Ryan Feierabend and Phil Coke: Southpaw Knuckleballers Who Cross Cultures

Phil CokePhil Coke, fresh from a year with the Orix Buffaloes of the Japan Pacific League, is “attempting a comeback as a knuckleballer,” according a to February tweet by SB Nation’s Chris Cotillo. “Said to be intriguing teams with spin rate in bullpen sessions.”

This statement was the occasion for puzzled or pretend-puzzled replies by other persons with Twitter accounts. Spin? Isn’t it lack of spin on a knuckleball that knuckleballers try for and that would appeal to coaches and managers? Yes, relative lack of spin. One will see some amount of spin. It is probably impossible to get absolutely zero spin on a knuckleball; but a very low spin, maybe half a rotation or one rotation before the ball reaches the batter, would impress.

No reports yet of Coke signing with a team. In fact, not much has been reported about the lefty’s knuckleball ambitions beyond Cotillo’s one tweet—with the important exception of a recent interview with Coke at TheAthletic.com that is, however, behind a paywall.

Phil Coke has nine years of experience pitching in the majors, including for the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers.

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In a guest post for FanGraphs, Sung Min Kim reports that although in the U.S. the left-handed knuckleball pitcher is a lot less common than the right-handed knuckleball pitcher, the sole knuckleball pitcher in the 36-year history of the Korean Baseball Organization is left-handed. Yes, 100% of all knuckleball pitchers who have ever played in the KBO are left-handed! His name is Ryan Feierabend.

Feierabend baseball cardFeierabend has a record in American baseball dating back to 2003, and a few years out of high school was playing in the majors. In 2013 he caught the attention of several Korean teams. One followed through and signed him for the 2015 season, but let him go a couple years later. He was then picked up by another Korean team, KT Wiz. That’s when Feierabend, now in his early 30s, decided to let loose with his knuckleball. Reports Kim:

“Before the 2017 season, the KT Wiz didn’t want to sign me back, and I was basically their backup plan,” Feierabend said. “Going into this past season, I wanted to go out and show the team that they made the right decision in signing me back and make it to where the ball was in my court. I want to continue to do that, and show them and other teams that this is for real.”

Ryan Feierabend has had knuckleball in his back pocket for a long time. “I had been throwing it since I was about 13 years old or so.” Entering his age-31 season, with something to prove in a foreign league, Feierabend felt it was time to try something with it.

“I started throwing a knuckleball for the simple fact that I had nothing else to lose,” Feierabend told me. “If it worked, it would be something that the KBO hitters had never seen before.”

During spring training of 2017, Feierabend told catcher Jang Sung-Woo he planned to start utilizing a knuckleball as a frequent part of his arsenal. Jang already had experience catching knuckleballs. He previously caught five-year KBO veteran RHP Chris Oxspring for both the Lotte Giants and the KT Wiz. Oxspring didn’t throw the pitch often, mostly as a surprise pitch….

We assume that Kim doesn’t count Oxspring in his tally of KBO knuckleballers because Oxspring has thrown the pitch only rarely.

Feierabend himself, though, isn’t yet up to the par pitch percentage of the typical veteran knuckleballer, who deploys the pitch most of the time. For example, about 80% of R.A. Dickey’s pitches are knuckleballs. We talked in our last IKA post about how Eddie Gamboa has taken a while to accept the idea of relying much more heavily on the knuckleball in order to better throw it and better exploit its potential to confound pitchers. As for Feierabend:

Instead of relying on a conventional mix of fastball, slider, curve, and changeup, Feierabend regularly features his knuckleball as an out pitch, throwing it 36.2% of the time when he’s ahead and 32.8% of the time in two-strike counts.

The pitch itself was quite effective in 2017, with hitters mustering a meager .544 OPS against it.

Keep it up—and maybe double it.



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