Speed kills in the modern MLB landscape: Fastballs are faster, hard-hit rates are harder, and if you run this sentence back, you can almost set it to a Daft Punk song. Since 2010, fastball velocities are up 1.9 mph across the board (from 91.2 mph to 93.1 in 2019), and 37 pitchers crested the triple-digit mark last season. (Jordan Hicks, incredibly, on 45.4% of his pitches, ratcheting up his max velo to a blistering 104.8 mph; Jacob deGrom and Liam Hendriks, among six other arms, just once.) But while it’s fun watching batters swing out of their shoes trying to keep up with hundred-mile-an-hour heaters, even more entertaining is the quixotic joy of hitters flailing at pitches that flit and tumble like drunk butterflies asking for directions to home plate. A pitch that flutters aimlessly before bending the mind with a gleeful disregard of the laws of physics and blatant defiance of gravity. A pitch only three souls were brave enough to uncork on the mound in 2019 (leaned on just 200 times among that trio of pitchers), one of whom was then-Blue Jays catcher Luke Maile, moonlighting on the mound in a pair of May blowout losses.
The pitch I’m waxing poetic about is, of course, the knuckleball.
First, though: A brief, but triumphant, interlude for Maile. Twice tasked with saving a spent bullpen, the backstop proved his mettle on the flip side of his usual battery position, facing eight batters. Of the three knuckleball hurlers last season (Steven Wright and Ryan Feierabend the others), only Maile posted a positive pVAL on the pitch (0.1) in just two innings. Just admire how he fools Wil Myers with velo you could comfortably pass on the freeway.
And how he freezes Austin Hedges on a knuckler that loops lazily over the inside corner of the zone.
Watching a knuckleball feels like catching a glimpse of a relic from a bygone era, like if Rocco Baldelli penciled himself in to patrol center field in a player-manager capacity for the Twins, or if Joey Votto adopted an old-timey nickname like Carpet Legs. It’s a pitch unstuck in time, a fading art form with a rich legacy of elder statesmen (Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey) but a diminishing coterie of modern-day counterparts. The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh dove deep into knuckleball lore in a must-read September article, and noted just how stark the pitch’s drop-off has been in recent memory.
Apart from Maile’s valiant lopsided-game heroics, the last bastions of the knuckleball don’t inspire much confidence as ambassadors of the pitch. (Although calling Wright, who’s run afoul of the MLB’s domestic violence policy and served an 80-game suspension for PED use last season, an ambassador of any kind is a waste of narrative energy.) Wright’s ping-pong pVAL (starting in 2015: -4.5, 8.1, -16, 6.7, -4.4) spotlights the unpredictability of the mercurial feel pitch, his successes (namely, a 2016 campaign where he pitched to a 3.33 ERA in 156.2 innings, went to the All-Star Game, and posted a 2.9 fWAR) inextricably tied to his knuckleball’s.
Feierabend, a more recent convert to the way of the knuckler, was torched for seven earned runs in 5.2 major league innings in 2019, good for an 11.12 ERA. (Fun aside: His first MLB start since 2008, a four-inning effort in a rain-shortened 4-1 loss to the White Sox, was the only complete game—here stretched to the well-technically limits of its definition—logged by a Toronto starter last year.) In the lefty’s only big league season tossing the knuckleball, the pitch earned a -2.2 pVAL mark.
Still, Feierabend also warrants a brief but triumphant interlude for sheer resilience alone. The lefty debuted as a Mariner in 2006 as a 20-year-old, and prior to his appearance with the Blue Jays last season, was last seen toeing the rubber on a major league mound with the Rangers during the 2014 season. According to a Jay Jaffe article on FanGraphs, Feierabend has kept the knuckleball in his back pocket since he was 13, but only retooled his arsenal to include the pitch while playing in the KBO. In 2015, he didn’t throw a single knuckler; in 2017, the pitch accounted for 20.9% of his repertoire. It’s not the entire story for his comeback to the MLB, but the knuckleball plays a key role.
— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) March 24, 2018
The inscrutably arcane knuckleball is famously fickle: A season removed from earning a 27.1 pVAL and a 2012 National League Cy Young award, Dickey’s knuckler returned a negative pVAL (-0.8 in 2013, -0.2 in 2014) for the following two campaigns. Feierabend (70.2% usage) and Wright (87%) show devotion to their highly-specialized craft, only for the knuckleball to return subpar results in 2019. It’s an erratic pitch to command, a waking nightmare for catchers, and flies in the face of a growing emphasis on spin rate. If the grip’s not right or it doesn’t find its wobbling movement, it’s one of the most punishable pitches in baseball.
But when it’s working, it’s wizardry.
No stranger to strikeouts during his rookie campaign, Michael Chavis looks positively flummoxed against this Feierabend offering.
And while Boston’s resident knuckleballer brought the Wright stuff for this at-bat, Freddy Galvis certainly didn’t.
Admittedly, the knuckler felt more like a novelty than ever in 2019. Maybe it’s because the knuckler’s current pair of champions is long in the tooth (Wright, 35; Feierabend, 34) like their forerunners, minus the track record of successful longevity enjoyed by Dickey and Wakefield. But they keep the torch aflame. And if 2019 marked the long, dark night of the knuckleball at its most ineffectual, well, R.A. Dickey has a trophy he’d like to show you for when the pitch is at its best and most unhittable.
And Phil Niekro can preach the prowess of the pitch from the rarefied air of the 300-win club. Gaze upon this pitch, ye mighty, and despair.
Baseball is a data-driven game, predicated on mechanics and repetition, and the knuckleball is no exception. But, like the best parts of the sport, the pitch feels just a little larger than life. Maybe it’s the way a fluttery little whisper on the radar gun can twist the league’s best batters into pretzels. Maybe it’s the near-mythology surrounding a small cabal of pitchers who’ve dedicated their craft to mastering the knuckler as their primary weapon. Maybe it’s the fearless flirtations with disaster that accompany the high-wire illusion of making a not-especially-quick-moving ball look hittable without being, well, actually all that hittable at all. When a knuckleballer has that often-elusive feel, there’s no pitch in baseball that’s more fun to watch.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)