One of the Original Gongsters (hey, it’s a name) has penned an Ode to the Knuckleball:
All the rage these days is which pitcher can throw the hardest. This one can touch 97 mph, that one can hit 100 mph, a couple of prospects can hit 103 mph, and recently traded White Sox prospect Michael Kopech hit 110 on the gun in what’s called a pull-down drill, which is meant to determine maximum velocity in a throw possible….
But if you’re prepping to hit the fast and hard stuff, “and you get the soft stuff, you’ll swing right over the top…. That leaves something big to be said about those pitchers who live on the knuckleball.”
The knuckleball is typically thrown between 60 and 75 mph, a far cry from those pitchers who make their living off the country hard ball. At that speed, a hitter has time to see the ball, judge where it’s going to land, and hit the stuffing out of it. Well, at least they think so….
[Knuckleball] pitchers also usually start off in life as something else, be it a power pitcher, position player, etc., and they use the knuckleball as a last resort to keep playing the game they love….
I love watching these guys pitch. The knuckleball is a freak pitch, yes, but it’s always fun to watch these guys throwing the equivalent of a grapefruit at these big league hitters and making them look absolutely silly up there.
Also, who doesn’t want to cheer “for the old guy”?
As odes go it is not that ode-like, but we’ll take it.
* * *
Department of Quotable Quotes:
“I know a lot of people who say that you master it, but I don’t think you ever master the knuckleball.”—Phil Niekro
(Quoted in Lew Freedman’s Knuckleball: The History of an Unhittable Pitch.)
“Imagine a Chihuahua with its tail; that’s a fastball. Now imagine a Chihuahua with a German Shepherd’s tail; that’s a knuckleball. A slowly rotating ball can develop a very large tail, which can wag the dog! That’s a knuckleball…it gets wagged by its tail.”—from The Knucklebook: Everything You Need to Know About Baseball’s Strangest Pitch—the Knuckleball by Dave Clark
* * *
Speaking of Hough, IKA’s Chris Nowlin, who publishes the Knuckleball Nation site, has put together a Charlie Hough highlight reel. Nowlin credits his ability to sign a pro contract “after having never played high school or college baseball” to the knuckleball and Charlie Hough.
I always had a good [knuckleball], but it was a chance encounter with 24-year Major League veteran knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough that made everything take off. Charlie took me under his wing in Southern California where I learned how to throw a pro-quality knuckleball alongside R.A. Dickey. Yup, future 2012 Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. He was terrible back then, by the way. As you can see, he got better. I did too.
After a few months of training, Charlie asked, “Are you ready?” Ready for what? I replied. “Ready to play pro ball?” he said. And I’ve been playing professional baseball ever since.
In a post about “what it takes” to be a successful knuckleball pitcher, Chris says that one thing it takes is about 72 miles per hour. Of course, that’s not all….
If you can throw a baseball for a strike at 72 miles per hour, then you can make it into professional baseball as a knuckleball pitcher. That’s all you need. It’s all Wakefield needed at the end of his career, it’s all Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm needed, it’s all 7-year Big leaguer Dennis Springer needed, and it’s all you’ll need, too. If you can throw harder, great! If you can’t, no problem…you’ll just have to have a fantastic knuckleball.
So it’s just two things, then: 72 mph + fantastic.
The knuckleball is extremely difficult. You’ve got to take this 5-ounce hardball and throw it off your fingernails at least 65 mils per hour at a relatively small target 60 feet away without knowing exactly which way it’ll break. It’s absurd. It’s an absolutely insane thing to expect someone to be able to do once, let alone 100 times during a start. It is the apex of human performance.