 2018 season and an even more difficult lead-up to this year’s season. For reasons we noted in a previous post, he is off the board for at least 80 games of the 2019 season. During at least this chunk of the season, then, there would be no full-time, regular knuckleball pitcher in the MLB.

Hold on. Not so fast.

At deadspin.com, David Roth reported on May 21:

On Saturday [May 18], in his first big league start since September 2008, Ryan Feierabend threw the first complete game of his career.

Feierabend was pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, with whom he had signed a minor league contract on February 14. The debut MLB outing wasn’t the best possible, but and it’s a start.

Roth provides details of a rocky baseball career, including Feierabend’s recent years in Korea, where he eventually turned to the knuckleball. (See our posts about his doings in Korea here and here.) Roth continues:

The KT Wiz picked Feierabend off waivers and kept him, but by 2017 Feierabend was 31, getting paid about a third of what imported players such as Carlos Villanueva and the extra-crispy late-stage version of Alexi Ogando earned, and just desperate enough to get weird. “I started throwing a knuckleball for the simple fact that I had nothing else to lose,” Feierabend told Fangraphs’ Sung-Min Kim in 2018. “If it worked, it would be something that the KBO hitters had never seen before.” The other, unspoken half of that sentence is clear enough for anyone to read. In 2017, Feierabend significantly backed off his mid-80s fastball, started throwing his changeup more, and effectively replaced both his breaking pitches with a knuckleball that he threw nearly 21 percent of the time, and which he increasingly used as his put-away pitch.

It worked and then, for the first time in Feiereabend’s long and frustrated career, it kept on working. Feierabend chopped nearly a run and a half off his previous mark and led the KBO with a 3.04 ERA; the league had hung a .837 OPS on him the year before, which shrunk to a feeble .687. He somehow stopped giving out walks. His next KBO contract paid him more than a million dollars and the one he signed after that, before this season, was with Toronto. It was another minor-league deal, with a team that is among the third or so of MLB teams rolling out a Plausible Deniability Tank Job this year. Even still, there were many names ahead of him on Toronto’s depth chart. Ryan Feiereabend is a 33-year-old knuckleballer whose best MLB days came starting alongside Jamie Moyer and Gil Meche. This will be the case for as long as he hangs on, but here he is, fresh off his first MLB start since George W. Bush was President of the United States, hanging on.

At the moment, Feiereabend is the only knuckleballer in the majors….

Don’t turn that dial.