Zach Clark Concludes that Knuckleball Is Tough but Doable

“It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” says Zach Clark about the knuckleball he started pitching after a four-day stint in the Major Leagues.

ZachClarkAfter eight years in the minors, Clark had played for four days with the Baltimore Orioles last spring before being sent back down. The Baltimore Sun reported at the time that instead of returning to a “crowded Triple-A rotation, Clark would go to Double-A and work on a knuckleball.”

It’s not a rarity in the organization. This spring, Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro worked with two other Orioles minor leaguers, Eddie Gamboa and Zach Staniewicz, to improve their knucklers.

According to executive vice president Dan Duquette, Clark will report to Bowie on Thursday and will work with Niekro, who will be with the Baysox already tutoring Gamboa.

“Zach is an experienced capable pitcher and has always had a good knuckleball, which he will now throw in competition,” Duquette said. [We noted Duquette’s Sox-informed interest in knuckleballers in an early IKA News post.]

Now the 2013 season is over, and “What a 2013 season the UMBC product experienced,” writes Orioles blogger Steve Melewski (“Pitcher in transition: Zach Clark will continue conversion to knuckleball pitcher in 2014”).

 [T]he attempt to perfect the knuckler seemed to be elusive and it showed on the stat sheet, where he went 3-15 with a 7.84 ERA. Over 111 1/3 innings, he gave up 134 hits, with 75 walks and 65 strikeouts.

Clark said he remains committed to throwing the knuckler this winter and next season, even after such a bumpy ride this year.

“It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” Clark said from his offseason home in New Jersey. “I knew it was a challenge, but didn’t know how hard until I was going through it. It took me a while to get comfortable. As I got more comfortable, especially that last month in Frederick, I really started to figure out some things. I had a feel for it….

“At the start, I had never thrown it in a game and I was doing it in Bowie. It was all just learning. I figured out a lot of things that didn’t work. I took the things that provided success and kept them and things that didn’t help me, let them go.”

Clark’s troubles with the pitch were frustrating. “How can I pitch in the big leagues when I can’t even throw a strike?” he briefly wondered. His answer was simply to redouble his efforts. “I had to learn the pitch and just completely commit to it…. The way I thought about it at the beginning, the numbers hurt, but I had to realize I couldn’t care about the numbers, I had to learn to develop the pitch.”

We don’t know of any super-smooth roads to mastery of the knuckleball. Only one straight line, however, is essential: that of the pitcher’s own unwavering determination to make the pitch his own.

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