How do you trick a hitter into thinking he’s about to swing at yet another knuck when you’ve got very different pitch up your sleeve? And why would you ever want to do that, anyway, if you know how to effectively throw so tricky a pitch as the knuckleball?
To answer the second question first: even the very best knuckleball pitchers do not enjoy an infallible mastery of the pitch. A savvy knuckleballer knows when to give the knuckleball a break.
Brian MacPherson, of Metrowest Daily News, reports that at a certain point during a recent game, with Wright’s knuckleball not cooperating—“Even the ones that were in the strike zone were up in the strike zone”—there was nothing for it but to mix things up a bit.
And so…Wright tried something different—first a fastball that Rollins fouled off, and next a curveball that Rollins grounded to first base for the first out of the inning. Three batters later, with a run across but two more runners on base, Wright got two strikes on Melky Cabrera with knuckleballs but got his third strike with a curveball off the plate away.
Wright throws mostly knuckleballs—but he can’t throw only knuckleballs. In a season that has seen him post a 2.36 ERA and yield two or fewer runs in six of his seven starts, he at times has had to get results with his mid-80s fastball and upper-60s curveball, too.
How does Wright fool batters, if he does, about which will be his pitch when he makes the switch? He doesn’t always succeed. But he tries his darnedest.
“I always want them to think a knuckleball is coming…. If I fall behind 2-0, maybe I’ll flip in a curveball, but it comes down to how I’m feeling with the knuckleball. It’s when sometimes it gets away from me too much, I’ll use the fastball or curveball, depending on what is working that day.”…
Because Wright throws his knuckleball off his fingertips…he has to throw his fastball and curveball in a way that it at least looks like it’s coming off his fingertips. Disguising those pitches effectively has taken years of work.
“That’s something I’ve been working on for the last four or five years I’ve been throwing the knuckleball, trying to keep everything the same…. That’s my goal—that every time I throw it, it looks like a knuckleball, even if it’s a curveball or a fastball.”…
Hitters who are waiting for a knuckleball that averages about 74 miles per hour sometimes can’t catch up to a fastball cming in at 87.
“Either they’re not going to swing because they’re not looking for it, or they’ll just try to protect and get weak contact,” he said. “If I can pop a fastball, I’m banking on them not sitting on it. If I throw an 85-mile-per-hour fastball and they know it’s coming, it’s batting practice. But if I throw it 85 and they think 70 is coming, they’re not going to be able to time it and I’ll get weak contact.”
Fellow MLB knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, too, does what he can to double-disorient batters with the occasional un-weird pitch. From a February 2013 story by Rosie Dimanno:
“If I see those guys talking or shaking their heads or saying something to the catcher, I know that it’s probably moving pretty good.” See, [Dickey] can’t even tell from the mound. “I know how it feels when it leaves my hand. I don’t always know what it’s doing closer to the plate.”
And then, with a batter going batty over how the next knuckleball will behave, Dickey can, zip, come in with heat, earning the kind of look Lawrie threw him.
“That can be a weapon too if you use it in the right place. If a guy has tracked 10 or 11 knuckleballs in a row and then you throw a fastball in there, it’s a whole different animal. It looks a lot harder than it really is. You can kind of play with the optical illusion from time to time.”