Early last year, the locker room talk of Blue Jays player and knuckleball catcher Russell Martin and Blue Jays scout (and former knuckleball catcher) Sal Butera turned to the subtleties of catching it. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports recorded their thoughts (“The Art of Knuckleball Catching”). A few excerpts:
MARTIN: Keeping the arm relaxed helps a lot. My first bullpen I caught R.A., my shoulder was burning after like 30 pitches. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I guess I’m not used to doing that with the glove. So, keep it relaxed. Make your move at the last second.
BUTERA: It’s almost like in reverse. You have to relax more in the tenser situations. If you get tense, that’s when it’s going to break down….
One thing people don’t realize is that the elements really change it. That’s why most knuckleballers like to pitch indoors. Niekro was that way. He always wanted to pitch in the Metrodome. It was constant.
MARTIN: R.A. is the same way. He knows exactly what kind of wind helps him out. He says a slight breeze coming toward him is what works the best.
BUTERA: Having the wind at your back, Niekro hated it. He wanted the resistance of the wind. There’s a science to it.
MARTIN (laughing): Blow the A.C. really hard.
Although the catchers intimate that the impact of air currents is pretty cut-and-dried, exactly what atmospheric conditions help or hinder knuckleballers has been the subject of debate. For example, Jon Hale at The Mockingbird discusses whether R.A. Dickey is really better off pitching under a closed dome. Hale also looks at such factors as humidity, agreeing that higher humidity may help the pitch, but disagreeing with Dickey about why.
[H]igher humidity inside the dome makes Dickey’s knuckleball rise and become harder to hit, in much the same way that wind at his back does—but there’s something else with the dome closed that gives it sideways movement as well, away from right-handed batters. Or that’s my theory, anyway—for a much more rigorous look at the physics behind what makes the knuckleball do its thing, check out Alan Nathan’s site.
All things considered, Hale sees “a strong argument to be made in favour of closing the dome” and perhaps for operating a humidifier and equipping fans with fans.
The reference is to physics professor Alan Nathan’s site exploring what happens as the knuckleball travels. The many articles include “Anatomy of a Really Nasty Pitch,” which closely analyzes a video clip of a pitch Dickey threw in a June 2012 game.