Feb

23

 Sixty feet six inches. The distance a baseball with minimal spin flutters in the the breeze as it meanders its way towards home plate. The knuckleball. Generally, if the batter swings at the pitch, he would likely look foolish—he has no better idea of where the ball may go than anyone else—pitcher included—does. And in catching the pitch, the catcher may also look pretty foolish. David Skaggs, a one-time catcher for the Orioles, kept an extra-large mitt when his battery mate was a knuckleball pitcher. (Take a look at one such pitch The only pitch that made a batter look nearly at foolish was the Sandy Koufax curve—attested to by both Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, neither of whom was exactly a slouch in the batter's box. (Yogi Berra is reputed to have observed—whether at a World Series or spring training game—during a Koufax warm-up, "I understand how he won 27. What I don't understand is how he lost 5." Maury Wills, the Dodger's infielder, responded, "He didn't. We lost them for him.") Arguably, Mariano Riviera's cutter came close, too.

The knuckleball is one of the more difficult pitches to master in baseball, so much so that it merited exploration in a documentary. It can be effective as a means to dominate a line-up, though, and it's easy on the arm (which means it may be better for those little leaguers who are determined to screw up their arms in throwing curve after curve after curve). RA Dickey demonstrated a few seasons back that its mastery can lead to that pinnacle of pitching performance, the Cy Young Award. And recently too, Tim Wakefield has used it to great effect too. The physics of the knuckleball is described in this link. I'll leave that part of the pitch alone.

Supposedly, it can be traced back to the early years of last century, but I suspect it was around even before, though probably unnamed as a pitch. A knuckleball travels at a seemingly impossible speed of only 60 or so mph. Not much force behind it, also one of the features that aids in minimal wear and tear on the throwing arm. Of course, with that speed, stealing a base or getting a good jump on the pitch is easier. I don't know the stats on runners thrown out trying to steal when a knuckler was on the mound.

It will be interesting to see if Gamboa makes it to the starting roster in Apri. Hoyt Wilhelm was also a knuckler. Also an Oriole. I wonder how many teams have had one knuckles, never mind two, in their history, though the Senators had an starting rotation of knuckleballers during WW2. Only 75 pitchers in major league history have thrown knuckleballs as more than an incidental pitch, i.e., in a deliberate way.

The Orioles have made a concerted effort at developing knucklers, with Phil Neikro attending a few of the Os' training camps. Buck Showalter was the one who started Dickey on the knuckleball path; A Cy Young suggests that it was a good decision by all. It's not hard to understand Showalter's thinking: Throwing the knuckleball is a long-term commitment, one that may not mature for several years. But it's a pitch that's easy on the arm. Speculating a bit, it's not hard to imagine going back to a 4 man rotation with 3 or 4 knucklers in the starting rotation. That means there's space for another hitter or a stronger bullpen. Win-win. Moreover, an older pitching staff means more maturity during the inevitable ups and downs of season—and good minds to train younger players who might even be in the minors and attending spring training. And those arms, even on an older pitching staff may not be quite the headwind that it would be if the staff were based around 95 mph hardball throwers or breaking ball pitchers.

This year's Orioles spring training camp promises to be an interesting one. Perhaps the season will be a fruitful one.

In any case: Play ball!


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1 Comment so far

  1. Ken Drees on March 2, 2016 5:54 pm

    The game played the next day after team X plays against a knuckleball pitcher is usually bad for the team X batters. Reason is that the day spent trying to figure out the off speed stuff, slowing your swing, timing each swing, winds up throwing the hitters off kilter and it takes a game to get back into batting sync. So the game after –hopefully team X has a strong pitcher since run support may not be there.

    I attribute the above to Terry “Tito” Francona –current manager of the Cleveland Indians, (who should do better than the Orioles this year.) :-0

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