What Wright Gets Right; Chris Nowlin on Reducing Knuckleball Spin


Wakefield of Red SoxWright of Red SoxUp-and-coming knuckleballer Steven Wright has often been compared to his predecessor in the Red Sox organization, longtime knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield (for example, by Chris Smith, as we noted in our May 31 and May 18 posts). At Baseball Prospectus, Ryan Morrison (“How Steven Wright Is Righting the Ship”) begins by comparing the two players—well, three, tossing in Dickey—but mostly offers statistics and graphs comparing Wright 2013 with Wright 2014, and plotting “the 239 knuckleballs he threw in his most recent three starts [as of August 17].”

Steven Wright’s knuckleball isn’t Tim Wakefield’s. Wright’s doesn’t float up there in the mid-60s like Wakefield’s, but more like R.A. Dickey in the mid-70s—but he also doesn’t have the same experience, just picking up the pitch in 2011 (Wakefield’s last season). What he does have is better results. Wright currently sports a 3.95 career ERA in the majors—a mark last achieved by Wakefield in 2002, when he had a 2.81 ERA while pitching half the year in relief….

With PITCHf/x, we measure where the ball ends up over the plate as compared to where it would be if it had no spin; that’s a method that may be a little less than satisfying for a knuckleball, which can change direction as it meanders to the plate. Theoretically, at least, a pitch could move and then “double back,” reading as having little movement. In 2013 and 2014, Wright’s knuckleballs were pretty well distributed all over the “movement” map, compared to how it may have moved were it perfectly round, with no spin (at 0,0 in the plot)…

More of Morrison here.

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AA Level Sussex SkyhawksOver at the Knuckelball Nation blog, our own Chris Nowlin has been considering “the foundation of any great knuckleball…the grip,” in Knuckleball Grips Part 1 and Part 2. There’s a lot of confusion about knuckleball grips. That’s “grips,” plural, because

there is more than one way to hold a knuckleball, mainly because all of our hands are unique. But that doesn’t mean that you can hold the knuckleball any which way you’d like. There are certain key points to a knuckleball grip that can’t be ignored….

Great knuckle ball pitchers curl their fingers around to make hooks and then they dig their fingernails into the rawhide of the ball. And when the ball is thrown, the fingertips guide the ball; applying pressure at just the right moment to send the ball flying without any spin…. Zink and Fernandez used a hybrid knuckle ball grip, using their middle-finger’s tip and the curled knuckle of their pointer finger. Again, these guys got to the show, but they didn’t stick. So use the fingertips and not the knuckles.

In Part 2, Chris talks about factors that detract from spin subtraction. These include the error of using three instead of two fingertips to grip and throw the ball.

Anything that you do that has a chance of putting even a tiny amount of spin on the ball must be eliminated, even if it feels comfortable….

To eliminate the spin you need to apply even pressure from two fingertips. This is a difficult task. If one of the fingers puts more pressure on the ball than the other, the ball spins. By adding a third finger, you make the process a lot more difficult. Now you have to apply even pressure using three fingers. All three fingers. A little more pressure out of any of the fingertips and the ball spins. You’ve made you development 50% more difficult. Don’t do it.

Chris then explains why it would be unseemly not to avoid seams.

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