Can You Trust the Knuckleball?

Over at CSNNE.com, we have video of Dan Shaughnessy discussing Boston Red Sox pitchers Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright,” and letting us know that “I don’t trust” a knuckleball in big games.

Would the American League All-Star faceoff count as a big game? Ken Rosenthal wants to know “Who would catch knuckleballer Steven Wright in the All-Star Game?” if Wright participates.

Sal PerezThe mere mention of Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright sent Royals catcher Sal Perez [pictured] into a slight panic.

“Oh my God,” Perez said Wednesday morning at Citi Field, “Is he starting?”

Well, no—it is too early to know whether Wright will even make the American League All-Star team, much less start the game.

Perez, though, is the runaway leader in the fan balloting for AL catcher, while Wright is the surprising AL leader with a 2.03 ERA.

So, the possibility exists that Perez will catch knuckleballs for the first time in the All-Star Game, risking the embarrassment of the pitches eluding him on a national stage.

Sounds like a problem. Still, perhaps the hitters on the other team will have most reason to be nervous about Wright’s knuckler.

Can Steve Wright “continue [his] dominance”? That is the question—one asked about all athletes on a winning streak—posed by MassLive’s Christopher Smith. So far so good, though.

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RotationDepartment of the Absolutely Ridiculous, courtesy of Detroit Sports 1051: “That ball, pitched by the Boston Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright against the Chicago White Sox, is absolutely ridiculous. The ball doesn’t even rotate a full rotation between the mound and the plate!” (“Knuckleballers: The Future, or an Anomaly?”)

A major league hitter has roughly 0.4 seconds to react once the pitcher releases the ball from the pitcher’s mound. They use this time to quickly decide whether to swing, and if they are swinging, where they need to put the bat to make contact with the ball, and what kind of pitch it may be. But with a knuckleball, how are you supposed to predict a pitch that even the pitcher and catcher only have a relative idea of where it will end up?

If the characterization of the knuckleball pitch as an “anomaly” means only that it is a rare and unusual kind of wonder, no argument.

We do take issue with the notion of a mutually exclusive division between knuckleball as anomaly and knuckleball as having a future. The clue to whether the pitch has a future is its past. The knuckleball has been lofted from the mound since at least 1908, when the spin-deprived wonder was invented by Nap Rucker, Lew Moren, Ed Cicotte and/or Ed Summers.

Over the decades, the number of knuckleball players on the MLB mound has typically been few—but also persistent, in and out of the MLB. The knuckleball is a tough pitch to master, but a rewarding one if you wish to gain a new competitive edge, and perhaps extend your baseball career into your 40s.

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Jared MortensenA career as an MLB knuckleballer is what Jared Mortensen of the Tampa Bay Rays is pitching for. And he throws ’em hard.

Tampa Bay signed Jared Mortensen as a 25-year-old undrafted free agent in August 2013, and he remains in position to one day reach his ultimate goal of making the Major Leagues with the Rays. But an ongoing transformation means the righthander who formerly relied on a cut fastball as a starter would most likely make his MLB debut as a knuckleballer out of the bullpen.

Those adjustments created some “rough patches,” according to Mortensen, a pitcher for the Double A Montgomery Biscuits. But just two runs allowed in his last 11 1/3 innings of work reflect a growing comfort level with the new pitch he throws about 50 percent of the time.

“(Coaches are) good about it,” Mortensen said. “They like how hard it is and they like the swing and miss rate.”

That’s up close to 70 percent, a big reason he struck out 11 hitters in his last three appearances. Mortensen already throws his knuckleball harder than most at 78-80 miles per hour, and he hopes to increase that velocity even more.

Taking Mortensen with Wright and the mature Dickey as being representative of a trend, perhaps it is fair to suggest that the average velocity of the pro knuckleball has definitely been sloping upward in this decade. As knuckleball-myth-slayer Eno Sarris argues (as we reported last week), a faster in-the-zone knuckleball is harder to hit than one coming in ten or 12 mph slower on the same trajectory.

On the other hand, R.A. Dickey has suggested that there is a risk of becoming too enamored of speed at the expense of control over the pitch. Achieving just the right mix of knuckleball-fashioning ingredients is all about talent, dedication, and imperturbable laser-like mental focus.

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Charlie Hough with Marlins shirtIn an interview this week with MLB.Com, former knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough observes that Steven Wright didn’t want to be just another baseball player who didn’t quite make it in the Big Game. “And he thought the knuckleball was his chance to be good. He was right.”

MLB.com: Does it surprise you, almost at the midway point of the season, to see a knuckleball pitcher leading the AL in earned run average?

Hough: Let’s just say the odds that a knuckleball [pitcher] is going to win an ERA title are not great. It just shows what a good pitcher he is, and what a good knuckleball he has.

MLB.com: You’ve worked with many knuckleball pitchers. Is Wright one of them?

Hough: Yes. I met him when he was in Cleveland’s Minor League system. I worked with him for a few years…. I saw him this winter, watched him for a half-hour and told him I didn’t know what to tell him except keep doing what you are doing. Now, he’s learning to change speeds….

MLB.com: Wright has done well for himself. But it is bit of a challenge for Wright to finally be establishing himself at the age of 31.

Hough: It’s not when you usually get that chance. If you haven’t made it by then, you are broken down. But that’s a knuckleballer. I was 33 and still got to three World Series.

MLB.com: If Wright has a 90-plus fastball, why did he learn the knuckleball?

Hough: He was one of those average guys. He had an average fastball. He had an average change. He had an average slider. Right-handers like that are all over the Minor Leagues. He is a competitor, and he said he was not where he wanted to be. He didn’t want to be another guy. And he thought the knuckleball was his chance to be good. He was right.

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