Your Knuckleball May Add Years to Your Career

An effective knuckleball can both revive the career of a struggling baseball player and make it way more durable.

Hoyt Wilhelm Giants

The best knuckleball players have easily outdone most of their colleagues in the career-longevity department. For examples: Ted Lyons, Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, Tim Wakefield. Or Hoyt Wilhelm, our subject last week, whose career in its (many) last years was marked by periodic premature speculation about his imminent retirement. According to SABR.org’s profile of Wilhelm:

During the first half of Hoyt Wilhelm’s major league career, the attention he received usually focused on his freak pitch—a knuckleball—which he likely threw better than any man in history. In the latter half of his career, he was equally renowned for his advanced age—he had become an “old” knuckleballer.

Wilhelm was called “Old Folks” when his career had more than a decade to run. Nearly every story written about Wilhelm in the 1960s speculated on how much longer he could get batters out. Could he throw the knuckleball until he was 42? How about 45? Wilhelm patiently gave variations of the same answer: “I am pitching as well as I ever have. I have never felt better. I see no reason why I can’t pitch a few more years.”

Consider the MLB career lengths and retirement ages of some of the top knuckleballers in baseball history (the first date given is the MLB debut, even if some later pitching was done in the minors):

Larry French (1929-1942, 34)
Ted Lyons (1923-1946, 45)
Hoyt Wilhelm (1952-1972, 49)
Wilbur Wood (1961-1978, 36)
Jim Bouton (1962-1978, 39)
Phil Niekro (1964-1987, 48)
Joe Niekro (1967-1988, 43)
Charlie Hough (1970-1994, 46)
Tom Candiotti (1983-1999, 41)
Steve Sparks (1995-2004, 40)
Tim Wakefield (1992-2011, 45)
R.A. Dickey (2001-present, 40)

DickeyPitch-cropTo be sure, knuckleball pitchers aren’t the only baseball players who have enjoyed very long careers; and if you’re already Pete Rose or Nolan Ryan, great. If not, though, the knuckleball may add years to yours.

How long does the average pro baseball player remain on the daimond? In 2007, the New York Times reported on the results of a demographic study done by William Witnauer, Richard Rogers and Jarron Saint Onge published in Population Research and Policy Review.

After studying the 5,989 position players who began their careers between 1902 and 1993 and who played 33,272 years of major league baseball, three demographers have come up with an answer: On average, a rookie can expect to play major league baseball for 5.6 years….

Fewer than half of all rookies remain long enough to play a fifth year. And only about 1 percent of players last 20 seasons or more.

The study excluded pitchers because they “are more prone to injuries and have volatile careers”…seeming to suggest that the pitcher stats would have lowered the average of all players.

Five and a half years or less.

Or knuckleball?

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