Baseball for the Thinking Fan

Login | Register | Feedback

btf_logo
You are here > Home > Baseball Newsstand > Baseball Primer Newsblog > Discussion
Baseball Primer Newsblog
— The Best News Links from the Baseball Newsstand

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Silva: Is the Knuckleball an Endangered Species?

Knuckleballer Bobby Tiefenauer had 1 hit in 39 career at-bats (.026). So there’s that also.

Turn back the clock just 25 years ago. Hough, Tom Candiotti and the Niekro brothers were all top-of-the-rotation pitchers for their respective teams. A decade earlier, Wilbur Wood had four straight seasons of 20 wins or better. Of course we can’t forget Hoyt Wilhelm, a Hall of Famer. Today, outside of Dickey, there is no one even close to being an established knuckleballer. Charlie Zink made one start for Boston in 2008. Charlie Haeger had a couple of brief cups of coffee with the Dodgers in 2009 and 2010. Neither was good enough to stick around very long.

So is there anyone on the horizon? One minor leaguer to keep an eye on is Steven Wright, a right handed knuckleballer with the Indians. He converted last season and is throwing the pitch 85% of the time. After bouncing around three minor league levels and posting an unsightly WHIP of 1.6 and walk-rate close to 5, Wright has pitched well thus far this year; going 2-1 with a 1.56 ERA in 3 starts for the Indians Double-A affiliate. His walks are still high (5.2 per 9), but he’s struck out nearly 10 batters per 9 innings. When mastering a “trick pitch” progress can’t be sneered at.

The Indians actually endorsed Wright going full-time with the knuckleball after Candiotti watched him throw. With all the organizational fillers throughout the game, wouldn’t it make sense for every team to be progressive with the pitch? “Being on the other side, in the management side, I’m not looking for a guy that can throw a knuckleball. I don’t know of any big league manager that’s going ‘boy, I wish I had a knuckleballer on my team’,” Hough, now senior adviser of player development for the Dodgers, told me during a recent interview. “We’ve only got so many innings per year for our prospects to pitch. It’s difficult to give some of those innings to somebody kind of on an experiment.”

Repoz Posted: April 25, 2012 at 04:24 PM | 33 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history

Reader Comments and Retorts

Go to end of page

Statements posted here are those of our readers and do not represent the BaseballThinkFactory. Names are provided by the poster and are not verified. We ask that posters follow our submission policy. Please report any inappropriate comments.

   1. TerpNats Posted: April 25, 2012 at 04:40 PM (#4116028)
Since deception is an integral part of pitching, I'm surprised a few more pitchers haven't tried to master the knuckler. True, it's difficult for both ends of the battery, but if you can become competent with it, you can give batters fits -- and probably put less strain on your arm.
   2. Ron J Posted: April 25, 2012 at 05:48 PM (#4116134)
#1 Something that came up in the James/Neyer book on pitching is that there is a widely held belief in the majors that you can't be a knuckler and (anything).

As they're at great pains to point out there have been plenty of pitchers who've used the knuckler as a complimentary pitch, but right now that approach is actively discouraged.
   3. bunyon Posted: April 25, 2012 at 05:50 PM (#4116137)
I have no idea how hard it is to master but my guess is it's very hard. You have to do three things: throw it accurately, throw it with some velocity and make it move.

It's a slower pitch than a fastball but you still have to get it up there in, what? the 50s? 60s? That's hard. I can make a baseball dance throwing a knuckler. Of course, it is going about 30mph and I need about a 15 foot wide space in which to throw. But move it does. If I throw it harder it moves less and becomes less accurate. If I throw it more accurately (not accurately enough, mind), it slows down and moves less.

Obviously, I'm not a MLB (or even MiLB) talent but doing all three of those things must be hard or others would do it. They certainly all play around with it.
   4. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: April 25, 2012 at 05:54 PM (#4116144)
Why couldn't a pitcher throw a knuckleball instead of a straight change?
Even if it doesn't knuckle, isn't it still an off-speed pitch with a fastball motion? Maybe it's TOO slow? I dunno.
   5. Randy Jones Posted: April 25, 2012 at 05:56 PM (#4116148)
The spin. Changeup looks like a fastball to the batter, until it's too late. A knuckleball that doesn't "knuckle" is batting practice.
   6. puck Posted: April 25, 2012 at 06:25 PM (#4116183)
It also seems like most knucklers are thrown with very different motion.
   7. Joe Bivens, Minor Genius Posted: April 25, 2012 at 06:36 PM (#4116191)
5...right, but I would add, for clarity, that knuckleballs have no spin at all.
   8. Crispix reaches boiling point with lackluster play Posted: April 25, 2012 at 06:44 PM (#4116197)
I think there would be a lot more knuckleballers if baseball didn't involve a catcher. First of all, most catchers hate catching them. Second of all, if a pitcher tries to mix in a knuckleball on 10% of his pitches, doesn't the catcher have to set up differently? Which means the batter won't be surprised by it.
   9. spike Posted: April 25, 2012 at 07:10 PM (#4116219)
@3, I think that is pretty close to the truth - Smoltz is the only recent guy I can think of who tried to use it as a complimentary pitch, and even he did it pretty rarely.

@8, I would be tempted to agree with the second point, but the most successful knuckleballers of late don't really try to disguise the pitch - that's pretty much all they throw and still manage to get outs even though the batter knows it's coming.
   10. Jose Is The Most Absurd Thing on the Site Posted: April 25, 2012 at 07:22 PM (#4116227)
Why throw a knuckleball when a change up will work just as well? One of the things Wakefield would talk about was how switching pitching coaches would sometimes have a tough time understanding what he did. with a basic change up you get the benefit of being able to work with a pitching coach a bit easier.
   11. TVerik, the gum-snappin' hairdresser Posted: April 25, 2012 at 07:31 PM (#4116229)
Why throw a knuckler when you can get paid to do this?
   12. Joe Bivens, Minor Genius Posted: April 25, 2012 at 07:33 PM (#4116232)
The difference between a knuckler and a change up is that if you know the change up is coming, you'll hit it, hard. Not so with a knuckler. You know it's coming, and if it knuckles, you're almost helpless.
   13. BDC Posted: April 25, 2012 at 07:41 PM (#4116241)
Has there every really been such a thing as a young knuckleballer, too? Dutch Leonard became a regular starter at the age of 29. All the notable knuckleballers since, that I can think of, became knuckleballers, or regulars, or major-leaguers, in their mid-20s. They didn't get scouted out of amateur ball at 17 or 18 as a crafty young knuckleballer. I guess the major thing that's changed is the reluctance of organizations to give a minor-league roster spot to someone learning the pitch. There's an absolutely endless stream of generic 6'5" guys who throw two kinds of moving fastball and one hard breaking pitch; as Hough in TFE says, no need to waste a spot on anyone who's past his peak. Unless you're the Cleveland Indians and nothing else has worked lately.
   14. DA Baracus Posted: April 25, 2012 at 07:49 PM (#4116249)
I think another reason is that there's so few knuckleballers is that they don't make ideal relievers. There's obviously Hoyt Wilhem and Charlie Hough's early career that show that they can be excellent relievers. Of course there's that you don't want to bring in a guy who's more liable to walk the batter or have a passed ball than other pitchers are into a game with runners on. Perhaps more importantly though, relievers who are failed starters failed because they can't get through a lineup 3 times in a game for whatever reason, whether it be they don't have enough good pitches to last, endurance, etc., but they do have the ability to get an inning or two of batters out. But if you can get through an inning or two with the knuckleball, you can get through eight, you don't have to worry about losing velocity.

If you can't make it as a starter as a knuckleballer, then you most likely won't make it as a reliever either, so the fate of a knuckleballer is either a starter or not in the majors. At the very least, that's the way teams view it, so the only incentive you have to become a knuckleballer is if you're down to your last chance because you can't throw hard anymore, as RA Dickey, Jim Bouton, Steve Sparks and Charlie Haeger were.
   15. bigglou115 Posted: April 25, 2012 at 07:52 PM (#4116254)
Since deception is an integral part of pitching, I'm surprised a few more pitchers haven't tried to master the knuckler. True, it's difficult for both ends of the battery, but if you can become competent with it, you can give batters fits -- and probably put less strain on your arm.


It's only one example, but Smoltz brought the knuckled into his rep to try and save his elbow before his TJ surgery and eventual move to the pen. He used it off and on all year, but it didn't appear to have any of the affects you describe, and by all verbal accounts it wasn't a bad knuckleball. It seems like for some reason it has to be thrown a lot of the time to be a truly effective pitch.
   16. Dock Ellis on Acid Posted: April 25, 2012 at 08:22 PM (#4116275)
Many many times on these boards I've heard, "Why doesn't every team try this?" I've often wondered myself, and I think Hough's comments answer that question very well.
   17. Karl from NY Posted: April 25, 2012 at 08:29 PM (#4116283)
Knuckleballers depend on their defense, right? Knucklers don't excel in TTOs, they rely on inducing weak grounders and popups. With the shift in the last couple decades away from defense to offense at most infield positions, maybe knucklers aren't as useful with worse defenses behind them.
   18. Ron J Posted: April 25, 2012 at 08:30 PM (#4116284)
#13 In the early days you had young knucklers. Kickapoo Summers, Eddie Cicotte, Nap Rucker, Eddie Rommel.

But it's become pretty much a course of despair since the 40s I guess. And the Senators rotation of all knucklers except Wynn had a lot to do with that I think. Didn't work. Senators tried it which made the idea suspect. Since then the only knucklers I can think of were guys whose "real" stuff was good enough to get them into organized baseball but not good enough to truly succeed.

It's generally true that you have to be on the verge of washing out before teams will let you work with a knuckler. Actually I can't think of an exception. And that means that knucklers are apt to be older before they get a shot.
   19. Dock Ellis on Acid Posted: April 25, 2012 at 08:47 PM (#4116300)
It's generally true that you have to be on the verge of washing out before teams will let you work with a knuckler. Actually I can't think of an exception. And that means that knucklers are apt to be older before they get a shot.

How much do minor league veterans make? Could this factor into why we have so few? I may not be so inclined spending X amount of dollars and a minor league rotation spot on an experimental washout as I'm trying my damnest to develop a quality farm system when there are more surer assets out there. I also imagine it must be a pain in the ass to give one a serious try. Extra coaching, extra attention, spending time going over the results and wondering if they should keep going forward with it, etc. I also wouldn't want my AA catcher worrying about handling a knuckleball when I'm trying to turn him into a major leaguer.

Hough's comments remind us that minor league roster spots are valuable too. Developing a knuckleballer just may not be the best use of a team's resources.
   20. AJMcCringleberry Posted: April 25, 2012 at 09:09 PM (#4116325)
Wright's delivery is too dry for the majors.
   21. Sweatpants Posted: April 25, 2012 at 09:20 PM (#4116337)
Since then the only knucklers I can think of were guys whose "real" stuff was good enough to get them into organized baseball but not good enough to truly succeed.
I'm pretty sure that Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm were knuckleballers even in high school.
   22. Crispix reaches boiling point with lackluster play Posted: April 25, 2012 at 09:56 PM (#4116370)
Has there every really been such a thing as a young knuckleballer, too? Dutch Leonard became a regular starter at the age of 29. All the notable knuckleballers since, that I can think of, became knuckleballers, or regulars, or major-leaguers, in their mid-20s.

Charlie Haeger!

And then of course there was Charlie Zink, a knuckleballer from a young age, whose major league career took place at the age of ... 28 years and 50 weeks.
   23. Ron J Posted: April 25, 2012 at 10:31 PM (#4116407)
#16 There's a fascinating back and forth between Craig Wright and Tom House on the subject. What Wright wanted to do was to take a few guys whose work ethic you liked but simply weren't going to make it and try to convert them to knucklers. Not that he expected a really high success rate, but these are guys you've given up on and any chance is something.

House was adamantly opposed. His specific objection boiled down to spots in your minor league organization, but that feels like utter BS to me. No organization is that starved for space -- particularly at the lower levels. Been a while since I've read the exchange but I always felt he opposed the idea at a gut level and then tried to work out why.

#21 Best I can tell you're right about Wilhelm. The tip to me being the 38(!) unearned runs in D ball at 23 (with very few walks). The other tip that he wasn't respected is that his 21 wins got him another year at the same level. After a 2 year run of 41-15 they advanced him to B ball. As everybody knows he got a late start and pitched forever.

Don't know for surewhat Neikro was throwing as a young man, but I'm pretty sure that the Braves organization simply felt differently about the knuckler than other organizations. Neikro advanced pretty quickly through the minors for a guy that didn't throw strikes and wasn't a starter (until he hit Denver). That looks to me like they thought they might have another Wilhelm and of course (thanks to Wilhelm -- though Wilhelm did pitch well as a starter) back then everybody "knew" knucklers were relievers.

His late debut in the majors was partially down to a year of military service when he was probably due to go to AAA. His late conversion to starting (in the majors -- His year at Denver was quite successful) was just a matter of the organization seeing past the conventional wisdom of the day.
   24. McCoy Posted: April 25, 2012 at 10:41 PM (#4116422)
People talk about roster spots but why do these guys need to be on a roster? Sure at some point they will need to face real competition in real games but they don't to do that while they are learning this new skill. I mean is there really tha great of a demand for 24 year old pitchers that can't get out of A ball that you have to protect your rights to him by keeping him on a minor league roster?
   25. Jason Michael(s) Bourn Identity Crisis Posted: April 26, 2012 at 04:51 AM (#4116617)
@10 I believe Woody Williams threw an occasional knuckler as well.
   26. Jason Michael(s) Bourn Identity Crisis Posted: April 26, 2012 at 05:03 AM (#4116621)
@10 I believe Woody Williams threw an occasional knuckler. Supposedly David Wells and Ryan Franklin have, as well.
   27. Bug Selig Posted: April 26, 2012 at 09:02 AM (#4116664)
People talk about roster spots but why do these guys need to be on a roster? Sure at some point they will need to face real competition in real games but they don't to do that while they are learning this new skill. I mean is there really tha great of a demand for 24 year old pitchers that can't get out of A ball that you have to protect your rights to him by keeping him on a minor league roster?


This is an interesting spin. Could teams sign guys to low-cost contracts to hang around at an extended spring training type facility and throw 200 knuckleballs a day until the organization feels they are either ready or never going to be? With even a 5% success rate, I think this would be well worth it. You might even gte away from the abomination of 8 man bullpens if you had a guy who didn't need traditional amounts of rest.
   28. Matt Clement of Alexandria Posted: April 26, 2012 at 09:24 AM (#4116675)
. With the shift in the last couple decades away from defense to offense at most infield positions, maybe knucklers aren't as useful with worse defenses behind them.
Has there been a shift? In my observation, teams are paying more attention to defense, not less. Is there evidence of a decline in fielding?
   29. Jose Is The Most Absurd Thing on the Site Posted: April 26, 2012 at 09:35 AM (#4116680)

This is an interesting spin. Could teams sign guys to low-cost contracts to hang around at an extended spring training type facility and throw 200 knuckleballs a day until the organization feels they are either ready or never going to be? With even a 5% success rate, I think this would be well worth it. You might even gte away from the abomination of 8 man bullpens if you had a guy who didn't need traditional amounts of rest.


I've got to think that finding pitchers willing to do this would be tricky. "Hey former high school/college star, you aren't good enough to be a member of our team but we want to pay you a crazy low salary to work on a pitch that frankly has about a 1 in 20 chance of getting you anywhere. While you are doing this you will never actually play in a baseball game but spend your day practicing this pitch."

That's an oversimplification of course but I think a lot of kids would say "thanks, I'll try and hook on with an independent team or start the rest of my life working for a living."
   30. Kiko Sakata Posted: April 26, 2012 at 10:27 AM (#4116723)
Hough's comments remind us that minor league roster spots are valuable too. Developing a knuckleballer just may not be the best use of a team's resources.


Asking a 20 or 21-year-old catcher who's just getting his feet wet at the professional level to try to catch a knuckleballer every 4th or 5th day might not be the best development plan either. A small issue, to be sure, but if you add up enough small issues, the overall effect can get big enough to matter.
   31. Bug Selig Posted: April 26, 2012 at 11:16 AM (#4116760)
"Hey former high school/college star, you aren't good enough to be a member of our team but we want to pay you a crazy low salary to work on a pitch that frankly has about a 1 in 20 chance of getting you anywhere.


Playing in the minors in general fits pretty much that description.

That's an oversimplification of course but I think a lot of kids would say "thanks, I'll try and hook on with an independent team or start the rest of my life working for a living."


Your points are valid, of course, and I'm sure you would lose some guys. I realize that I'm making an "intangibles" argument and might end up having the pack turn on me, but I think the guys with the attitude and work ethic to make it work would go for it, or at least some percentage would. You'd get the baseball junkies that will quit when somebody rips the jersey off their back, and I think that's the guys you want.

Hell, no reason to even limit it to washed-up pitchers. I played in college and all of us position players spent our warmups arguing about who had the best knuckler and who could be a knuckleball pitcher if the man would ever give us our shot.
   32. BDC Posted: April 26, 2012 at 12:00 PM (#4116800)
they don't make ideal relievers

At least not as relievers are currently defined. Wilbur Wood, in his bullpen days, would throw two innings as often as not, and three innings on occasion; that gives you some time to walk a batter or two, or generally find the range with the knuckleball. The premium nowadays is on somebody who will retire three guys in a row and immediately sit down so the next guy can do the same.
   33. Ron J Posted: April 26, 2012 at 12:19 PM (#4116823)
#33 In Ball Four Bouton notes that when he didn't have his knuckler in warmup he'd just never find it on the field. Don't know if that negates your point. But if you structure a team with a long guy and -- at the point of trying to use him -- you find he can't go then you have a problem.

Maybe it's worse if he's a starter, dunno. Haven't really thought it through. I do know a knuckler as a starter can give you some mighty creative options for covering off other short term problems.

You must be Registered and Logged In to post comments.

 

 

<< Back to main

BBTF Partner

Support BBTF

donate

Thanks to
James Kannengieser
for his generous support.

Bookmarks

You must be logged in to view your Bookmarks.

Hot Topics

NewsblogStanton Losing About $141 Million of Record Deal to Taxes - Bloomberg
(85 - 11:09am, Nov 26)
Last: JL

NewsblogOTP Politics November 2014: Mets Deny Bias in Ticket Official’s Firing
(4866 - 11:08am, Nov 26)
Last: Ray (RDP)

NewsblogPrimer Dugout (and link of the day) 11-26-2014
(4 - 11:08am, Nov 26)
Last: Rennie's Tenet

NewsblogYankees won't get into bidding war for Chase Headley: source - NY Daily News
(7 - 11:07am, Nov 26)
Last: You Know Nothing JT Snow (YR)

NewsblogWendy Thurm on Twitter: "What the hell kinda panda is that?"
(8 - 11:05am, Nov 26)
Last: bobm

NewsblogAdam Rubin: My Hall of Fame ballot
(56 - 10:59am, Nov 26)
Last: SoSHially Unacceptable

NewsblogFemale Sportswriter Asks: 'Why Are All My Twitter Followers Men?' | ThinkProgress
(164 - 10:58am, Nov 26)
Last: bunyon

NewsblogDarvish cleared to throw « Postcards From Elysian Fields
(1 - 10:56am, Nov 26)
Last: Batman

NewsblogBoston Red Sox prove (once again) that competitive balance in baseball will never exist | cleveland.com
(10 - 10:50am, Nov 26)
Last: Dan Lee is some pumkins

NewsblogBig Unit, Pedro, Smoltz headline Hall of Fame ballot
(84 - 10:37am, Nov 26)
Last: Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip

NewsblogOT: NFL/NHL thread
(8673 - 10:32am, Nov 26)
Last: Win Big Stein's Money

NewsblogRolling Stone: The 15 Worst Owners in Sports
(44 - 10:31am, Nov 26)
Last: TDF, situational idiot

Newsblog2015 Potential Hall of Fame Ballot | Baseball-Reference.com
(1 - 10:22am, Nov 26)
Last: ajnrules

Newsblogred sox - So … is there any money left for pitching? Red Sox roster building reconsidered - WEEI | Alex Speier
(121 - 10:05am, Nov 26)
Last: Darren

NewsblogOz: Mike Trout Q&A: His workouts, goals & what he’s thankful for
(14 - 10:04am, Nov 26)
Last: Jose Is The Most Absurd Thing on the Site

Page rendered in 0.2425 seconds
52 querie(s) executed