Knuckleball “Myths” Critically Assessed at FanGraphs; also: Wright Still Right

Fact Green Go Myth Red Stop Whether FanGraphs writer Eno Sarris has blasted as many “myths about the knuckleball” as he purports to have done in his interesting recent article depends in part on the extent to which baseball fans accept these “myths.” And sometimes it seems to come down more to word parsing than any prevalent misguided substantial conviction.

How many fans, for example, believe the “myth” that “velocity doesn’t matter” when it comes to knuckleballs? Sarris backtracks a bit immediately: “Maybe this isn’t a thing that’s said a ton, but nobody breathlessly reports knuckleball velocity readings the way they do fastball readings, so at least implicitly we’ve decided that speed doesn’t matter as much with the floating butterfly.” Or maybe we’ve “implicitly” decided that if we’re impressed by the very greatest speeds that a pitch can reach (just as human beings tend to be impressed by top magnitudes in other endeavors), we’re not going to get those top speeds via any knuckleball. And we’re not. Not even in the era of Dickey and Wright. So there’s something of a non sequitur in Sarris’s inference. The speed of an exceptionally speedy knuckleball can impress, but speed is not what is distinctively impressive about a good knuckleball.

On the other hand, if anyone did or does believe that velocity is irrelevant to a knuckleball pitch, Sarris has a point when he reviews the stats and concludes that “more velocity means more whiffs on the knuckler, just like with other pitches.” So whoever’s been arguing otherwise, well, you’re wrong. Stop championing 10 mph knuckleballs.

Another “myth”: “Everybody has a knuckleball.” The shocking truth, per Steven Wright: “A lot of guys can do it in the bullpen, but then to go out in the game and actually throw it, it’s not an easy task to do.”

Hm. We’d like to see survey data on how many fans believe that everybody in the MLB can throw an MLB-level effective knuckleball to the extent that they’re ready to step into the cleats of either of the only two current full-time MLB knuckleball pitchers, Steven Wright and R.A. Dickey.

On the other hand, we don’t really know who could lob the knuckleball brilliantly well if he really gave it his all career-wise and training-wise. We do periodically see signs of untapped potential. Every once in a while one of the guys just fooling around with a knuckleball in the bull pen, some position player, is allowed onto the mound during a blowout game and performs at least a little magic with…a knuckleball. But though we’ll probably never know how many potentially great knuckleballers could be actually great knuckleballers, we will find out in at least a few cases—as the expiration dates of more-conventional career paths are reached and the players hitting those career walls take a long hard look at the relative professional longevity of effective knuckleballers.

Sarris also argues that the knuckleball is more like than unlike other pitches; that the knuckleball can in fact be “commanded”; and that knuckleballers are neither more volatile nor more “homer prone” than other pitchers.

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WakefieldAndWright2What about the myth that a streak of wow-worthy knuckleballing owes more to luck than skill given what a weirdo pitch it is? That’s handled by Jack McCluskey at The Ringer.

We’re now two and a half months into the 2016 season, and the 31-year-old Wright has been among the best pitchers in the American League. The Red Sox’s best starter (yes, better than $217 million man David Price) leads the AL in ERA (2.09) and ERA+ (214) and is tied with Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, and Chris Sale for the major league lead in complete games (three). He’s posted quality starts in 10 of 12 outings to date (good for second in the AL in quality start percentage), providing for Boston as consistently as his knuckleball provides headaches for opposing hitters…

So what if he’s in the midst of what could end up being one of the best seasons by a knuckleballer? To his doubters, he’s still only a knuckleballer….

FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan thinks it’s time to buy in, writing way back on May 31:

“Since the beginning of 2015, Wright’s one of 161 starting pitchers with at least 100 innings. Out of that group, he ranks alone in eighth in ERA-, between Jose Fernandez and John Lackey. Steven Wright hasn’t allowed many runs. The formula is a strange one, but you have to like the results.”

The bottom line is that if Wright keeps putting up numbers like these, he deserves both fans’ respect and an All-Star Game berth, regardless of the unpredictable way he gets there.

Former Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (pictured above with Wright) has certainly bought in. “He’s really learned how to pitch with it,” he says of Wright’s persistently good work.

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