The Physiology and Psychology of the Knuckleballer

WrightPitchingNobody on his team knows yet whether Steven Wright, still recovering from a shoulder injury, will be getting back in the game before the season ends. But they know that a knuckleballer like Wright has a better chance of doing so than a regular pitcher.

“We’re taking this day to day,” [Boston Red Sox] manager John Farrell said on Wednesday. ‘I’d love to be able to give you a date he gets on the mound. Optimistically that could be when we get down to Tampa, but we’ve got to see him get out to 120 feet a couple times so hopefully we’ll see him on the mound in a bullpen session in Tampa.”

The fact that Wright largely relies on his signature knuckleball could help accelerate his return.

“If he was a traditional or conventional pitcher, I don’t know there’d be enough time to build up arm strength,” Farrell said. “I think the fact that he is a knuckleball pitcher gives us the ability to entertain this. Nothing is a given at this point and we don’t want to take anything for granted with Steven and his health, but the fact that it’s the pitch that he throws it gives you more of a possibility.”

The point being that, as we’ve often noted, the knuckleball induces less wear and tear on the body than pitches that must be more ferociously hurled. The knuckleball makes do with less physical force and lower speeds than your standard fastball but employs more of whatever rare blend of skills that good knuckleballers have but that many non-knuckleballers don’t have—or, let’s say, don’t yet have. As hard as it can be to throw consistently well, the knuckleball is a pitch that can be learned. And as the careers of many a successful knuckleball pitcher have demonstrated, it is a pitch that can be learned late in a career.

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Former Limestone College baseball player Kevin Pucetas, now a member of the San Francisco Giants' 40-man roster, was back in Gaffney working out with the Limestone Saints on Feb. 1, 2010. Pucetas, a right-handed pitcher, threw a bullpen session at the Limestone field.

A recent Guardian article revisits a theme familiar to those who follow the fate of our pitch: “Unpredictable and unmanly: baseball’s fear of the knuckleball.” (Uh, unmanly?) And then there’s this blurb: “The knuckleball can be almost impossible to hit, and can extend a player’s career by years. So why do so many in the major and minor leagues distrust the pitch?”

When Kevin Pucetas, a minor-league baseball player in the Texas Rangers organization, converted from a conventional pitcher into a knuckleballer, his biggest problem wasn’t one typically associated with the macho culture of professional sports: he needed to find a good manicurist. “I couldn’t keep nails on,” he said.

As Pucetas first began to throw the knuckleball, he developed a bad habit of splitting nails in the middle of games. Since a knuckleball pitcher’s grip is dependent upon the length and strength of his nails, this was no small matter. “It would hurt like hell,” Pucetas said. The day after it would happen, “I would have to go into nail salons and get acrylics, and it would always be a battle for me, especially on the road, because I would have to find a nail salon, and certain people do better stuff with nails.” But grooming is just one aspect of a pitch that in almost every way puts its practitioners at odds with baseball’s accepted conventions.

It’s not only distant spectators and team owners and coaches who may be suspicious of the knuckleball. Superstars who make it their signature pitch may also be initially reluctant to throw in with the knuckleball.

tom-candiotti-baseball-cardIn 1984, when Tom Candiotti, who would go on to pitch for 14 years as a knuckleballer in the majors, was asked by the Milwaukee Brewers’ assistant general manager to convert to the pitch, he took issue with the suggestion as well. “We got into a confrontation,” Candiotti, now a radio announcer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said. The executive told him that as a traditional pitcher he wasn’t good enough to succeed. “I said: ‘If you think I’m not that good, why don’t you grab a bat and we’ll go out there right now,’” Candiotti said. That didn’t happen. Instead, Candiotti began to mix the knuckleball into his games. Two years later, he was throwing the pitch in the majors for the Cleveland Indians, and leading the league in complete games.

Danny Clark, a pitching coordinator with the Rangers, tells the Guardian‘s David Gendelman that few would convert to knuckleball pitching even if the alternative were being cut from the team.

“Unfortunately a lot of ego is involved,” he says. “It’s not a macho-type pitch.”

But what is it to be macho? Gendelman then quotes Pucetas again: “You really have to have a lot of balls to throw the pitch. It’s a scary thing. You’re 60 feet away from the best hitters in the world, and you’re throwing a pitch at 65mph. If it doesn’t do anything there at the plate, if it doesn’t separate, you can get your head taken off.”

So it’s an intimidating pitch, and it takes courage to use it. Sounds manly to us. Even if you do have to worry about your fingernails.

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