Let’s get a grip on the pitch that’s disappearing from baseball.
As we gear up for the 2021 MLB season, it doesn’t look as if we will have any knuckleball pitchers on any of the 30 active MLB rosters. Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox underwent Tommy John surgery after he was released by the team in October of 2019, and former Major League knuckleball pitcher Ryan Feierabend has not been picked up since leaving for China to play ball in 2020.
Fewer than 100 knuckleball pitchers have existed in baseball history. Yet, knuckleballers have made their mark. Some have gone on to be Hall of Famers, and one even beat out Clayton Kershaw for the NL Cy Young Award.
Perhaps baseball could use another knuckleballer to brighten things up for next season. In any case, this seems like a good time to highlight one of the most special skill sets in all of baseball.
What’s a knuckleball?
For those not sure about what a knuckleball does, here’s a simple explanation:
As opposed to all other types of pitches, the knuckleball is thrown with the least amount of rotation on the ball as possible, causing it to “float” erratically through the air. The lack of spin on the ball, and the raised seams, causes its trajectory to be affected by airflow more than other pitches.
The speed of the ball, surprisingly, doesn’t matter as much. Some knuckleballers throw harder than others. It’s the lack of rotation as well as physics that dictates what the ball does. It’s a freak of nature…and a bear to hit and catch.
A mind of its own.
Knuckleballs are hard for catchers to wrangle, and they’ll sometimes resort to using larger gloves. Former catcher and current announcer Bob Uecker was quoted as saying this about the knuckleball: “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling, then go pick it up.”
Not all knuckleballs are thrown by gripping the ball with the knuckles—some pitchers hold the ball with their fingernails. But the pitch did get its name originally from the unusual way of holding the ball between the thumb and knuckles. Most knuckleballers who have smaller hands tend to throw this way.
Hard on catchers. Easy on pitching arms.
Because throwing a knuckleball doesn’t put strain on the arm as other pitches do, many knuckleballers have had successful and lengthy careers in the Majors:
- Phil Niekro: 24 seasons
- Joe Niekro: 22 seasons
- Tim Wakefield: 20 seasons (including one spent between the Minors and Majors in the strike-shortened 1994 season)
- Hoyt Wilhelm: 21 seasons (even though he didn’t make his MLB debut until age 29!)
- Ted Lyons: 20 seasons
However, throwing a knuckleball isn’t a sure way to success. Due to the erratic nature of the knuckleball, those who don’t have control of this pitch do not last long in the Majors and are often released or designated for assignment.
It can help save or at least lengthen a career.
Jim Bouton, a pitcher for the New York Yankees in the ’60s, adopted a knuckleball a few years into his career, after arm injuries slowed his fastball. He developed the knuckler and used it to extend his stay in the Majors.
Who first threw the knuckleball?
There’s no definitive answer about who created the pitch. However, it’s often credited to a few different players:
Toad Ramsey, who pitched in the Majors from 1885 to 1890, was the first to throw a ball with a knuckleball motion. A severed tendon in his index finger did not allow him to extend it all the way, which forced him to use an unusual grip. While it was not a traditional knuckleball grip, his pitch had a similar result.
Eddie Cicotte (of the infamous 1919 “Black Sox”) was the first to use the “knuckle grip.” He would hold the ball with the knuckles of his index and middle fingers and use his thumb to balance it in his hand. Many credit him with being the first knuckleballer.
The most recent successful knuckleballer?
The last “star” of the knuckleball family was R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets, who last pitched for the Atlanta Braves in 2017. Dickey did not adopt the knuckleball fully into his arsenal until his fifth season in the Majors, after struggling to make Major League rosters with his usual “stuff.”
Physicians with the Texas Rangers discovered that he was missing his UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) in his right arm, and they were stunned that he could pitch without any pain. Dickey decided to perfect what he had been calling a “forkball,” to become successful in the Major Leagues.
In the 2012 season, Dickey compiled brilliant stretches on his way to becoming a 20-game winner. He set a Mets record with 32 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and he also pitched back-to-back one-hitters. He was named NL Player of the Month in June, after going 5-0 with an earned run average below 1.00. Dickey became the first knuckleballer to win a Cy Young Award, besting reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.
Knuckleballers in the Hall of Fame.
Of the 80 pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, there are only four knuckleballers: Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, Jesse Haines and Ted Lyons. Here’s a little-known fact: Each one of them pitched a no-hitter in his career.
Hoyt Wilhelm was mainly a reliever for his 21-year career, amassing 228 saves and a record 124 games in relief. He pitched a no-hitter for the Baltimore Orioles in 1958 and won a World Series title with the New York Giants in 1954. Wilhelm was the first relief pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame.
Ted Lyons spent his entire playing and managerial career with the Chicago White Sox. He had several pitches in his arsenal in addition to the knuckleball, including slow curveballs. Lyons pitched a no-hitter in 1926.
Jesse Haines spent 18 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and won three World Series championships with them (’26, ’31, ’34). He pitched a no-hitter in 1924. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1970.
Phil Niekro pitched for 24 seasons in the Majors, spending a majority of them with the Braves (first with Milwaukee and then Atlanta). His 318 wins are the most ever by a knuckleball pitcher. Though he never won a World Series, Phil was a five-time Gold Glove Award winner and a five-time All-Star. Phil pitched a no-hitter in 1973.
Joe Niekro isPhil’s younger brother. Joe (not in the HOF) threw a knuckler during his 22-year career with the Houston Astros. Joe wasn’t predominately a knuckleballer—he added the pitch in the middle of his career. Joe Niekro won a World Series in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins.
A numbers game.
Here’s a fact you can impress your friends with:
The number “49” has been worn by a handful of knuckleballers over the years, including Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, Tom Candiotti and Charlie Haeger.
Why? Seemingly, as a tribute to the craft. There is a brethren of knuckleball pitchers, and most become mentors of other players who want to master the unusual pitch.
The 2013 documentary Knuckleball shines a light on the careers of R.A. Dickey (who was on the rise) and Tim Wakefield (who was moving toward 200 career wins and retirement). Both players speak about how pitchers like Charlie Hough were instrumental in helping them grow and learn to use the knuckleball better.
You could say that 49 is a special number for knuckleballers.