The Majesty of the Knuckleball

With the baseball season approaching (only two weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training!), my mind focuses on the American Pastime. In 2012 a man with an improbable story and an even more incredulous name won the NL Cy Young Award: R.A. Dickey.

The Cy Young award is named after the legendary pitcher Cy Young (durrrr), who flung his craft in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, winning an insurmountable 511 games. The award is granted to the pitcher deemed to be the most dominant in each league. There is one slight twist, however: R.A. Dickey is a knuckleballer, the first ever to win the prestigious award.

The knuckleball is the most elusive and ephemeral of all baseball pitches. It has been criticized as a gimmick, unworthy of professional play. I believe it is the opposite, that it has a distinct and noble place at the table of baseball, a tool that has the potential to gain popularity in the sport once again. I congratulate Dickey for his amazing accomplishment, receiving the highest pitching honor at the advanced age of 38 in a career that had been less than stellar. With an impressive ERA of 2.73, his record was 20-6 and threw more innings and struck out more men than any other pitcher in the National League. Kudos.

For those that don’t follow baseball, the knuckleball is the rarest pitch of them all. In the past several decades, maybe two pitchers at any given time have specialized in it. And it is a pitch that must be specialized. Except as a joke, no one simply throws a knuckleball. It is a way of life. To master it is to focus on it exclusively.

Most pitches rely upon spin. There are 108 stitches on a baseball, and as they fly through the air they create small air pockets that make the ball move, or break, over the 60 feet 6 inches from the rubber to home plate. It’s called the Magnus Force, and it’s very sciency and complicated. It’s what gives sinkers their sink and curveballs their curve.

Seriously. Watch this .gif of a mesmerizing knuckleball.

Like a good Monty Python sketch, the knuckleball is something completely different. It depends on the lackof spin. A good knuckleball rotates about 1-2 times over the trip from pitcher’s hand to the plate. This means that the ball wobbles and butterflies around. It starts one place and can end up somewhere totally unrelated, with several distinct mid-air bounces along the way. It’s a nightmare to catch, let alone hit. Former catcher Bob Ueker, of “Juuuuust a bit ouside!” fame, said of the pitch:

The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up.

Good hitters have been known to sit out games when a knuckleballer is pitching: it can throw off their timing for the next couple of days.

Try throwing a ball more than two feet and have it notspin. Try to make it float. It’s exceptionally difficult. Now try to throw it 60.5 feet without spinning, and throw the ball 80 miles an hour for a strike. That’s the ineffable skill that Dickey has mastered.

The knuckler is a dangerous pitch because it’s so slow and unpredictable. Major league players are used to driving balls thrown at over 95 mph. If you mess up a knuckleball, the batter will hit it into the next time zone.

I hope that Dickey’s success with the pitch can help bring it back to the forefront. Knuckleballs are generally learned as a last resort, once it’s clear that a pitcher can’t cut it with traditional stuff. Dickey is no different. He started as a standard pitcher, but setbacks and obstacles forced him to adapt and to make the bastard pitch his own.

There’s a reason I think that the knuckleball can be a vital tool again in modern day baseball.

Baseball is by far the most mathematical sport in existence. Every aspect can be calculated (although some with more difficulty than others, like defensive prowess) to the nth degree. Teams pay good money for statisticians to calculate the odds of every conceivable type of play. How often does this pitcher throw a curve ball? When does he throw it? Where? What are the odds that it’s a strike? What pitch is this batter most successful on? Where does he have the most success? How often does he get a two-strike hit?

These are all important calculations, and someone has done the math. The sample size is big enough, and the answer is known. Before every game hitters watch video of the day’s pitcher, and that pitcher watches video of every hitter he is going to face. The batter knows the pitcher’s tendencies and predilections, and so does the pitcher. It’s the day-to-day cat and mouse game that makes baseball so personal. It’s a chess game moving at over 90 miles an hour.

The knuckleball has been a rarity in baseball for decades. But this is why it needs to make a comeback: in an era where hitters are used to studying pitchers and their tendencies, the knuckleball is the one pitch that can exploit that dependency. How can a batter prepare for a pitch that’s destination is a mystery even to the pitcher?

The knuckleball is a lot like a math teacher giving a test but not allowing calculators. Sure, the kids can do the problem with the proper tools, but what if you throw them into a situation where the tools don’t exist? What if you make them think on their feet? You exploit their weakness.

In math as in baseball, that type of test is an abject rarity. Throw a hard test at some coddled teenagers and they are likely to fail. A pitcher’s job is to make the hitter fail. Make the hitter rely on pure ability. See ball; hit ball. Don’t give them any chance to prepare. This year Dickey was the best in the league at making million-dollar players look foolish.

That’s the beauty of it. Throwing unpredictability at hitters who have never known anything other than predictability. It isn’t easy, and every pitcher makes mistakes and good hitters can hit good pitches, but it’s something different. Introduce a little anarchy, as The Joker would say.

Make them see ball, hit ball.

Dickey had an extraordinary year and did it by mastering the most baffling of pitches. I hope more people tip their cap to the reigning NL Cy Young winner and realize that the knuckleball can be a secret weapon more potent than a tight slider or high heater, and that it deserves to be studied and encouraged.

The knuckleball is like the court jester. He’s not the most important person in the room, but sometimes it takes a fool to show the king the truth. Congrats, Dickey. The baseball world is much more interesting with you in it, doing what you do best.

I am a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, and our woeful 2012 season is likely predictive of our efforts this season. But I just can’t help myself. I can’t wait until the umpires clear the plate, the pitcher toes the rubber, and I can at last, if not play ball, watch the most complicated sports plot unfold itself over the next seven months.



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