This sports news got our attention this week:
The Baltimore Orioles have hired Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro to teach three of the team's minor league pitchers how to throw the knuckleball — a pitch that can make even the best hitters look helpless. Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell compared its flight to "a butterfly with hiccups."
According to The New York Times, "Niekro's assignment is to help the Orioles transform three pitchers into full-time knuckleballers: [Zach] Clark, 30, now with Class A Frederick, Md.; Zach Staniewicz, 27, in the rookie Gulf Coast League; and Eddie Gamboa, 28, of Class AAA Norfolk, Va."
Knuckleballers are a rarity. At any one time, only one or two are usually in the major leagues. And for the few who achieve fame — Niekro and Charlie Hough in the past, the Toronto Blue Jays' R.A. Dickey in the present — there are hundreds of other pitchers on MLB rosters who don't try to throw the pitch.
No major league team has gone out of its way to teach the knuckleball. What is Baltimore thinking?
Well, if the three pitchers can learn how to toss a knuckleball they might be able to salvage their careers, which are mired in the minors. One of them just might end up making it to "the show." Dickey is the latest "journeyman" pitcher to have found stardom late in his career thanks to the knuckler.
Plus, as the seemingly ageless Niekro, Hough and Tim Wakefield have shown in past years, mastering the knuckleball can keep someone pitching well into his 30s or beyond. Because the pitch travels at 60 mph to maybe 80 mph, throwing that "softly" puts far less stress on an arm than throwing 90 mph or above.
So the knuckleball can be very effective. It can resurrect pitchers' careers. It can keep guys in the majors who might otherwise have been out of baseball years earlier.
That raises a logical question: Why aren't there more knuckleballers?
We turned to Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and keeper of The Physics of Baseball website, where he devotes quite a bit of space to his knuckleball research.
He began his answer to our question with this observation:
"There's a stigma attached to the knuckleball" by many in baseball. "It's seen as a 'trick pitch.' It's not 'really baseball.' " So, Nathan says, there's "not a push to throw it and teach the pitch at an early age."
Then there's the basic problem that the pitch isn't as easy to toss — at least not to toss well — as it looks. The ball has to be gripped with two (carefully manicured) fingernails and sort of pushed toward the plate. The object is to put just a little spin on it and let it be nudged around as air flows over the ball's stitches and any little scrapes or abrasions on the leather. Basically, Nathan says, the pitcher lets "chaotic dynamics" determine how the ball moves. A breeze, a loose stitch, a bit of humidity: Such little things can add up to create a bit of chaotic movement that fools batters. See this Times graphic for some more on the physics of the pitch.
Put a little too much spin on the ball or throw it just a little too fast, Nathan says, and you're basically serving up a batting-practice pitch that the hitter can feast on.
The ball obviously also has to be in or near the strike zone. If not, a pitcher just ends up walking too many batters. Or the ball just ends up getting past the catcher — allowing any runners on base to advance and possibly score. Last week, for example, Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright made his first major league start. He allowed only one hit, but lasted just one inning. Wright walked two batters and threw a record-tying four passed balls in that time. The Houston Astros scored on him three times.
Finally, there's the focus required. Most knuckleballers end up throwing the pitch almost exclusively — mixing in few, if any, fastballs, curves or sliders. "They talk about having to 'have a feel' " for the pitch that requires using it all the time, Nathan says.
That means if they have a game where "the feel" just isn't right, they can get shelled.
Still, as we said, the knuckleball can be effective and can prolong careers. Dickey's 20-6 record and dramatic success last year with the New York Mets (he won the National League's Cy Young award, which goes to the best pitcher) and the news that the Orioles are making an effort to groom three knuckleballers gives Nathan hope that the pitch will catch on.
"We may look back on this period in another five years," he says, "and say it was the start of something — a bit of a knuckleball era."