The knuckleball might not be dead, but it’s certainly on life support. There are only two active players who’ve primarily used a knuckleball at the Major League level: Steven Wright, who is currently a free agent and hasn’t pitched in the Majors since 2019 and Mickey Jannis, who is also a free agent after making his Major League debut in 2021 and accruing an ERA of 18.90 in 3.1 innings pitched.
The absence of the knuckleball from Major League Baseball is evident, and that begs the question “Why has it gone?” We’re in an era of baseball where players, especially pitchers, are getting hurt at higher rates than ever before, so why has the knuckleball, a pitch designed specifically to alleviate stress on a pitchers’ arm, disappeared almost entirely?
R.A. Dickey, reinvigorated his career by switching to the knuckleball in 2005 after struggling with “attrition” on his arm. He could no longer throw the ball in the mid-90s like he did when he was younger. Desperate to stay in the game he turned to the knuckleball. Seven years after making the switch, he won the 2012 NL Cy Young as a member of the Mets.
The pitch is known for the way it moves. It’s erratic left-to-right motion seems unnatural to hitters, and it’s a phenomenon that even science struggles to explain. It’s unlike any other pitch in baseball, and that’s what makes it so difficult to hit. So, why don’t we see more young pitchers who are dealing with wear and tear and/or injury issues move to this pitch in an effort to keep their Major League dreams alive?
“I would say the No. 1 reason is ego,” Dickey said. “You never want to surrender the fact that you’re no longer who you once were. You have value and worth because of who you were. Maybe you were drafted in the first round (where Dickey was drafted) or wherever because of the pitcher you were, and you’re clinging to that with everything you have, thinking that you’re good enough. It’s a hard pill to swallow that that’s no longer the reality. There has to be some level of self-awareness and dare I say brokenness. You have to understand your brokenness and be willing to change if you’re ever going to become a really good knuckleball pitcher.”
Dickey says the other reason we don’t see any nowadays is a lack of willingness by organizations to help a young pitcher develop the pitch. Dickey was lucky enough to be part of an organization in the Texas Rangers that believed he could develop into an incredible knuckleball pitcher and was willing to give him time to develop and fail over and over. When Dickey first started throwing his knuckleball, he was only throwing “about 60-40 knuckleballs to everything else.” It took almost five years for Dickey to become comfortable enough with the mechanics, and to consistently throw the pitch for a strike. Nowadays, what organization would be willing to wait five years for a pitcher to develop an entirely new style of pitching, especially when that style of pitching is so rare.
“No front office has the patience for someone who’s just going to go out there and walk the house and hit people,” says Dickey. “When a knuckleball outing goes south, it can look like you’re in the Little Leagues. It is ugly. So, as a player, you have to constantly be proving that you can be a trustworthy piece on the chessboard. You’re not only battling yourself and the mechanics and mental hurdles that come with trying to throw an unpredictable pitch in the strike zone consistently. You’re also having to push back against the stigmas and perceptions that front offices have around this pitch. Perception is reality, and if these GMs think that this is some kind of sideshow circus gimmick, you’re not going to get a lot of leash. That’s why it’s very difficult nowadays for someone to break in as a knuckleball guy.”
Even more difficult would be to develop a knuckleball having never known how to throw one before. Dickey was pretty familiar with the knuckleball before he ever started throwing them against professional hitters, and it still took him half a decade to become comfortable with it in professional games. He was first taught the knuckleball by his grandfather at “about 12 or 13.” For context, that’s either nine or 10 years before Dickey started playing professional baseball. “I never really needed it, but he taught me the grip and we’d always talk about how he had a great one. I just filed that away until about 2005, when I started running out of gas as a conventional pitcher.”
It wasn’t even his choice to become a knuckleball pitcher. Dickey probably would’ve never turned to the pitch if the idea hadn’t been brought up by baseball lifer Buck Showalter and 1988 NL Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser, his manager and pitching coach at the time. “They saw me getting hit around a lot and they said ‘We know you have a good knuckleball,’ because they’d seen me throw it around, and they thought I could be a Tim Wakefield with it. I didn’t really have much of a choice. It was ‘Do what we think you can do’ or ‘it’s time to move along.’ So, I embraced it.” Most pitchers nowadays don’t have that pitch sitting in their back pocket, so turning a conventional fastball, changeup, slider, splitter/sinker pitcher into a knuckleballer might as well be asking them to change sports entirely.
That’s not to say that pitchers have never thought to develop the pitch as a last-ditch effort to rejuvenate their careers. According to Dickey, there have been “probably 10 guys who I’ve worked with or have called me. They’re out there. It’s just a matter of getting to that level where you’re dependable and trustworthy with it and can convince an organization that you’re worth the risk.” Dickey went on to compare knuckleball pitchers to the Jedi from Star Wars, saying “It’s kinda like The Last Jedi, you’re hoping that there’s one more out there. There always is, but it’s kind of mythical — this pitch and the people who throw it.” It’s funny he compares a pitch that moves like someone is controlling it by hand to the Jedi. The Force is very powerful with the knuckleball. The pitch is indeed mythical, and its impact on the game is diminishing more and more, day by day. Some analysts believe there’s no longer a place for the knuckleball in baseball. Much like the Jedi, it’s a remnant of a time gone by that only exists in fantastical tales, never to be seen in the flesh. A ghost. Dickey wholeheartedly disagrees.
“I think there’s a lot of room [for a knuckleballer], and I think more so now than ever. For one, the average Major League fastball has gone up at least five miles an hour since I was playing. If you throw a knuckleballer in the middle of a five-man rotation, that can really mess with a lot of teams, more so than it ever could before because guys weren’t throwing as hard. What is hitting? It’s timing. What is pitching? It’s upsetting that timing. So, if you’re a guy who can harness that idea and change speeds well with that pitch, it’ll be more of a weapon now [more] than it ever was before.”
Dickey went on to explain that the lack of knuckleballers in baseball today is also a pathway for one to develop. Since hitters are not used to seeing a knuckleball, they don’t know how to prepare for one.
“You can ask the hitters. It is so different from anything you would ever see.” But just like with anything else, if the pitch was used often enough, hitters would adjust. Luckily for knuckleballers, it hasn’t even come close to that point. Dickey stressed that one of the biggest reasons he saw success was because of the lack of knuckleballers in Major League Baseball while he played.
“I was the only knuckleballer in the league for a long time before I retired. Even when [Boston’s Tim Wakefield] was in the league, he was in the American League, and I was in the National League, so nobody in the National League was seeing a knuckleball. It’s a different thing for hitters to get ready for.”
Dickey also mentioned the impact that injuries have had on the game and how the knuckleball should be more focused on as a tool to help pitchers get a second chance after suffering a devastating injury. “Everybody is breaking down now because of the arm speeds being generated by these young men. Your arm wasn’t meant to move that quickly.”
Dickey then broke professional ballplayers into two categories: “People that have had surgeries and people that are going to have surgeries. As a knuckleballer, you kind of have absolution from that. There’s a comfort level there with throwing the knuckleball. You don’t really tax yourself, which is why I could start on three-days’ rest real easy. I could start a game and close the next day.”
The numbers seem to agree with Dickey, too. He says he felt ready and comfortable with his knuckleball around 2010. In the eight years Dickey spent in the Major Leagues afterward, he was fifth in innings pitched. Dickey also had at least one complete game every season from 2010 to 2015, which, for someone in his late thirties, was impressive to say the least. Dickey even led the league in innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, and games started when he won the Cy Young in 2012 at the ripe old age of 37.
If everything Dickey says is true, it seems like it would take nothing short of a miracle for a knuckleballer to develop in today’s MLB. In Dickey’s eyes though, there is an ideal scenario to see a knuckleballer work his way up into the majors.
“I’ve told this to a couple people in front offices. I always tell them, ‘Identify the guy in your organization that’s an incredible teammate that you want as part of what your organization is doing and the culture that you’re building. You’re going to end up releasing him because he doesn’t have the skillset that projects to being a usable Major League pitcher and try to develop him as a knuckleballer. Pick one guy. Stick him somewhere on a backfield and extend his Spring Training and let him grind on it for a couple years, and see if he can do it.’ If you’re going to release him anyway, you might as well try.”
The knuckleball is one of the most fun pitches in baseball history for the sole reason that it just doesn’t make sense. The landscape of Major League Baseball today is pretty much just “harder is better.” Velocity is king. Organizations and coaching staffs can teach control, but they can only marginally increase speed. With so much emphasis on whiff-ability from pitchers, a pitch that takes years to develop and isn’t the best at producing strikeouts is pretty much worthless. And while the game may be progressing away from the knuckleball, several people, myself and Dickey included, remain hopeful that the pitch can witness a comeback. There’s something special about it. As Dickey describes it:
“The thing that’s so great about this pitch is that you have these groups of people in every stadium that you go to that watch you play catch on the side or throw a bullpen. You’re throwing 70 miles an hour and getting big league hitters out, and they think for just a minute that maybe they can do it, too. There’s a real connection. Like you come and watch Aroldis Chapman throw, and you think ‘That’s great, but I will never be able to do that.’ The fans see a knuckleballer throwing on the side and they think ‘I can do that.’ It’s a really cool thing, and I hope it’s able to stick around for a while.”
Me too, man. Me too.