Knuckleballers' paths as tricky as the pitch
Difficulty, lack of chances leave Wakefield, Dickey a unique duo
It was, and is -- and probably will continue to be -- the most unique pitch in baseball. The knuckleball is difficult to hit, flummoxing to catch and impossible to predict, sometimes even for the pitcher who is throwing it. Three men flicked it all the way to the Hall of Fame -- Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro and Jesse Haines.
Another -- the venerable Tim Wakefield -- has utilized it into his mid-40s and is the all-time innings leader for the Boston Red Sox, one of the most storied franchises in sports. In fact, if the 44-year-old Wakefield can pitch long enough, he will register the 15 wins necessary to surpass Cy Young and Roger Clemens as the winningest pitcher in Red Sox history.
Charlie Hough twirled knuckleballs through the age of 46, winning 216 games along the way. The late Joe Niekro, Phil's younger brother, produced a 221-win career with baseball's version of soft serve. Wilbur Wood had a pretty nice career for himself pitching both as a starter and reliever. In 1972, he had a 24 wins, the second of four consecutive 20-win seasons. He started 49 games and gave the White Sox 376 2/3 innings. The next year he started 48 games, winning another 24.
So the success stories only lead to the question: Why aren't there more knuckleballers?
"The problem is that [baseball] is so radar gun-oriented," said Wakefield, who has 192 wins, 178 of them for Boston. "You might see a kid in college that knows how to pitch but doesn't throw 95 [mph] and he won't get looked at."
Hough, now in player development in his post as pitching coach for the Dodgers' Class A Inland Empire affiliate, has a pretty good idea of the kind of esteem -- or lack thereof -- his pitch is held in by talent evaluators. So does Hough envision a plentiful wave of knuckleballers in the future?
"No. I don't think we'll see many," Hough said. "I think there will always be some. It's getting a little more difficult now because the scouting stuff is so intent on looking for the best arm and the Minor Leagues have shrunk some. Organizations don't have the innings to give to a knuckleball pitcher. We're not out looking for one. If one happens to fall into your laps, he'd better win right now, otherwise you put the guy with the good arm out there, even if the guy with the good arm doesn't win."
There are close to 300 pitchers on Major League rosters at the moment and only two are classified as knuckleballers: Wakefield and the Mets' R.A. Dickey.
In fact, Dickey is utilizing the pitch to have a breakout season at the age of 35, after spending most of his previous 13 seasons in the Minors. He jokes that he's actually 26 in knuckleball years. After all, Phil Niekro was 48 when he threw his final pitch in the Majors. Wilhelm was 16 days shy of his 50th birthday when he hung 'em up.
The pitch -- which takes less stress on the throwing shoulder than the more traditional offerings (fastball, slider, curve, cutter, splitter) -- can lead to decades of success and staying power. Yet the problem is getting the opportunity to throw it.
Look at how it started for Wakefield. He was drafted in 1988 by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a first baseman. On the side, he liked to fool around with a knuckleball while playing catch. But Woody Huyke, his Minor League manager at the time, didn't think it was a joke. Huyke made a recommendation that Wakefield be converted to a knuckleball pitcher.
|"It's a real difficult pitch to throw. It's one that requires some commitment from an organization to let you do it. When I say some commitment, it takes more than a year for you to really kind of get a grasp of what you're doing out there with that thing."|
|-- Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey|
But as an example of how fleeting the knuckleball can be, Wakefield was out of the Major Leagues by 1994 and released by the Pirates during Spring Training of 1995.
The Red Sox's general manager at the time was Dan Duquette, and he had a penchant for taking a gamble on players on the scrap heap. So he pounced on Wakefield, who proceeded to win 14 of his first 15 decisions with the Sox in 1995, helping Boston to an American League East title.
Here Wakefield is, 15 summers later, still wearing No. 49 for Boston.
"I've been lucky enough to be in an organization that's believed in me, and I've had to put up good numbers to maintain my job here, but they've stuck with me through those streaks where I might not have a good feel for it," said Wakefield. "The value of it, with a knuckleballer, is that he may not have a feel for it, but he's still going to give you innings. He's still going to probably keep you in the game for a long time and not eat into your bullpen."
One of the feel-good stories of 2009 was Wakefield becoming an All-Star for the first time in his career.
"Timmy is an absolutely incredible story, going from a Minor League player to a knuckleball pitcher to a team, when he was with the Pirates, he almost pitched the Pirates to the World Series and then he lost it," Hough said. "He completely lost it, enough to be let go by the Pirates. Great move by the Boston Red Sox. It's exactly the way it should be, one of the all-time best Boston Red Sox pitchers and he deserves every bit of it."
Dickey is another example of a pitcher who didn't join the professional ranks as a knuckleballer. He came up through the Texas Rangers' farm system with a high-80s fastball, a breaking ball and what he thought was a forkball. In 2005, it was brought to his attention that the forkball actually had the action of a hard knuckleball. And from there, he put all his time and energy into crafting the pitch.
This is the first season Dickey has ever been given the opportunity to hold down a spot in a rotation for a prolonged period. His Major League season started on May 19, when the Mets purchased his contract from Triple-A. His 18 starts already represent a career high in the Major Leagues. Dickey is 8-5 with a 2.41 ERA. Opponents are hitting .238 against him.
Much like Wakefield, Dickey needed to exercise a great deal of patience and persistence before finally finding his niche. So, aside from the fact that scouts aren't necessarily looking for knuckleballers, the other reason there are so few of them is because it is hard to be one.
"It's a real difficult pitch to throw," said Dickey. "It's one that requires some commitment from an organization to let you do it. When I say some commitment, it takes more than a year for you to really kind of get a grasp of what you're doing out there with that thing. Those are two reasons that I can think of off the top of my head [why there are so few of them].
"And for most managers, it takes a special manager to be able to really trust it -- the bad and the good of it. And traditionally, if you look at Tim Wakefield, Joe and Phil Niekro, Tom Candiotti, Wilbur Wood, Hoyt Wilhelm and all the guys that threw it, through their success they had guys who really believed in what it could do long-term and committed to giving them the ball every fifth day to do it."
Without the flash of the radar readings, a knuckleballer is perhaps given less rope at times.
"You need to win and you need to compete good and you kind of need a manager that is kind of willing to close his eyes a little bit because when you don't pitch well, it's pretty ugly," said Hough. "You see a guy throwing a ball 65, 70 mph get beat, and it doesn't look too good. You see a guy throwing 95 get beat, and everyone talks about how good of an arm he has. It's a lot easier on the organization to put the best physical talent out there. You need somebody who believes in you."
Dickey can attest to how it is to for a knuckleballer to get a team to believe in him through thick and thin.
"It's traditionally been such an untrustworthy pitch for a lot of guys that it's hard for people to really commit to it," Dickey said. "And once you find a guy that can do it, it changes the tables a little bit, or it should in my opinion. But those are some reasons I think that you don't see more guys do it. And a lot of times it's a last-ditch effort to save a career. Like for Tim, he was a position player. Charlie was a conventional pitcher. I was a conventional pitcher before I went to it full-time.
"It's a difficult thing to do. You've got to have the right length fingers. As crazy as it sounds, your nails have to be able to hold up to digging into the baseball. There are a lot of little things that you don't take into account. But once you find a guy, if you look back over the careers of these guys, it's pretty impressive."
For a knuckleball pitcher in crisis, one of the most difficult things is finding someone who can relate. This is why Wakefield and Dickey keep in touch by text messages and phone calls. It is why Wakefield relied on 318-game-winner Phil Niekro for private tutorials to help resurrect his career in the mid 1990s, and why he has also contacted Hough in the past.
"I think the hardest thing for me is just the alone-ness that you feel sometimes because nobody else really does it," said Wakefield. "Sometimes pitching coaches don't know what to say. [Red Sox pitching coach] John [Farrell] has been great. Some pitching coaches [in the past] have been good knowing my checkpoints. Our deliveries are the same as anybody else's, it's just that our margin of error is so small. You have to have a feel for it."
To really know a knuckleballer, you have to be one.
"Pitching coaches can coach them very well as far as delivery and balance and that stuff," said Hough. "But there's a feel throwing a knuckleball. You need to be around somebody that's maybe done it before."
Charlie Haeger is another knuckleballer who has spent time in the Majors this season. But he is where Wakefield was at one time and Dickey in the not-so-distant past -- still trying to find himself. Haeger, who turns 27 next month, was 0-4 with an 8.40 ERA in nine games for the Dodgers earlier this season, six of them starts. He is currently pitching for Triple-A Albuquerque.
Where Wakefield once looked to the Niekros, and Hough for inspiration, that is how Haeger looks at Wakefield.
"I was always infatuated with watching Wakefield, or any knuckleball pitcher," Haeger said. "I learned by watching Wakefield and still do every time I can. Normal right-handers can watch all kinds of pitchers and pick up things; I can't. I don't get much out of watching a guy throw 93 mph. It doesn't do anything for me."
If you're one of those fans who thinks that anyone who plays backyard Wiffle ball can throw a good knuckleball, Haeger has news for you.
"The pitch is hard to throw properly," said Haeger. "Anybody can throw it, but it's hard to throw a ball 60 feet with no spin for strikes consistently. That's not easy to do. When you're going good, it's going good. And when it doesn't do what you want it to do, it's not very good. It's a feast-or-famine thing and you hope it's more famine as far as the hitters are concerned."
So is the knuckleball going to go the way of the dinosaur? Probably not, because as long as someone is around to carry the torch, another aspiring Major League pitcher who doesn't have that lights-out arm will dedicate himself to the craft.
"I'd get on the internet and look at the career numbers of Phil Niekro and Tim [Wakefield] and Charlie Hough and Hoyt Wilhelm and Wilbur Wood and Tom Candiotti and see this is potentially what it could be," Dickey said. "So sure, as a point of inspiration sometimes I would do that, especially at the beginning when I was really trying to figure it out. And then I started being able to meet with some of these guys and work with them. So yeah, sure I've leaned on them. I've leaned on three of them specifically in Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro."
And one day, Dickey could be the one doing the tutoring. That's assuming there are pitchers to tutor.
"Unfortunately it's kind of a lost art," said Wakefield of the pitch that has put him among the all-time Red Sox leaders in several categories.
Forget about Niekro. He just might be one of a kind. But will there ever be another knuckleballer who lasts as long as Wakefield and makes a run at 200 wins?
"I would hope so," Dickey said. "I'm not Nostradamus. I have no idea what you may see, and I'm not going to put limitations on anybody, so I hope that you do. I'd like to chip away at it myself. But at the same time, in this day and age, in the age of the power arm, it might be difficult."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Anthony DiComo and Ken Gurnick contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.