Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> As It Flutters By About the author, Boyd Nation

As It Flutters By

Publication Date: October 14, 2003

Knuckling Under

While watching Tim Wakefield carve up the Yankees the other night, some thoughts coagulated that I've been working on for a while, and I want to share them this week. There are almost no numbers here, so you're getting Theorist Boyd rather than Analyst Boyd this time, but I think this is a topic worth exploring a bit. There's an ecological niche that's empty out there, and I think we need to encourage the zookeepers to try and fill it. The thing is, though, that I don't think it's a species that's gone extinct, since I can't find any evidence that the breed's ever existed.

You know how many teams there are in Division I? (OK, sorry for the digression. That was supposed to be an easy one, but you know how that is.) I think it's 288 this year; that's at least right within one or two. You know how many of those coaches wish they had more pitching? Every single one of them. You know how many knuckleballers I'm aware of working in Division I this year? 0.

Now, I don't claim to have encyclopedic knowledge of the game, either historically or at present, but I can't name a single pitcher on a college team currently throwing the knuckleball as his primary pitch, and I can't think of anyone who ever has in college. And when you think of all the coaches over the years who have suffered through losing seasons and been fired for their troubles, well, you'd think somebody would take the chance.

Because when you get right down to it, that's what putting a knuckler into the rotation would be -- a chance. If you throw another 6'2" righthander out there who goes fastball/slider/changeup and doesn't throw any of them particularly well, and he gets plastered, well, you just didn't have the horses and we'll get 'em next year, but next year, he's selling insurance and you're looking over your shoulder because of that 23-32 record you put up with him in the rotation. If you put a knuckler out there, though, and it doesn't work, then not only do you have the 23-32 record, but you're an oddball, and maybe even a thinker, and we all know how popular those are in the athletic office suites. The flip side, though, is that we all know that the one factor that trumps all others in the office is winning outside it, and if that knuckleballer goes 10-2, then the administration will put away their pink slips in a hurry.

I'm aware that I'm proposing something fairly radical here, because knuckleballers don't just happen. Much of what I know about the pitch and its history I know from reading Jim Bouton's Ball Four four or five times (if you've never read this and you're old and jaded enough to handle language and sexuality similar to, say, network TV in late prime time, get over to Amazon, your local bookstore, or the nearest library and get started. Now.) and Rob Neyer's musings on the subject over at ESPN. Historically, the knuckler has been an old man's pitch, or at least a pitch to be turned to by those who are washing out through traditional means. Players can wash out at any age, though, and I think the experiment could be self-contained enough to be worth pursuing.

The Build-a-Knuckler Starter Kit

Assuming that someone decided to go for this, let's look at what it would take to pull it off successfully. As I said, it's going to take some planning to do this.

First of all, you're going to have to need pitching help enough to be willing to try it. I'm guessing that none of the guys in the top 20, say, in the cumulative ISR's are going to be interested. If you're Smoke Laval and you can shred an arm or two a year and replace them with sufficient talent, even if you think you need more pitching you're not going to put the time in to develop a specialty pitcher. On the other hand, if you're in a one-bid conference and an extra good weekend starter could be the difference in finishing three games behind and winning the conference, you're the guy; start looking for the rest of the ingredients. If you're really bad, you're probably also the right guy, since it's time to try something different.

Secondly, you're going to need a pitcher (my nine-year-old would inject a short "duh" here if she bothered to read my stuff). As I said, very few folks set out to be knuckleballers in the first place; it's usually a comeback attempt. Your first choice, then, would be someone who's lost some velocity after an injury. If you've got a guy who gets injured and doesn't come all the way back after surgery, but who still knows how to pitch as far as the mental parts of the task go -- pacing and situational placement and the like -- that's probably your guy. If you don't have that, but you have a guy who's bright and eager but just doesn't have the physical stuff, that might work as well.

Third, you're going to need a catcher. The knuckleball can be really hard to catch, since on a good one, no one in the stadium including the pitcher really knows exactly where it's going. Most knuckleballers in the big leagues have had a designated second-string catcher who's responsible for catching them. That's not a bad plan if you want to give your first string guy that much time off; otherwise, you're going to have to get your starter used to the pitch. I'm told that's more mental than physical, but it does take time.

Which leads us to the fourth requirement: It's going to take some time to develop. I wouldn't try to start this experiment in March. I probably wouldn't try to start it in January. At the end of the season, designate your knuckleball pitcher and your catcher for the next year and put them to work off by themselves somewhere. One nice thing about the knuckler is that you can get a pretty good feel for how it's going just by watching, so he won't need as much in the way of live action as someone trying out, say, a new slider might. Get him some work with live hitters during fall practice. You should know fairly well by then if the experiment should go forward.

Requirement #5: A rotation slot. One thing that I've heard stressed over and over by both Bouton and Wakefield and by various commentators is that knuckleball pitchers require steady work to stay sharp. It's a fairly low-stress pitch on the arm, so for once I'm less concerned with limiting workload than I am with keeping the guy in practice. Given the learning process for hitters, I might think about doing something like having him throw six innings on Saturday and another three in long relief on Wednesday or something like that.

Finally, you're going to need patience. As Bouton discusses so well in Ball Four, the knuckler suffers from Full Moon Syndrome -- there's no real tendency for more things to go wrong, but because it's different, people notice more when things do go wrong. If your knuckler gets lit up once, you're going to want to give up on it, but remember, the mediocre fastball/changeup/slider guy we discussed earlier (he's blond and played quarterback in high school, isn't he; c'mon, you know it) was going to get lit up some, too. That doesn't mean you stick with a guy with an 8.50 ERA halfway through the season or anything, but it does mean that you've got to give the experiment a chance to run itself, knowing that your alternatives aren't perfect, either.

How Big Is the Niche?

This is definitely a case where it won't work if everyone does it. One of the factors with the knuckleball seems to be that hitters can adjust to it if they see it too much, so ideally you'd want your guy to be the only knuckleballer your opponents see all year. My purely conjectural guess would be that Division I is big enough (in terms of how much the teams play each other) to support around a dozen knuckleballers in a given season if they're spread around the country and between conferences reasonably well. Since that leaves us around a dozen short at the moment, I think I'd wait until oversaturation shows signs of showing up before I'd worry about it.

Since I don't claim that encyclopedic knowledge I referenced earlier, I'd love to be informed. If you know of a knuckleballer in college past or present, I'd love to hear about them.


By the way, I want to say thanks to Jeff Evans, the baseball SID at Arizona State, for his hospitality during my recent visit to Phoenix. You made me feel like a celebrity for a couple of hours, Jeff, and I'm grateful.

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Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> As It Flutters By About the author, Boyd Nation