Tomo Ohka, lately of Japan’s Yokohama Baystars (2010-2011; previously, 1994-1998), debuted last Wednesday as a knuckleball pitcher in the U.S. for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Blue Jays organization. The Bluefish beat the Sugarland Skeeters 9-2; Pointstreak has stats for the game. (And YouTube has an imperfect-but-at-least-it’s-something video of Ohka pitching on that day.)
JCCABulletin believes that Ohka “is the only Japanese pitcher ever to throw a knuckleball,” which he took up after getting shoulder surgery in 2011. In the U.S., where expertise in the pitch is also rare, the few members of an elite crew of former and current pro knuckleballers have sometimes been able to offer tips and training to promising new knuckleballers. In Japan, though, Ohka was on his own.
At 38 years old, most pitchers would retire, but his knuckleball lengthened his career. Back in 2012 in Japan, he had no team contract and so began training on his own. The Toyama Thunderbirds, an independent-league team, gave him an offer. That was rock bottom for the career pitcher, so he decided to learn the specialized pitch. Trouble was no one in Japan could teach him. He therefore scoured the Internet and found precious little. What he did find he watched a thousand times (by his estimate). He bought a net and practiced throwing “hundreds a day” until his fingers started bleeding.
The key to an effective knuckleball is removing the spin from the pitch. Ohka couldn’t do it until he discovered he could if he didn’t rely on his fingernails. So he developed a feel with his finger tips. Consequently, he always carries a nail file wherever he goes to keep the nails short. That was when the Blue Jays came a-calling.
Ohka told the Connecticut Post:
“I just started throwing it last year so I don’t know if I’m going to the big leagues or not… I hope so. Any knuckleball guy will say that it takes time and patience.”
Not everyone comes to the knuckleball late in a pitching career. We talked about teen knuckleballer Chelsea Baker in a March IKA post. This week we learned of another pitcher turning to the knuckleball while still in high school: Chad Konik, a junior at Streetsboro High in Streetsboro, Ohio. Streetsboro Gateway News reports:
A season ago, Konik experienced elbow pain so extreme he was physically unable to pitch. Determining that the best thing for Konik would be to let his arm heal, [head coach Chris] Scisciani elected to rest him for his entire sophomore season and retire Konik’s curveball.
“He didn’t really even pitch for us at all last year because his elbow hurt so bad from throwing too many curveballs at a young age. He had a really good one,” Scisciani said.
This season as a junior, Konik has emerged as a go-to relief pitcher for Streetsboro. He only throws two pitches, a fastball and a knuckleball, yet manages to be effective.
His knuckleball accounts for 80 to 85 percent of his pitches thrown, while his fastball offsets it.
“His fastball is in the low 70s, but his knuckleball is around 55 miles per hour,” Scisciani said. “The change in speed is what keeps the kids off-balance….
“For the most part, he really hasn’t walked a whole lot of people and I think sometimes the hig school hitters are impatient; when they see the ball come in so slow they just want to swing at it,” Scisciani said.
Hey, if they want to swing, let ’em swing!