Why Not the Knuckleball (More Often)?

Students of the knuckleball may already have an idea why fulltime knuckleballers are rare: prejudice + difficulty. Mark Memmott has the same idea in his NPR article on the question, “The Knuckleball Can Devastate, So Why Don’t All Pitchers Throw It?”

The knuckleball, Memmott observes, “can be very effective. It can resurrect pitchers’ careers. It can keep guys in the majors who might otherwise have been out of baseball years earlier.” So why aren’t there more of the breed?

First component of the explanation: the “stigma attached to the pitch,” in the words of physics professor Alan Nathan. “It’s seen as a ‘trick pitch.’ It’s not ‘really baseball.’ ” So there’s no big push to teach it—even though there are plenty more than three guys in one baseball organization and a couple more in another whose careers might be energized by the pitch.

Second component of the explanation: the pitch is not…

…as easy to toss—at least not to toss well—as it looks. The ball has to be gripped with two (carefully manicured) fingernails and sort of pushed toward the plate. The object is to put just a little spin on it and let it be nudged around as air flows over the ball’s stitches and any little scrapes or abrasions on the leather. Basically, Nathan says, the pitcher lets ‘chaotic dynamics’ determine how the ball moves. A breeze, a loose stitch, a bit of humidity: Such little things can add up to create a bit of chaotic movement that fools batters.

The knuckleball has always intrigued, as evidenced by a piece by Roy Terrell in the June 29, 1959 issue of Sports Illustrated, about “a 35-year-old cotton farmer from North Carolina [Hoyt Wilhelm] who throws a baseball for the Baltimore Orioles in such a way as to make strong batters weep with frustration and to cause his own star catcher to fall on his reddened face in frequently futile efforts to perform his primary duty, i.e., catching the ball.”

“I’m glad,” says Yogi Berra, “that there’s only one of him in the league. If everybody threw a knuckler, there wouldn’t be a .200 hitter in baseball.”

What then is a knuckle ball and why doesn’t every pitcher throw one if it is so devilishly devastating?

Good question! That the pitch is hard, very hard, was half the answer back then too. Terrell reports that even a talented, longtime knuckleballer like Wilhelm could have trouble calibrating the pitch.

“He always had a terrific knuckler,” says Ray Katt, who used to catch Wilhelm on the Giants and, as a consequence, is in the record books as the only man ever charged with four passed balls in one inning.

“His trouble was control. I don’t mean walking people, he couldn’t control the pitch. One time it would break too much and the next not at all.

“I think that now he must have found the groove. He must have learned to throw it at just the right speed. Sometimes, with the Giants, he would throw too hard and sometimes not hard enough. Either way, the ball wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do.”

HoytWilhelmWithKnuckleball

Perhaps confidence has as much to do with Wilhelm’s success this year as control. Now, instead of using the fast ball or curve when he has to  get a pitch over the plate, he sticks to his knuckle ball, throwing it even in 3-and-0 situations. And he gets the batters out.

Read the whole thing, not least for Terrell’s description of the coy behavior of the knuckleball and for his account of a SCIENTIFIC EXPOSE OF THE KNUCKLER, in which rotationless ping-pong balls play a part.

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