Not Unlike World-Class Knuckleball Pitchers, Engineering Students Can’t Duplicate a Single Knuckleball; PLUS: New Knuckleballer Matt Shelton

Knuckleball pitching machineThe inventers weren’t trying to simulate true knuckleball action, but they seem to have succeeded despite themselves.

We learn from the Toronto Star that engineering students at the University of Toronto have built “the world’s first knuckleball pitching machine,” the kind of thing that may one day help train batters contend with the Toronto Blue Jays’ R.A. Dickey or any other knuckleballer. Players hitherto unacquainted with the pitch can be more susceptible to its vagaries than those who already know what they’re in for.

But one of the four engineering students at the University of Toronto who took on the job of creating a knuckleball-pitching machine, Alex Gordon, says the team’s original idea was, in fact, to “control everything [so that] maybe we could get a knuckleball to be the exact same every time.”

We would have been skeptical had we heard of this purpose before the attempt to achieve it. For if there is anything that a knuckleball in real life is not, it’s same-every-time. With every knuck that’s chucked, tiny differences in pitcher and environment change things a lot; and there are a lot of those tiny differences.

“The amount of control you need to throw the same knuckleball every time is unbelievable,” said Martin Côté, who along with Gordon, Jessica Tomasi and Queenie Yuan built the prototype as part of their fourth-year design project—adapting a regular pitching machine with PVC tubes, motors and a series of sensors that modulated the velocity and automatically set the ball in the same orientation before every pitch.

“The mystery of the knuckleball prevailed over our efforts,” said Professor David Sinton, a baseball-loving mechanical engineer who came up with the idea and supervised the project…..

The students found that even the slightest change in conditions—from a small scuff on the ball to the tiniest tilt in its orientation—changed the pitch’s behaviour. “One thing we learned about knuckleballs,” said Côté, “is that they’re so sensitive to everything. That’s why it’s really, really hard to throw the same one twice.”

Had the students succeeded, though, the question is what value a machine throwing an invariant knuckleball pitch could have had in training batters. An unpredictably swerving pitch that comes at you exactly the same way every time is not so unpredictable any more. It would not have much to do with conditions in the field.

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We’re spotted another incipient knuckleballer—well, actually it was Charlie Hough who spotted him. And Mlive.com’s Hugh Bernreuter spotted the fact that “pitching prospect Matt Shelton” has become  “part of knuckleball experiment.

Like many another knuckleballer, Shelton turned to the pitch in search of an edge.

Hough convinced Shelton to begin throwing the knuckleball, sending the 6-foot-4 pitcher back to the Great Lakes Loons for some needed on-the-job training.

Shelton will make his third start for the Loons Sunday at West Michigan, hoping to continue on a career path that is, like the knuckleball, anything but straight.

“I started playing around with it when I started some games instead of relieving, maybe using it as a fifth pitch to mix in sometimes,” Shelton said. “I was throwing in the low 90s, with a changeup and curve. I was having success, but I was just another guy in the minors with the fastball, changeup and curve.

“This has the potential to give me that extra weapon.”…

Shelton keeps in constant contact with Hough, talking to the former Major League knuckleball pitcher after games and throwing sessions.<<

Shelton is apparently doing better than he’s being given official credit for, because the umpires watching him are not used to calling the pitch. At any rate, Dishman reports that video contradicts some of their umpirical judgments.

In his last start, Shelton walked five in one inning, leading to a five-run inning in a game the Loons eventually won, 8-7.

“The funny thing about that is I walked five, but my knuckleball was great,” Shelton said. “It was the best I’ve ever thrown it. I wasn’t happy about walking five, but I was pretty happy about what the ball did.”…

“It was moving pretty good,” Dishman said. “Part of the problem is also that umpires haven’t seen many knuckleballs either. They can give up on it or have a hard time calling it. We checked on video and some of those were strikes.

“But they’re learning. Matt’s learning. I’m learning. Our catchers are learning.”

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