Knuckleballer Steven Wright Still Blasting Opposition as Scientists Still Grapple with Physics of the Pitch

Erik KratzSteven Wright may have been sidelined as an All-Star, but the experience doesn’t seem to have thrown the Red Sox knuckleballer off balance. MLB News says:

Forgive Red Sox manager John Farrell if he wasn’t all that broken up about Steven Wright not being given a chance to pitch in the All-Star Game.

The way Farrell saw it, the inactivity gave him the chance to put his most consistent starting pitcher right back on the mound to start the second half of the season. And once again, Wright demonstrated how he became an All-Star in the first place, pitching the Red Sox to a 5-3 victory over the Yankees on Friday night.

You thought the Red Sox might be a little rusty coming out of the break? That was true for the offense over the first four innings. But Wright set a tremendous tone early, retiring the first 14 batters he faced.

Wright credits fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield with helping him get back into the swing of things. “I worked a lot with Tim Wakefield before the break on trying to simplify and get my timing back and my rhythm, and I felt like today we were able to do that,” he said after the win. Gotta keep up with the training.

Update: On the evening of the 21st, a longtime reader noted that Wright had enjoyed “another great win tonight—eight innings, four hits, one walk, two runs and just one earned run. Nine strikeouts.” Our reader means the game headlined at nesn.com as “Steven Wright, Boston’s Offense Dominate Twins In 13-2 Win.”

The Twins haven’t been very good this season, and Wright was doing a great job fooling them with his knuckleball and keeping them off the bases. Overcoming Boston’s early strike definitely was a daunting task for Minnesota.

Wright was perfect through four innings until he gave up a single to Twins right fielder Max Kepler in the fifth. He wound up giving up two runs (only one earned) that inning, after a ground-rule double, an RBI groundout and an error, but he still showed good control over his knuckleball and fooled plenty of Twins batters with it. Wright finished the night with two runs (one earned) on four hits with nine strikeouts and only one walk over eight innings.

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New Journal of PhysicsScience News says scientists have thrown a curve “at knuckleball explanation. ‘Drag crisis,’ not baseball’s seams, dictates fluttery flight paths, new study suggests”:

The result is at odds with previous research that attributed the zigzags to the effect of airflow over the baseball’s seams. Scientists report the finding July 13 in the New Journal of Physics….

In drag crisis, the thin layer of air surrounding the ball flips between turbulent and smooth flow, abruptly changing the drag forces on the ball….

Balls must move at a certain speed to experience a drag crisis, which may be why knuckleballs tend to be thrown slower than other pitches, the researchers suggest. While the fastest pitches can top 100 miles per hour, knuckleballs are usually closer to 60 or 70 miles per hour.

The scientists built a knuckleball machine, designed to launch a beach ball without any spin, and measured how much the ball veered off course. Then they calculated the ball’s expected motion based on the physics of the drag crisis and found that the predicted trajectories matched the experiments.

Physics of knuckleballsAlan Nathan—whose research on the flight of the knuckleball we have noted in these pages—is not quite convinced. (See his web site for many articles on knuckleball physics.)

“It’s a fine piece of work,” says Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies the physics of baseball…. But he is not entirely convinced by the explanation of knuckleballs. “Wind tunnel experiments seem to strongly suggest that it’s associated with the seams on the ball,” Nathan says, which can create turbulence that causes the ball to swerve.

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As long as we’re on the subject of aerodynamics, let us acknowledge and insist that although the knuckleball is (almost) without spin, the knuckle-curve does spin! It is no knuckleball! Says John Tomase:

Since the Red Sox acquired left-hander Drew Pomeranz from the Padres last week, we’ve heard a lot about his best pitch….

First off, it’s not a knuckleball in any way, shape, or form. It is 100 percent a curveball, with the “knuckle” in the name simply signifying the way it’s gripped.

The traditional curveball is held with the index and middle finger resting horizontally across the ball, which rotates over them to produce spin. With the knuckle-curve, the grip is the same, except the index finger is either pressed vertically against the ball at the fingertip, or tucked back in at the knuckle.

Okay then.

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