Whither the Knuckleball, A Continuation
I saw this article in the New York Times today, and it got me thinking again about knuckleballs and the men who throw them. About eighteen months ago, I wrote a piece on this subject. Since then, of course, R. A. Dickey became the first pitcher who relies primarily on a knuckleball ever to win the Cy Young Award.
According to the NY Times article, the Baltimore Orioles (specifically manager Buck Showalter, who apparently suggested that Dickey try throwing a knuckler when his career as a regular pitcher was in jeopardy, and general manager Dan Duquette, who as G.M. of the Red Sox in 1995 took a chance on Tim Wakefield) and also the Red Sox are specifically trying to develop more knuckleball pitchers in their minor league systems.
It is certainly worth a try, particularly in the minor leagues where players don’t cost a whole lot to develop. I doubt it will produce a whole lot of successful major league knuckleball pitchers, given how difficult a pitch it is to master, since a major league pitcher needs to get sharp, erratic movement on the pitch nearly every time he throws it.
The Orioles and Red Sox only really need to get one good knuckleballer each to make the experiment worthwhile. If every pitcher in baseball could throw a good knuckleball, major league batters would learn how to hit the pitch or at least get a lot better at laying off the many that dip low out of the strike zone.
The reasons the knuckler is so successful for the few who can master it is that so few pitchers throw the pitch in professional baseball. I doubt that many major league hitters ever saw a good knuckleball in high school or college even once, let alone how few of them their are in professional baseball. Pitchers generally don’t try to develop a knuckleball until their careers as professional pitchers throwing the standard pitches hits a wall.
The Crimson Hose’s Steven Wright looks like the best bet as an up-and-coming young knuckleballer right now. He’s having a solid season at AAA Pawtucket at age 28, which isn’t old at all for this kind of pitcher.
We can also be fairly certain Wright’s knuckler really dances, since it resulted in four passed balls by young catcher Ryan Lavarnway and a wild pitch in only one inning of work in Wright’s first and so far only major league start on August 6, 2013.
Obviously, Wright still needs to improve his command over his knuckleball (I initially wrote “perfect his command” but no one fully commands a knuckleball — that’s the whole point), and the Red Sox need to find a catcher who can keep the pitch in front of him when they are ready to recall Wright. Those of you who have been following baseball for a while should remember that finding a catcher who can successfully defend the pitch was at times a significant issue for the BoSox when they had Tim Wakefield and for the Rangers when they had Charlie Hough.
Not every major league catcher can do it, but it can create a big opportunity for the back-up catchers who can.