Cracking the Knuckleball


Let’s face it, watching baseball can get boring, especially for those who do not have an appreciation for the details of the game. All major league baseball games feature a nine inning, 300 pitch, pitcher-catcher routine, which may not be the most appealing way for impatient sports “fans” to spend a Saturday evening. It takes a real spectacle to liven up this experience, and no abnormal baseball feature does that better than the knuckleball.

This oddity has roots older than most major league teams, and is still cherished today. In the early 1900s, two pitchers became the first known players of baseball history to throw this distinct and unique pitch. Lew Moren of the Phillies and Eddie Cicotte of the White Sox are the respected pioneers of the knuckler (Cicotte is more famous due to his association with the 1919 Black Sox). For more than 100 years, the knuckleball, when thrown well, has baffled hitters and amazed fans in a way like no other simple pitch can.

Ever since its inception, no necessarily correct grip of the knuckleball has been defined. Its common definition is: a slow pitch with reduced spin vulnerable to movement by the wind. As its name suggests, the pitch can be gripped with the knuckles. Generally, downward pressure toward the core of the ball is necessary to deaden the spin. So pitchers with smaller hands use their knuckles to press into the ball, and the thumb underneath for balance. But pitchers with larger hands tend to use their fingernails to dig into the leather or laces in order to ensure a constant and solid grip on the ball up until its release.

Two well known knuckleballers of modern Major League Baseball are Tim Wakefield of Boston and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets. Both of these pitchers use their fingernails to grip the ball. Dickey was, in fact, was tutored by Charlie Hough how to throw the pitch. Hough was the Opening Day starter for the Florida Marlins in their inaugural 1993 season. Both Dickey (pictured) and Wakefield use their fingernails to grip the ball at the top of the laces where they curve to shape a horseshoe. However, the two hurlers have vastly different pitching styles.

Wakefield’s knuckleball accounts for at least 80% of his pitch total, and it floats homeward at no faster than 67 mph. He mixes in a *brisk* fastball topping out in the mid 70s, and seldom throws his mega-slow curveball. Wakefield’s curve has been named the slowest pitch in all of Major League Baseball, dipping into the 50s. Tim’s knuckler is is effective due to its “flutter,” and his catcher often wears a first baseman’s mitt in order to have a larger surface area to catch the pitch due to its unpredictable movement.

Dickey, however, is not a career knuckleballer. He broke into professional baseball in the 1990s in the Texas Rangers’ organization, but was ineffective as a standard pitcher. He learned to add bite to his already-established forkball to turn it into a speedy knuckler. His new knuckbleball can reach speeds in the 80s, previously unheard of for the sterotypically lofty pitch. He mixes in an 80s fastball among off-speed pitches to create an effective pitching repertoire.

Before my pitching hopes were swallowed up by the talent of high school baseball, I mixed in a reliable knuckleball as a counter to my fastball since I was never able to develop a changeup. The easiest way to eliminate the spin on the ball is simply to control the wrist and not snap it. And even though the grip on the knuckleball can be varied for different effects, the pitcher must maintain a constant arm slot for each pitch in order to ensure control. If the pitcher does not use the same arm slot for each knuckleball he throws, there is no way to get the pitch over the plate consistently.

I throw my knuckleball different than the two pitchers discussed above. I position my fingers on the laces just like a 4-seam fastball, and then simply raise my knuckles and sink my fingernails between the seams (Rawlings baseballs are the best for this tactic because the space between the seams is the perfect size for short fingernails). These nails should be short and strong and not extend more than a millimeter or two beyond the fingertip.

Most of us know, in some way, shape, or form, how to throw a baseball. And anybody who has learned how to throw well snaps their wrist after releasing the ball. Unfortunately, the knuckleball must be thrown without spin, and the best way to reduce spin is to eliminate the wrist snap. And the best way to make sure that happens, is to lead the throw with the wrist with the ball tilted slightly back, and think of pushing the ball to home plate, letting it float without any need of spin. After the ball has been released, the wrist should not have snapped and the fingers should be extended, pointing outward toward the plate.

When it’s all been said and done, every knuckleball shares certain characteristics and they are recognizable due to their slow speed and lack of spin. The backspin put onto a normal fastball creates just enough lift to get to the plate without sinking, so the lack of spin on a knuckleball creates dip. When thrown, a good knuckleball drops sharply close to home plate after losing its initial velocity. Also, without spin, the pitch has no resistance to the wind, making it completely unpredictable on breezy days.

Batters know they are facing a good knuckleball when they are able to read these words while waiting for the pitch:

The knuckleball is the most unique pitch in baseball, and can certainly make the viewing experience more interesting. It’s not every day that a veteran pitcher can make an All-Star slugger look like a little leaguer swinging at a bread-and-butter pitch. But both Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey can say that they have–with the help of the knuckleball.

Author: Steve Miller

Steve Miller has been baseball blogging since 2011. He is the Sports Editor at the University of Dayton's Flyer News. Email: h2rsteve@gmail.com

3 thoughts

  1. This is interesting, because there actually a documentary in production about the knuckleball, and one of the people in my building is the documentarian. I don’t know when it is set to air, nor do I know the medium, but she was still doing filming for it last season.

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