Knuckleball or Knucklehead?

I was really looking forward to tonight’s American League Championship Series game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox. Not because I am a big fan of either team but because I am fascinated with the knuckleball. Tonight was game 4 of the ALCS and it featured a match-up between Andy Sonnanstine from Tampa Bay against Tim Wakefield pitching for Boston. Sonnanstine is a second-year pitcher with a good fastball and looks to become a strikeout artist. He was on the mound when the Rays clinched their first play-off berth and has been compared to Greg Maddux in how he approaches the game. He has the potential to be a very good pitcher for a long time for the Rays. Despite his upside, he was not the reason I was interested in this game. No I wanted to watch the 39-year old pitcher for the Red Sox who had not pitched since September 28. I was tuning in to see Tim Wakefield.

Wakefield has an interesting story. It began in 1988 when he was drafted by the Pittsburg Pirates in the eighth round. Wakefield began his minor league career as a first baseman for Watertown of the New York-Penn league. He was an adequate defender but his hitting did not appear to be progressing to become a major league prospect. In fact, a scout spoke with Tim and admitted that he would never go beyond Double-A with his skills as a position player. Wakefield loved baseball and wanted to stay in the game. He decided that maybe he could become a pitcher and be able to continue to play baseball for a living. Tim began experimenting with pitching and in particular the knuckleball. After months of hard work Wakefield made his professional pitching debut for the Salem Buccaneers at Single-A. He had success with the knuckleball and quickly moved through the Pirates minor league system. During the 1992 season Wakefield made his major league debut and pitched well enough to win the National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year award helping to lead the Pirates to the play-offs.

Tim Wakefield made a name for himself as a pitcher. He played for Pittsburgh from 1992 through 1994 then signed a free agent contract with the Boston Red Sox prior to the 1995 season after the Pirates released him. He has a record of 164-145 in his career with the Red Sox. Those are fairly mediocre stats for someone who has been with the team for 13 years. Those stats don’t necessarily show the value that Wakefield brings. Instead they are indicative of the fact that he throws one of the strangest pitches in baseball.

The knuckleball is one of those pitches that defy all description and explanation. The basic concept is for the pitcher to try and control the number and amount of rotations of the ball being thrown. By slowing down or stopping the ball from rotating it becomes erratic and unpredictable. Some batters will describe the motion of the ball as “fluttering”, “dancing”, or “wobbling”. The most interesting aspect of the pitch is that once it leaves the pitcher’s hand there is really no telling where exactly it is going to go or what it is going to do. It’s flight path is dictated by wind, humidity, temperature, pressure, you name it. Probably the only thing worse than trying to hit a knuckleball; is trying to catch it. Catchers will move to a larger mitt when catching a knuckleballer. They are just hoping to get in front of the thing and knock it down. If you watch a game closely you can almost see the fear in a catcher’s eyes when a knuckleball is thrown at them.

A knuckleball is not thrown hard instead it hovers around the mid-60’s at its fastest. The arm motion used is very similar to a fastball and provides very little stress on the pitching arm. This is part of the reason why knuckleball pitchers tend to have long careers. They can throw hundreds of pitches without much wear and tear. The knuckleball is more of a mental pitch than a physical one. You have to have a lot of confidence and intestinal fortitude to confidently throw that thing especially in a pressure packed situation. When a knuckleball is working it makes hitters look like idiots. When it’s not working, well it ends up looking like Tim Wakefield did tonight.

Wakefield found out very quickly that the temperature, pressure, wind, and other factors were causing the knuckleball to just hang in the air as though someone placed it on a hitting tee. Tee is probably the proper term because the Rays hitters teed up on Wakefield for 5 runs in just 41 pitches over 2 2/3 innings. It was a short night for the knuckleballer when he left with his team in an 0-5 deficit.

The knuckleball is falling out of favor among pitchers partly because of the inconsistent nature of the pitch and partly because it is nearly impossible to master it. As a result we are seeing a lot fewer knuckleball pitchers in the game. It is becoming a novelty pitch that unless someone steps in may disappear from the game. That will be a travesty as it is such a fascinating pitch to watch.

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