The General Manager’s Undiscovered Secret Weapon: the Knuckleball Pitcher

Knuckleball pitchers are undervalued—even though, once mastered, the knuckleball is devastatingly effective.

In part because they are undervalued, knuckleball pitchers are rare. Few teams make the effort to cultivate them. A reliable knuckleballer is clearly an artist. But there is prejudice against the pitch at every level of baseball. The very existence of the knuckleball is often considered a fluke.

The knuckleball is tough to learn. Or to coach for. Or to catch (even with an oversized mitt). But it’s worth the trouble. Knuckleball pitchers have a skill that can be applied reliably to win games. Hoyt Wilhelm (pictured), active in the MLB from 1952 to 1972, was a closer with the New York Giants and other teams. He is one of just 83 pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Another Hall of Famer is Phil Niekro, active in the MLB from 1964 to 1987, who won over 300 games with this pitch. In 2012, R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young Award as a starting knuckleball hurler. Most recently, Steven Wright has shown great potential as a knuckleballer despite injuries and suspensions.

The game is always evolving. Years ago, the decision was made to go from three to four days of rest between pitching stints and then to enforce a maximum pitch count of 100. Velocity increased, and conventional pitchers are still improving.

Time to evolve a little more. Managers and coaches should be considering a strategy that exploits skilled knuckleballers, who are often best deployed as relief pitchers sent to the mound right after a fastball pitcher. Batting coaches need to focus on coaching for the fastball, which leaves an opening for the knuckleballer as a reliever who can confound hitters. Their timing will tend to be off, since the knuckleball is 20 to 30 miles an hour slower than the standard fastball—and since the knuckleball dances.

General managers who groom knuckleballers as relief pitchers will be developing a big advantage.

   —guest post by Howard Rich, founder of the International Knuckleball Academy.

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And knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright is back in the mix. Lauren Campbell at NESN.com reports:

Wright was activated from his 80-game suspension on June 25 and has appeared in three games in relief for Boston. The knuckleballer has a 4.50 ERA with four strikeouts in as many innings pitched. And although Wright’s numbers are better as a reliever than a starter, he’s ready to take on any role for his team.

“Whatever Alex (Cora) asks me to do, I’m going to do,” Wright said, per MassLive.com. “So for me, if they want me to do that, I’ll do it. If they want me to relieve, I’ll do that.”

Think very strongly about relief, guys.

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Congratulations are owed to IKA’s Chris Nowlin, whose independent outfit Knuckleball Nation was discussed in a June Wall Street Journal article about the knuckleball by Brian Gaffney, a director at Fox News.

Gaffney admires the knuckleball as “among the only skills that can take an athlete without professional-grade speed, strength or size to the top of one of the major team sports.” And he was thrilled when his son Joe taught himself the knuckleball. “Not everyone can master the knack of ‘killing the spin,’ but Joe kept getting better at it. By the time he was 16 I couldn’t play catch with him without a mask and cup.”

The next step was to find a coach, especially after another son, ten-year-old Ben, also started throwing the knuckleball.

The internet turned up Knuckleball Nation, run by Chris Nowlin, a former minor leaguer who studied under [Charlie] Hough. During the winter Mr. Nowlin becomes the knuckleball’s Johnny Appleseed, holding clinics across the U.S.

Flying to Las Vegas for knuckleball lessons was a stretch, but that was only our first trip. When Mr. Nowlin lined up Mr. Niekro—the winningest knuckleballer ever—we flew to Atlanta. The chance to learn the secrets of R.A. Dickey, who won the 2012 National League Cy Young Award with our beloved Mets, lured us to Nashville….

Messrs. Dickey and Niekro [with Tim Wakefield in the photo] spoke about knuckleball mechanics, but dwelled on the knuckleballer’s mind-set. Their insights struck me as valuable to anyone with a unique talent or unconventional vision….

Joe had a nice four-year run with the knuck in high school. We’ll see how far Ben goes. No matter what, I hope they stay knuckleballers at heart. When life throws them curves, they’ll have something to throw back.

Good job, Chris.