The New York Times has determined that despite its rarity, the knuckleball is not quite on the way out, especially in light of growing interest in the pitch over the last few years since a knuckleballer won the Cy Young Award (“As a Species, the Knuckleball Flutters but Survives”). Players to watch include Eddie Gamboa, who has yet to throw the knuckleball as frequently as veterans like Phil Niekro recommend.
Gamboa estimates that he threw the knuckleball only 40 percent of the time in winter ball. If he could control it better, he said, he would happily throw it more often. Niekro said Gamboa must trust the pitch.
“He’s got to get up to that 80, 85 percent,” Niekro said. “That’s what I keep telling him. Every time he gets into a little trouble or doesn’t quite get the knuckleball over or doesn’t feel good, he goes back to the other stuff, and he kind of gets them out and stays with the other stuff, other than committing—or recommitting—to the knuckleball the whole ballgame. You’ve got to commit to it. That’s what [Tim] Wakefield finally did.”
Another pitcher to watch is Jeff Howell (pictured) of the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
Besides signing Gamboa this winter, the Rays signed Jeff Howell, a converted catcher who threw knuckleballs in Class A last season.
The scarcity of former knuckleballers to teach the pitch makes it harder to spread. But in [Charlie] Haeger, at least, Gamboa will have a nearby resource to help the pitch survive. [The Rays recently took on former knuckleball pitcher Haeger as a pitching coach.] It always seems to be on the brink of extinction, but it always endures.
“It’s never going to be mastered,” Haeger said. “I don’t think there is such a thing. But it can be utilized, that’s for sure. It’s an unpredictable pitch for us at times—but it’s really unpredictable for the guys with the bats.”
* * *
Reviewing the Blue Jays’ likely roster for the 2016 season, Chris Henderson of Jays Journal offers this summary of R.A. Dickey’s play in 2015 after a weak start:
He and pitching coach Pete Walker got to work making a few small adjustments, and from June on the Jays got a completely different pitcher. Over his final 15 starts of the season, Dickey [had a] a 2.80 ERA, pitching deep into games and even re-capturing a few seemingly crucial miles-per-hour on his knuckleball.
Although he didn’t get much of an opportunity in the playoffs, the Blue Jays likely don’t get there without his contributions, especially in the 2nd half. Dickey finished with a healthy 214.1 innings pitched and a respectable 3.91 ERA….
Many scouts and writers noticed that Dickey made significant improvements in 2015 after he regained a couple miles an hour on his knuckleball. If that is in fact an important factor in his success, can he continue to throw a “hard knuckleball” at 41? Can he do it over a full season? Knuckleball pitcher or not, Father Time has yet to lose a battle with a professional athlete….
Time will eventually catch up with the knuckleballer, but the guess here is he’ll continue to provide solid value for the upcoming season, with a side of occasional frustration.
That time eventually overtakes even the longest-lasting athletes is a safe enough assertion. But of course it’s also true—and it’s a major reason for specializing in the pitch—that knuckleballers tend to be among those who last the longest.