Despite The Onion’s satirical take on the knuckleball, recently retired Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield (with the Sox from 1995 to 2012) never “admitted” that the pitch was really “just a fastball he throws very slowly.” He never said, “I just float it up there and let everyone imagine that it’s moving….”
If only it were that easy. Per physicist Robert Adair, well-pitched knuckleballs may be impossible to hit except by luck. (“A knuckleball can change so close to the batter that he cannot physiologically adjust to it…. I mean, you can close your eyes and swing, and you might hit it….”)
But they are not impossible (even if darned hard) to throw.
“I had to come up with a way to get outs, and that’s the bottom line as a pitcher,” Wakefield has said. “It doesn’t matter if you roll it underhand, as long as you get outs.” How do you keep getting those outs, though, using a knuckleball? Probably not by studying a vintage Goudey baseball card, even if that’s where you might start—except that knuckleballers usually grip the leather with fingertips these days, not, despite the Goudey depiction, literally with their knuckles.
In a post-retirement interview with Time magazine, Wakefield noted some of the stylistic differences among effective knuckleballers. “Charlie Hough threw a lot more fluid, the opposite of me. I threw mine with a very stiff wrist. He was very loose and pushed it forward and took spin off it. I had to have my wrist locked, and then it came out without any spin. If I got too floppy, it would spin too much. If you look at Phil [Niekro], [Tom] Candiotti or R.A., the pitch is the same, but the way we got to our release point was a little bit different.”
Wakefield’s honing of the pitch was abetted by top knuckleballers like Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti: “It is nice to be able to bounce ideas off somebody who is doing what you are trying to accomplish.” In turn, Wakefield has passed on his knowledge to other knuckleballers, including R.A. Dickey. Dickey also learned much from training with Charlie Hough (as has IKA Program Director Chris Nowlin).
Like Dickey carrying his baseball wherever he goes, the true knuckleballer never stops training, never stops looking at what he is doing and benefiting from the advice of others in the knuckleball fraternity. He is always finding and re-finding the groove.