||This article possibly contains original research. (October 2012)|
A knuckleball or knuckler is a baseball pitch thrown so as to minimize the spin of the ball in flight, causing an erratic, unpredictable motion. The lack of spin causes vortices over the stitched seams of the baseball during its trajectory, which in turn can cause the pitch to change direction—and even corkscrew—in mid-flight. This makes the pitch difficult for batters to hit, but also difficult for pitchers to control and catchers to catch; umpires are challenged as well, since following the path of the ball makes it difficult to call balls and strikes.
The origins of the knuckleball are unclear. Toad Ramsey of the Louisville Colonels in the old American Association—his pitch likely resembled the knuckle curve—and Eddie Cicotte of the major leagues' Chicago White Sox, who in 1908 was nicknamed "Knuckles", are two possible creators of the pitch. Other accounts attribute the pitch's creation to Charles H. Druery, a pitcher for the Blue Ridge League.  In 1917 Druery taught the pitch to Eddie Rommel, who became successful with the knuckleball for the Philadelphia Athletics.
Grip and motion
As used by Cicotte, the knuckleball was originally thrown by holding the ball with the knuckles, hence the name of the pitch. Ed Summers, a Pittsburgh teammate of Cicotte who adopted the pitch and helped develop it, modified this by holding the ball with his fingertips and using the thumb for balance. This grip can also include digging the fingernails into the surface of the ball. The fingertip grip is more commonly used today by knuckleball pitchers, like retired Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who had a knuckleball with a lot of movement. There are other prominent knuckleball pitchers like Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who had a very effective knuckler and knuckle curve, and current Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey. However, youngsters with smaller hands tend to throw the knuckleball with their knuckles. Sometimes these youngsters throw the knuckleball with their knuckles flat against the ball, giving it less spin but also making it difficult to throw any significant distance.
Regardless of how the pitch is gripped, the purpose of the knuckleball is to avoid the rotational spin normally created by the act of throwing a ball. In the absence of this rotation, the ball's trajectory is significantly affected by variations in airflow caused by differences between the smooth surface of the ball and the stitching of its seams. The asymmetric drag that results tends to deflect the trajectory toward the side with the stitches.
Over the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate, the effect of these forces is that the knuckleball can "flutter", "dance", "jiggle", or curve in two different directions during its flight. A pitch thrown completely without spin is less desirable, however, than one with only a very slight spin (so that the ball completes between one-quarter and one-half a rotation on its way from the pitcher to the batter). This will cause the position of the stitches to change as the ball travels, which changes the drag that gives the ball its motion, thus making its flight even more erratic. Even a ball thrown without rotation will "flutter", due to the "apparent wind" it feels as its trajectory changes throughout its flight path.
Hitting a knuckleball is different enough from other aspects of baseball that players specifically prepare for the pitch during batting practice before games they expect it in. According to physicist Robert Adair, due to the physiological limitation of human reaction time, a breaking knuckleball may be impossible to hit except by luck. If a knuckleball does not change direction in mid-flight, however, then it is easy to hit due to its lack of speed. (A common phrase for hitting a knuckleball is "if it's low, let it go; if it's high, let it fly"; meaning that a batter should attempt to hit a knuckleball only if it crosses the plate high in the strike zone.) Since it typically only travels 60 miles per hour (97 km/h) to 70 miles per hour (110 km/h), far slower than the average major league fastball (85 miles per hour (137 km/h) to 95 miles per hour (153 km/h)), it can be hit very hard if there is no movement. One 2007 study offered evidence for this conclusion. To reduce the chances of having the knuckleball get hit for a home run, some pitchers will impart a slight topspin so that if no force causes the ball to dance, it will move downward in flight. Another drawback is that runners on base can usually advance more easily than if a conventional pitcher is on the mound. This is due to both the knuckleball's low average speed and its erratic movement, which force the catcher to keep focusing on the ball even after the runners start stealing their next bases. A few knuckleball pitchers, such as Hoyt Wilhelm and Tim Wakefield, had catchers specifically assigned to them to catch their knuckleballs.
A paper presented at the 2012 Conference of the International Sports Engineering Association argues, based on PITCHf/x data, that knuckleballs do not make large and abrupt changes in their trajectories on the way to home plate—or at least, no more abrupt than a normal pitch. It speculates that the appearance of abrupt shifting may be due to the unpredictability of the changes in direction.
The knuckleball is also employed by the Indian cricket fast bowler Zaheer Khan as his slower delivery. The physics of the operation are largely the same. However, the seam on a cricket ball is equatorial, and thus the extent of erratic movement is reduced due to the symmetry (at least in the conventional release position where the planes of the ball's trajectory and the seam are nearly co-planar). In addition, the lack of backspin does shorten the length of the delivery, and also tends to make the ball skid off the pitch—faster than it would come off a normal delivery.
Naming and relationship to other pitches
Since it developed during a period when the spitball was legal and commonly used, and was similarly surprising in its motion, the knuckleball was sometimes called the "dry spitter". Cicotte was widely reported to throw both the knuckleball and a variant on the spitball known as a "shine ball" (because he would "shine" one side of a dirty ball by rubbing it on his uniform). However, Cicotte called the shine ball "a pure freak of the imagination", claiming that he did this to disconcert hitters but that the pitch was still a knuckleball.
Other names for the knuckleball have generally alluded to its motion and slower speed. These include the flutterball, the floater, the dancer, the butterfly ball, the ghostball, and the bug.
The knuckle curve has a somewhat similar name because of the grip used to throw it (also with the knuckles or fingernails), but it is generally thrown harder and with spin. The resulting motion of the pitch more closely resembles a curveball, which explains the combination name. Toad Ramsey, a pitcher from 1885 to 1890, is credited in some later sources with being the first knuckleballer, apparently based primarily on accounts of how he gripped the ball; however, based on more contemporary descriptions of his pitch as an "immense drop ball", it may be that his pitch was a form of knuckle curve. Two later pitchers, Jesse Haines and Freddie Fitzsimmons, were sometimes characterized as knuckleball pitchers even by their contemporaries, but in their cases this again refers to a harder-thrown, curving pitch that would probably not be called a knuckleball today. Historically, the term "knuckle curve" had a usage that was different from what it has in the game today. Many current pitchers throw a curveball using a grip with the index finger touching the ball with the knuckle or the fingertip (also called a spike curve). This modern pitch type is unrelated to the knuckleball.
Use in pitching
As of 2004[update], only about 70 Major League Baseball pitchers have regularly used the knuckleball during their careers, and its use has become more rare over time. Jim Bouton said, "Coaches don't respect it. You can pitch seven good innings with a knuckleball, and as soon as you walk a guy they go, 'See, there's that damn knuckleball.'" Perhaps as a result, knuckleballers often view themselves as members of an exclusive club, with its own uniform number (#49, first worn by Wilhelm) and leader (Phil Niekro, whom The New Yorker in 2004 called "the undisputed Grand Poobah" of the group after Wilhelm's death). Because they cannot discuss pitching with non knuckleball-using teammates knuckleballers often share tips and insights even if on competing teams, and believe that they have a responsibility to help younger players develop the pitch. When in 2012 R. A. Dickey became the first Cy Young Award-winning knuckleballer, he called the award "a victory for … the knuckleball fraternity", and of the dozens of phone calls he received after the announcement, Niekro's was the only one he answered.
When originally developed, the knuckleball was used by a number of pitchers as simply one pitch in their repertoire, usually as part of changing speeds from their fastball. It is almost never used in a mixed repertoire today, however, and some believe that to throw the knuckleball effectively with some semblance of control over the pitch, one must throw it more or less exclusively. At the same time, pitchers rarely focus on the knuckleball if they have reasonable skill with more standard pitches, so knuckleball pitchers have become quite rare.
However, the knuckleball does provide some advantages to its practitioners. It does not need to be thrown hard (in fact, throwing too hard may diminish its effectiveness), and is therefore less taxing on the arm. This means knuckleball pitchers can throw more innings than other pitchers, and are able to pitch more frequently because they require less time to recover after having pitched. The lower physical strain also gives them the potential for greater career longevity, as some have continued to pitch professionally well into their forties, such as Tim Wakefield, Hoyt Wilhelm, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, and the Niekro brothers. In addition, some pitchers (such as Bouton) have had success as knuckleballers after their ability to throw hard declined.
Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Jesse Haines, three pitchers who primarily relied on the knuckleball, have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Additionally, Ted Lyons, another member of the Hall of Fame, relied heavily on the knuckleball after injuring his arm in 1931. Niekro was given the nickname "Knucksie" during his career. Other prominent knuckleball pitchers have included Joe Niekro (Phil's brother), Charlie Hough, Dave Jolly, Ben Flowers, Wilbur Wood, Barney Schultz, Tom Candiotti, Bob Purkey, Steve Sparks, Eddie Rommel, Tim Wakefield, and Dickey. During the 1945 season, with talent depleted by call-ups to fight in World War II, the Washington Senators had a pitching rotation which included four knuckleball pitchers (Dutch Leonard, Johnny Niggeling, Mickey "Itsy Bitsy" Haefner and Roger Wolff) who combined for 60 complete games and 60 wins, carrying the Senators to second place.
As of February 2012[update], when Tim Wakefield announced his retirement from Major League Baseball, Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays is the only knuckleballer in the big leagues. Dickey routinely throws an unusually fast knuckleball at 80 mph (130 km/h). Minor leaguers Charlie Zink of the Lancaster Barnstormers, Joseph Zeller of the Peoria Chiefs, Charlie Haeger of the Albuquerque Isotopes, and Steven Wright of the Pawtucket Red Sox also throw the knuckleball. Dickey himself has taken an active involvement in helping younger knuckleballers coming through, and in 2012 he started providing personal coaching lessons to 18-year-old knuckleball pitcher Stephen Orso. In November 2008, it was announced that 16-year-old knuckleballer Eri Yoshida was drafted as the first woman ever to play in Japanese professional baseball for the Kobe 9 Cruise of the Kansai Independent Baseball League. On March 2, 2010, she trained with Tim Wakefield at the Boston Red Sox minor-league training facility. And on April 8, 2010, she signed with the Chico Outlaws, debuting on May 29, 2010. Former Detroit Tigers reliever Eddie Bonine also throws a knuckleball, though he does so infrequently as compared to pitchers who use it as a primary pitch. Lance Niekro, son of Joe Niekro, attempted to convert from a position player to a knuckleball pitcher. He started the 2009 season with the Gulf Coast League Braves, but is currently retired and coaching college baseball at Florida Southern.
|“||The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up.||”|
As with hitters, the unpredictable motion of the knuckleball makes it one of the most difficult pitches for catchers to handle, and they tend to be charged with a significantly higher number of passed balls. Former catcher Bob Uecker, who caught for Phil Niekro said, "The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up." Bouton said, "Catchers hate it. Nobody likes to warm up with you." According to Adair, the 150 ms minimum human reaction time may be too slow to adjust to a knuckleball's changing direction.
A team will sometimes employ a catcher solely for games started by a knuckleballer. The "knuckleball catcher" is equipped with an oversized knuckleball catcher's mitt, similar to a first baseman's glove; Doug Mirabelli, formerly of the Red Sox, actually used a softball catcher's mitt. The Boston Red Sox did this fairly systematically in their 2004 world championship season, with Mirabelli regularly catching in place of Jason Varitek when Tim Wakefield was pitching. This use of a "specialist" catcher continued into the 2008 season following the signing of Kevin Cash, and 2009 saw George Kottaras fulfill this role. On August 26, the first time Victor Martinez caught Wakefield, he used a first baseman's glove, instead of a regular catcher's mitt. Teams often trade knuckleball pitchers and their catchers in the same transaction. For example, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas went with Dickey when the pitcher was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in late 2012, and the team later signed Henry Blanco, who also caught for Dickey.
Geno Petralli set the record for allowing four passed balls in one inning while trying to catch knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough in 1987. This record was tied in 2013 when Ryan Lavarnway of the Boston Red Sox passed four balls in the first inning catching for minor league call-up Steven Wright. Varitek holds the postseason record with three passed balls in Game 5 of the 2004 American League Championship Series while catching Wakefield.
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|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Knuckleball|
- Knuckleball Headquarters - Comprehensive collection of information about the pitch and those who have thrown it
- The (Mostly) Complete List of Knuckleball Pitchers - A list of just about everyone who's thrown the pitch in the major leagues, with links to each player's career stats.
- NPR.org on the Red Sox's re-acquisition of Doug Mirabelli