The Knuckleball Is Still Alive and Swerving

Ben Lindberg reminds us in a recent article for The Ringer that “The Knuckleball Isn’t Dead Yet.” (Well, we don’t need reminding, but maybe some of the other people do.) The piece begins by noting a recent improvement in the pitching of minor-league knuckleballer Mickey Jannis of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, part of the Mets organization.

Until this month, 31-year-old Mets minor league knuckleballer Mickey Jannis had never struck out more than nine hitters in any of his 130-plus career games in affiliated ball. He hadn’t topped eight since 2017. But on August 13, in a start for Double-A Binghamton, Jannis struck out 10 batters in six innings and walked only one. In his next outing, he struck out 12 in seven innings, again walking one and allowing four hits. His next start went well, too: He struck out only five but threw eight scoreless innings. And on [August 28], he pitched a complete game against Portland and struck out 10 again….

Jannis still lacks an expert instructor for his specialized pitch, but he does have a helper in the form of a compact blue box: an Edgertronic camera. These high-speed, high-definition devices have flooded into baseball in the past few years as prices have fallen and players and teams have discovered the benefits of being able to scrutinize players’ slow-motion movement in unprecedented detail. The cameras have become indispensable to the pitch-design process, and allow pitchers to perceive (and modify) aspects of their delivery and release that can’t be captured with the naked eye or conventional cameras.

Although some organizations have installed Edgertronics throughout their minor league systems, Jannis says in-game, high-speed footage isn’t accessible to his team. But there is an Edgertronic in his Double-A bullpen, and that’s where he headed after giving up nine hits and lasting only 4 2/3 innings on August 1. Jannis threw while the camera recorded him, and he and his pitching coach studied the footage that revealed what had gone wrong.

“I was just pulling off a little bit early with my front side,” Jannis says. “It was almost like I was trying to throw a fastball too hard … and that was causing me to get around the knuckleball. And with the knuckleball, you really want to stay behind it and on top and stay through the pitch. When I was able to see that visually, it just kind of clicked in my head that I needed to stay behind it a little bit more.”

Jannis, who also started throwing his knuckler harder (especially with two strikes), describes the mechanical cleanup he made as “the slightest little adjustment.” But it’s clearly been a crucial one.

In Jannis’s comeback-within-a-comeback, Lindbergh finds a clue to the knuckleball’s future: “As Jannis’s recent renaissance suggests…the art of the knuckleball is trending toward science. And while Hoyt Wilhelm may not have needed a camera to perfect his floater, technology could be the key to preserving a scarce and precious pitch.”

The scarcity of knuckleballers in the MLB this year (graced by only fleeting appearances by Ryan Feierabend and Steven Wright) make the future of the knuckleball seem tenuous, and Lindbergh cites several recent announcements that the knuckleball is on its death bed. On the other hand, “Writers have been pronouncing the knuckleball near death for decades, despondently citing the advanced ages of its active adherents and pooh-poohing the possibility that successors could arise.”

Bottom line (or one of them; at 4,700 words, this is an article with a lot of bottom lines): “Baseball’s infrastructure caters to conventional players, and knuckleballers are forced to fight both implicit bias and institutional resistance to the troublesome pitch: Scouts can’t scout it, coaches can’t coach it, and catchers can’t catch it. The knuckleball’s only evolutionary advantage is that it’s almost as difficult to kill as it is to create.” It is an evolutionary advantage that, as IKA founder Howard Rich argues, is waiting to be properly exploited.

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One person interviewed by Lindbergh for his lengthy exploration of the knuckleball is IKA’s own Chris Nowlin. At Knuckleball Nation, Chris quotes himself being quoted:

Ben was kind enough to reach out to me for an interview about technology’s emerging role in teaching the knuckleball to the next generation….

“As Nowlin notes, hitters have optimized their attack angles and launch angles to counter conventional pitching, but because no one ever knows where the knuckleball will end up, ‘no amount of swing-plane analysis could counter it.’ He also sees potential for evaluation and replication of the pitch to improve. ‘Tech can help set quantifiable, undeniable benchmarks similar to the ones used for conventional pitchers,’ he says. ‘The proper tech could track hundreds of thousands of knuckleballs in different conditions to build a model of the perfect knuckleball. And that model would dispel the fear surrounding the pitch.’ ”