It's one of the rarest pitches in baseball, but when mastered can be among the most effective. The knuckleball is the definition of the deceptive pitch. Baseball's best hitters often look lost when trying to hit a well-thrown knuckleball. So why exactly is it that more Major League pitchers don't utilize the knuckleball? Not only is it a pitch that constantly leaves batters guessing, but the lack of velocity in a knuckleball when compared to more traditional pitches means there is less taxation on the pitcher's arm with each delivery. Theoretically, that should help to better preserve the pitching arm, allowing for a higher volume of pitches to be thrown and potentially extending the pitcher's career. Up to this point though, the positive elements just haven't been enough to lure pitchers into developing this unconventional pitch.
R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets was the lone knuckleballer pitching regularly in the majors at the midway point of June in the 2012 season. He also happened to be the first MLB pitcher to reach eleven wins, boasting an 11-1 record with a league-leading 2.00 ERA as of June 21st. If it weren't for the knuckleball, the 37 year-old Dickey might not even still be in the big leagues. After pitching at the major league level for three different teams throughout a career that could be described as mediocre at best, Dickey landed with the Mets, where he worked hard to perfect his knuckleball and revive his career. It was a pitch Dickey had first learned to throw years before, but fully developing it was a lengthy process. The amount of time and patience required to become a successful knuckleballer is likely the primary factor that prevents pitchers from seriously considering it.
Pitchers pour endless hours into improving their fastball, slider, curveball, or whatever other pitch they may have in their repertoire. Still, the knuckleball requires significantly more attention than other pitches. A pitcher aiming to turn into a great knuckleballer must be willing to make that pitch his singular focus. Other than maintaining a decent fastball to occasionally mix in with the knuckler, the pitcher essentially needs to eliminate other pitches from his regular training regimen and fully commit to the knuckleball. It's like stripping a supreme pizza of all its toppings and throwing on nothing but anchovies instead. For pitchers fighting to make it at the big league level, there is risk in reinventing themselves as a pitcher and attempting to make such a drastic change to what they've spent so much of their life practicing. While Dickey's story is inspiring, it doesn't work out that way for everyone who tries to adopt the knuckleball. Some pitchers simply aren't able to learn how to consistently control the knuckler. Then again, there may have been others talented enough to become knuckleball legends, but they never gave it a shot.
The knuckleball may never become wildly popular, but it will likely continue to be seen in MLB for years to come. Whether because of its mystique, injury prevention benefits, or otherwise, the pitch has withstood the test of time, refusing to disappear from the radar completely. The value of baseball's most unusual pitch has been proven by those who have made a living off of it, like Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm. The recently retired Tim Wakefield rode the knuckleball to 200 wins over a 19 year career, in the process helping the Boston Red Sox to a pair of long-awaited World Series titles. The knuckler is undoubtedly the trickiest pitch to throw with accuracy, but when pitchers are able to master the craft it is quite a spectacle to watch as batters are fooled by the fluttering baseball. Even the best knuckleballers have a tendency to struggle with command from time to time, so wild pitches, passed balls, and walks are common. The unpredictability of the knuckleball is what makes it special, but it also probably scares away many pitchers who entertain the idea of taking on the challenging pitch.
There will never be a knuckleball revolution in baseball. Few pitchers will be willing to hinge their careers on the pitch, but there will be those like Wakefield and Dickey whose careers are on a dead end street, so they decide to give the knuckleball a whirl. It would be unfair to blame pitchers for generally staying away from the knuckler. However, the game would be more captivating with more knuckleballers around. The movement on the pitch is absolutely incredible at times, and the rarity of the knuckleball does not take away from its value in the game of baseball. It's impossible to predict the future of this crafty pitch, but as with any good knuckleball, it's better left a surprise.
Tony Paul, "Baseball Insider: Today, R.A. Dickey isn't same pitcher Tigers crushed in '06", The Detroit News
Peter Abraham, "Tim Wakefield announces his retirement", The Boston Globe
Published by Aaron Griggs
Lives in Pennsylvania with wife, Julie. Announcer at a non-profit radio station. Graduated from Cedarville University in Ohio in 2008 with a degree in Communications. Grew up in Vermont. Sports enthusiast. A... View profile
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