A few weeks ago we watched the Mets blank the first place Baltimore Orioles with their unlikely new stopper (star pitcher) who won his 11th victory with only one loss and threw his second brilliant 1 hit game in a row. For those non-baseball fans out there that is an unheard of level of achievement.
R.A. Dickey’s career as a major league pitcher is an anomaly. He is a crusty (by professional sports standards) 37 years old and is just entering his prime. After an unremarkable and largely unsuccessful career as a conventional pitcher, shuttling around with various teams, up and down trips to the minor leagues, he taught himself to throw that enigma of a pitch known as the knuckleball.
It is such a strange pitch that there have only been a handful of pitchers in the history of baseball that have mastered it sufficiently to get it to travel over home plate within the strike zone more often than not (Dickey has been throwing an amazing 68% of his pitches for strikes). Even the most famous knuckleball throwers had such erratic success that their won and loss records are nothing to write home about. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, one of the most successful knuckleballers of all time won over 300 games in his career, which is a mark of distinction in Major League Baseball…but he also holds the record for most losses by a National League pitcher in the so-called modern era (ever since they banned chickens and other livestock from the field).
So what is this mystery pitch anyway? Unlike any other pitch it requires a bizarre grip on the ball such that the pitcher’s knuckles are behind the ball in an extremely awkward position and the fingers fling open on its release to sort of push the ball toward home plate. The result of this odd motion is the lack of spin on the baseball which causes it to behave in strange and erratic ways. The Science of Baseball website describes it this way:
“The ideal knuckleball rotates about a quarter of a revolution on its way to the plate. Without the stabilizing gyroscopic effect of spinning, the ball becomes aerodynamically unstable,and the raised seams create an uneven flow of air over the surface of the ball, pushing it one way or another.”
In the end it arrives at the plate as if it were in slow motion, which drives major league hitters absolutely batty (sorry, couldn’t resist). They are like racehorses at the gate just waiting for some “heat” – a powerful, exploding fastball to tee off on. Good major league hitters have the discipline to anticipate off speed pitches like curve balls or change ups and adjust the timing of their swing slightly so they can tee off on those pitches too…that’s what separates the good from the mediocre hitters (don’t get me wrong, it’s hard as hell to get around on a decent major league fastball so even the mediocre major leaguers are incredibly talented)…but I digress.
It is almost impossible for even great hitters to dial back their timing another notch or two to wait for the knuckleball to finally reach the plate – they typically travel between 50 and 60 mph (Dickey can throw his into the low 80s) compared with 90+ mph for a decent fastball. But even if they get their timing in sync, when a knuckleball is thrown correctly its trajectory is erratic and it tends to jump around after traveling 59 ft., i.e., just before it crosses home plate.
Oh, and if that weren’t enough, every other type of pitch thrown spins around and the batter can pick up that motion as the red seams on the ball go round and round. But the knuckleball arrives at the plate as if its motion was fixed in time. It’s amazing to watch this pitch with the help of the new super slow motion cameras – you can literally see the lack of rotation. This last phenomenon acts to lull the batter into a trance and more often than not results in an embarrassingly poorly timed swing or a weak ground ball. It’s not just hard to hit – catchers use a specially designed pancake shaped mitt to help receive the knuckleball but oftentimes it eludes them or awkwardly squirts out of the mitt and rolls to the backstop.
So if this pitch is so damn hard to hit, why doesn’t every pitcher use it? Why has the number of pitchers throwing knuckleballs declined steadily since the 1940s to the point that Dickey is the only pitcher in baseball now using it? The answers are simple: 1) it’s really hard to master and 2) it ranks very low on the macho scale – knuckleball pitchers are somehow not taken seriously. It’s just not as sexy to shut your opponents down with essentially one pitch that many baseball aficionados consider to be a “junk” pitch. Despite his stellar accomplishments, Dickey was overlooked to start the All-Star game and didn’t make an appearance until the sixth inning when the game was for all intents and purposes already won by the National League. No knuckleball pitcher has ever been selected for the annual Cy Young award (best pitcher). R.A. Dickey (and knuckleball pitchers in general) just can’t get no respect.
R.A. Knuckleball Stats Mid Season 2012
Knuckleball pitched: 83%; Avg Velocity 77 mph; Opponents Batting Avg. .182; Strike Pct. 68%
R.A. Season Stats (as of Aug. 10, 2012)
15 Wins (tied for most in MLB), 3 Losses (tied for 2nd fewest in MLB); 168 strike outs (tied for 2nd most in MLB); 162 innings pitched (4th in MLB); Earned Run Average: 2.72 (9th in MLB)
Click on the photo below for a short MLB video on the knuckelball