The Zen of the Knuckleball

A major league fastball arrives at the plate at a velocity of around 90 to 95 MPH.  To throw a ball that hard requires that a pitcher turn his entire body into a sling, generating power, not just from his arm and shoulder, but also his thighs, knees, back.  Throwing a fastball is a violent and unnatural act, one which puts tremendous pressure on the shoulder, the elbow, the arm. A list of pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, in which the ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a tendon from another part of the body, would fill an All-star roster.

The point isn’t just to throw the ball hard.  Imagine trying to hit a baseball with a stick, thrown at top speed from a distance of 60 feet 6 inches.  Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?  But in fact, professional hitters have extraordinary reflexes and fast-twitch fibers and hand-eye coordination, and if you just throw the ball hard, you’ll get clobbered.  The point is to spin the ball, impart movement on it, change speeds, try to disrupt the hitter’s timing.  Put enough spin on the ball, and it slows down, and drops precipitously at the last second–a change-up.  Or you can spin it so it changes direction–a curve.  Or move laterally–a slider.  And there are dozens of deadly variations on each of those pitches.  Splitters and cut fastballs and circle changes and screwballs and slurves.  All attempts to fool a pitcher, to disrupt him.  To throw the ball past him.

And then there’s the knuckleball.The anti-pitch.  Fluky, freaky. This video shows how you throw one–you push the ball out of your hand using your fingertips.  It’s not really thrown with the knuckles at all.  Thrown much softer–a relaxed, easy motion.  The point is to impart as little spin as possible.  Let the ball float up there, acted on by air currents.  Maybe it drops.  Maybe it sails.  As the pitcher, you don’t know where it’s going, and of course, neither does the batter. It looks like the easiest pitch in the world to hit–a batting practice fastball.  And then it jumps around unexpectedly.  The batter takes his best home run swing, and ends up whiffing, looking completely foolish.

It’s kind of a beautiful thing.  The point of a fastball/curve/change/slider pitcher is to control the outcome–you want the ball to cross a tiny corner of the plate, spinning and curving, at a velocity that makes it nearly impossible to hit.  A knuckleball pitcher, on the other hand, trusts to forces beyond his control.  Invisible air currents control the pitch.  Whatever happens, happens, dude.  But, man, can it be effective.  Here’s the great Tim Wakefield against the Yankees, a playoff game in 2003.  Best hitters in baseball completely helpless against a pitch arriving at home at 63 miles per hour.

And now we have a terrific new documentary, Knuckleball! documenting the 2011 season, and featuring Wakefield, in his last season, and R. A. Dickey of the (then) Mets, who emerged from the shadows that year. It makes sense that it would focus on just two pitchers, because throughout the history of baseball, there are really never more than a couple of knuckleballers working at any given time.  Hoyt Wilhelm and Wilbur Wood, when I was a kid. Then it was Phil and Joe Niekro and Charlie Hough in the 70s and 80’s, Bert Hooten after that.  Wakefield came up in ’92, and just retired, and now it’s R. A. Dickey, the new kid on the block.

But when you consider how few of them there have been, it’s remarkable how good they’ve been.  Two knuckleballers, Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, are in the Hall of Fame.  Joe Niekro could be.  Wakefield’s credentials are perhaps just a titch below that standard, but with over 200 career wins, he’s been an extraordinarily effective and consistent pitcher.  For the most part, knuckleballers turn to the pitch out of desperation.  Guys who want a career, and can’t figure out any other way to get batters out, turn to the knuckler, hoping against hope they can master it.  Most can’t. It’s a tricky and difficult pitch to learn how to throw consistently.  But if you can manage it, you can throw it basically forever. You throw so softly, it doesn’t put much pressure on your arm. Phil Niekro pitched ’til he was 48; Wilhelm until he was 50.  Wakefield had a 20 year career.

But they’re also an interesting bunch of guys.  When I was a kid, my favorite baseball book was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.  The first great baseball tell-all, profane and funny and moving.  Bouton had been a great fastball pitcher for the Yankees, then blew his arm out.  Ball Four describes, in part, Bouton’s attempt to refashion a career by throwing the knuckleball.  He describes the frustration of it–one day, it dances like a ping pong ball in a hurricane, the next day it spins, and gets hit very hard by large hairy men with clubs in their hands. You get Bouton’s love for the game, his dogged determination and grit.  You also get a sense of a locker room, the rude humor, the casual insults, the camaraderie.  Bouton’s also in the doc; who knows how long his career as a knuckleballer might have lasted, were it not for being effectively black-listed by the baseball establishment for writing his book. But the point is that Bouton was a smart, observant, interesting guy, and a fine writer. (After his baseball career finished, he became wealthy by inventing Big League Chew–a bubblegum that looked like chewing tobacco, for kids who wanted to look especially cool.)

So is R. A. Dickey.  He’s also got a book out: Wherever I wind up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.  It’s a wonderful book, warm and insightful and funny.  I also love his blog.

It makes me think that there’s something fascinating about this pitch, this odd sort of anti-pitch.  Everything about it seems backward.  You control events by losing control of them–you admit you don’t know where the ball is going, and you’re okay with that fact.  It’s pretty Zen, really–I’ll got with the flow here, I’ll let the ball do whatever the ball wants to do. Only some guys can do that, and they tend to be interesting people, unusually thoughtful, outsiders and mavericks.

And then you get in trouble–walk a couple of guys (always a knuckleball possibility), maybe a wild pitch.  (If you don’t know where it’s going, and if the batter doesn’t know where it’s going, then obviously the catcher doesn’t know either!).  A conventional pitcher, in that situation, wants to throw harder.  The pitching coach comes out, says ‘okay, Ace, time to really bear down.’  If you ordinarily throw 93, now is time to throw 94.  You want to spin the ball more severely, catch even less of the corner, really hum it in there.

But not a knuckleballer.  If you try to throw a knuckleball harder, you’ll spin it, and it’ll get hit. A knuckleball pitcher wants to throw the ball softer. Try less to control events.  Trust even more to chance and fortune.  Like I said: Zen.

I love that.  I especially love it as a writer.  When you’re up against a deadline, and facing writer’s block, the temptation is to force it.  You work yourself into a state, you beat yourself up, you go ‘come on, damn it, think of somethingWriteNow!

It never works.  And I’ve come to realize there’s a real wisdom to knuckleballing.  Maybe the answer, in times of high stress, is to relax. Trust the air currents more.  Let happen what’s going happen.  Leave things, a bit, to chance.

Throw softer.

One thought on “The Zen of the Knuckleball

  1. scott bronson

    When I used to play right field for the church softball team, I discovered that I was more ready to make a mad dash for the ball if I was relaxed. If you stand out there in the grass (or on the other side of a net or at the wheel of a high-profile vehicle on a windy freeway) and you’re all tensed up, waiting for the buffeting or the ball, you have to untense before you can move effectively – you gotta relax before you can reflex.

    Same with acting.


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