Waiting for the Knuckleball

Hoyt Wilhelm, left, and Wilbur Wood, Chicago White Sox relief pitches, show grips on their favorite pitch, July 20, 1968 in Chicago, the knuckleball, which has baffled opposing American League batters all season. Wilhelm, 45, has a 2-2 record with a 1.41 earned run average. Wood, 26, is 6-4 with a 1.72 ERA. (AP Photo)

Fun fact: two of the longest-lived MLB pitchers were knuckleball pitchers Hoyt Wilhelm (pictured with Wilbur Wood) and Phil Niekro. We’re reminded of the advantage in career longevity that knuckleballers enjoy by John Carter’s article, “In Honor of Jamie Moyer: The Oldest Pitchers Ever” over at BillJamesOnline.

Knuckleball artist Hoyt Wilhelm’s last game in 1972 came about two weeks short of his 50th birthday. Wilhelm was a relief pitcher for most of his career. The only year Wilhelm started more than he relieved was as a 36-year-old on the 1959 Baltimore Orioles. That year he led the American League in ERA….

Knuckleball pitchers are notorious for maturing late and retiring late. It was true of 9 of the 11 successful knuckleball pitchers of my baseball fandom: R.A. Dickey (so far), Tim Wakefield, Steve Sparks, Dennis Springer, Tom Candiotti, Charlie Hough, Joe Niekro, Phil Niekro, and Wilhelm. Only Wilbur Wood and Eddie Fisher had more typical career arcs. Generally, for a pitcher to pitch that late he needs a trick pitch that is easier on the arm….

The oldest pitcher besides Paige and Moyer to start a game was a knuckleballer: Phil Niekro at age 48 in 1987. He pitched for three teams that year—the Indians, Blue Jays, and Braves—and won 7 games. Niekro reached the Majors several years younger than Wilhelm. His first year as a starter didn’t occur until age 28, and he, too, led the league in ERA with 1.87. That was 1967.

Using the knuckleball as your primary pitch not only keeps your arm from getting battered but can help you become a star pitcher after an arm injury. An injury that might otherwise have forced you to leave the game right then and there. We figure that leisurely retiring from the dream career at age 48 or 49 is better than getting the dream ripped away from you at age 27 or 28.

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Austin HopWe missed high school knuckleball pitcher Austin Hop of DeKalb back when his knuckleball was making the news. (It was around the same time that high school pitcher Chelsea Baker was making the news.)

In spring of 2014, James Nokes reported for the Daily Chronicle (“Hop’s knuckleball baffles opposing batters”) that “conventional baseball practices don’t apply to any aspect of DeKalb starting pitcher Austin Hop’s career.”

With command of the knuckleball, a rotationless pitch rarely thrown that baffles batters, catchers and umpires with its unpredictable movement, Hop has ascended to the No. 1 spot of the Barbs’ pitching staff.

Even though he only pitched in a few games on the freshman and sophomore teams the past two seasons and didn’t get a varsity start until the Northern Illinois Big 12 East season was underway, it’s the knuckleball, a pitch he first discovered as a 10-year-old, that has kept batters talking….

“The best feeling is to get ahead of a hitter and then throw the knuckleball for a strike,” Hop said. “When it’s a pitch they [didn’t expect], they will just stand there with a blank look on their face.”

The element of surprise when a batter sees a knuckleball for the first time and an overeager approach at the plate are critical elements to Hop’s success.

“No one ever sees a knuckleball,” DeKalb coach Jake Howells said. “When he gets two strikes on a hitter they are forced into a decision because he will throw the knuckleball for a strike. He can locate his knuckleball and pitch ahead, which makes him very effective. With runners in scoring position, hitters tend to get a little antsy. That plays right into Austin’s hands. The more a hitter tries to hit a knuckleball hard, the more they struggle.”

Now a student at the University of Minnesota, Austin Hop is pursuing a double major in finance and in supply chain and operations management. He has managed a gulf course and a basketball team. His knuckleball is not currently in evidence, but this is a pitch that has a way of surprising us….

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MLB Perfect Inning LiveThe knuckleball is hard to simulate. At the MLB Perfect Inning Live Forum—part of the Gamevil mobile-game web site—member Beantownnn recently bemoaned the pitch’s absence from the app. “Steve Wright’s knuckle still missing and I’m complaining about it.”

Super Moderator TripleCrown replied:

I’ve gotten an update regarding the missing knuckleballs. Programming the trajectory of the knuckleball has proven to be problematic in the MLB PI Live system, specifically the “wobble” and the randomness of its arrival point while maintaining a low velocity.

The developers have been working hard to create a realistic knuckleball, but it’s proving to be more difficult than anticipated. Unfortunately, we still do not have an exact date when it will be finished.

I wish it were better news; I know that you, and many others, are eager to see the knuckleball in the game. Please be patient while we work out the kinks.

In response, member RyanExpress had a suggestion. “Mod mathematics hashing a value based on the 100th of a second the ball is pitched should get you some wobble… Apply it to a standard curve and switch directions to make it wobble.” Beantownnn agreed: “Yeah what he said.”

And we thought that throwing actual live knuckleballs was tough.

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