It’s Not Just the Knuckleball That’s an Oddball

A fascinating article in the Sunday NY Times Magazine about the art of the screwball pitch, “The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball” by Bruce Schoenfeld, forcibly reminds us of the pitch we talk about at IKA.

For one thing, the same persistence, independence, willingness to be different—perhaps even a bit knuckleheaded or screwy—is required to excel in either pitch. You have to be okay with flouting the standard way of doing things.

In an era in which athletes routinely punish their bodies, legally and illegally, to gain competitive advantage, here is an apparently safe, permissible weapon [i.e., the screwball] in plain sight. “Major League Baseball is a funny little club,” says Bob Sorrentino, a pitching guru who served as a personal coach for Craig Breslow of the Red Sox, among others. “There are people who absolutely won’t do things, no matter how much they might make sense.”

How else are the two pitches alike?

Hector Santiago

● The screwball is tough to master, but it can be done by practicing definite procedures, which a craftsman will illustrate. Hector Santiago (pictured) of the Los Angeles Angels—whose screwball is “the best in baseball mostly because nobody else has one”—says the secret “is to exert no pressure with the pinkie or ring finger. As he moved his arm forward in a slow-motion simulation, he pushed hard with his middle finger on the inside of the orange until much of his hand was beneath it, creating a clockwise spin. ‘Like driving on your right wheels going around a curve,’ he said.”

● The screwball is one of the slower pitches. Santiago’s fastball has been clocked at 94 mph; his screwball is 76 mph.

● The screwball confounds batters with unexpected veers. “[T]he clockwise spin on the screwball also caused it to drop precipitously and veer to the left, away from the right-handed Gomez rather than toward him, as a curveball would. Gomez swung mightily and missed. ‘That pitch was filthy…. I was looking for it. I had it. And it disappeared….’ ”

● Masters of the screwball have excelled. Pitchers specializing in it have won the Cy Young Award: Mike Marshall in 1974, Fernando Valenzuela (also Rookie of the Year) in 1981. (Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey picked up the Cy Young Award in 2012.) Both kinds of pitcher have earned Most Valued Player and other honors of the sport.

● Practice of the art of the screwball has fallen prey to the “power culture” of baseball. And it’s those who can’t make to the top by embracing that culture who are the players most likely to turn to an alternative pitch.

Strikeout pitchers usually get the scholarship offers and wind up in pro ball. It’s only when a pitcher fails to become the next Nolan Ryan that he starts looking for ways to keep a roster spot. He might try throwing sidearm, adding a cut fastball, even a knuckleball. If an area of opportunity for the screwball exists in today’s game, it is in these interstices between success and failure.

Mind set matters when throwing the screwball.

The apotheosis of the screwball in modern baseball history took place on Oct. 19, 1981, when Valenzuela, then a 20-year-old rookie, faced the Expos in the deciding game of the National League Championship Series. “I’m going to throw mostly screwballs tomorrow,” Valenzuela told the coach Manny Mota over dinner. “Just watch.”

Though no records exist to confirm it, Valenzuela probably threw more screwballs that day than most ballparks have seen in the past decade. He allowed three hits over eight and two-thirds innings, beat the Expos, 2-1, and lifted the Dodgers to the World Series, which they won over the Yankees. “It was working, so I threw it over and over,” he told me. “It was one of my best games.”

One difference between the two pitches is that the knuckleball “is easy to throw but hard to master,” whereas “the screwball requires special expertise just to get it to the plate. The successful screwball pitcher must overcome an awkward sensation that feels like tightening a pickle jar while simultaneously thrusting the wrist forward with extreme velocity. Yet the list of master practitioners includes some of baseball’s greats: Christy Mathewson, Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Juan Marichal.”

Another difference is that the screwball is more stressful physically than the knuckleball, though the former may be no more injury-prone than a standard fastball. Schoenfeld considers in some detail the controversy over the alleged physical risks of throwing a screwball.

More pitchers today know the knuckleball than know the screwball. Of the latter, Schoenfeld counts only one extant. Some baseball players have never even seen the pitch; others deny that throwing one is even possible. Says Buster Posey of the Giants: “I just don’t believe that a right-handed pitcher can make a ball move as though he were left-handed. I just don’t.” People don’t argue about whether the knuckleball exists, exactly; they do argue about why it exists and what exactly it is doing en route to the plate.

There’s much more to Schoenfeld’s piece than what we’ve highlighted. Give it a look.

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