In my opinion, the knuckleball is pretty clearly the most interesting pitch in baseball today. I think we can all agree to exclude all the variations of standard fastballs and offspeed stuff, which immediately whittles down the playing field to just a few options. The spitball was deemed illegal nearly a century ago. While its nefarious nature certainly adds to its sex appeal and it’s unquestionably interesting, it will remain mostly the stuff of legend and the occasional controversy unless some folks get their wish and it is brought back.
The Eephus merits a passing thought and, while not without its moments, it hasn’t been much more than a novelty pitch since the 1949 retirement of Rip Sewell. At the age of 34, Sewell took a shotgun blast to his foot, lost his big toe and had to totally relearn how to pitch. It took him one season of being merely league average, but then, in 1943, he figured it out and had his best season ever, lobbing his way to a 137 ERA+ on the year and making his first All Star team and coming in 6th in MVP. I digress, but that dude was a serious badass. If I took a shotgun blast to the foot, I’d probably curl up on the couch and take two-year sabbatical from writing, not teach myself how to pitch again in time for the very next season, minus my big toe. While it will occasionally (and very slowly) rear its head, the Eephus pitch today is far from being anywhere near as badass as Sewell.
The knuckleball, on the other hand, is a pitch which is totally legal and also pretty badass. In case you weren’t already aware, the whole point of throwing a knuckleball is to throw the pitch with as little spin as possible. Think about that. If that sounds complicated, well, it is. Far smarter men than I (physics professors) have studied the knuckleball and written about it. Physicist Robert Adair once said, “A knuckleball can change so close to the batter that he cannot physiologically adjust to it, so in some sense it’s impossible to hit a breaking knuckleball. I mean, you can close your eyes and swing, and you might hit it.” Knuckleball pitchers don’t always strike you out, but when they do, you will have absolutely no idea what just happened. The knuckleball is the most interesting pitch in baseball.
For a long time, it was believed that the knuckleball was basically entirely random and completely unlike any other pitch thrown in baseball, thanks to late movement that confounded hitters. More recently, physicist Alan M. Nathan analyzed PITCHf/x data and pointed out that we were misunderstanding the knuckleball’s movement as totally different from other pitches. He suggested that the movement on any individual knuckleball isn’t inherently different from the movement a hitter might see on another pitch, whether it’s a slider, cutter, slutter, etc. What really matters is the variance in movement between pitches, which makes hitters ill equipped to prepare for what might come their way. “Thinking fastball” or “sitting on a slider” will do you no favors when there is no way to predict which way the ball might move.
While the biggest advantage of the knuckleball is that the hitter has no idea where the ball is going to end up, that’s also one of the problems with throwing it, as it’s not just the hitter that’s dealing with this. No one, not the pitcher, the catcher or the umpire, has any idea where the pitch will end up. Umpires understandably have issues with the strike zone. Catchers have it the worst, as they are constantly taking a beating and passed balls are a regular occurrence even when the pitcher is throwing well. If the pitcher doesn’t have the feel that day, he will likely be serving up meatballs, but when a knuckleball pitcher is on, it is a thing of absolute beauty, with even the best hitters flailing around and looking like they’re playing piñata at the plate.
As you probably gathered from the title, we aren’t here to spend all of our time talking about whether and why the knuckleball is the coolest. There’s loads of literature and an excellent movie, Knuckleball!, which dig in deeper than we have time for here. (Side note: The culture surrounding knuckleball pitchers is utterly fascinating as well, but we’ll have to skip that, too.) It’s time to move on to the topic du jour: Steven Wright, who is one of only two current knuckleball pitchers in the majors, along with R.A. Dickey.
Wright was drafted in the 2nd round by the Cleveland Indians in 2006. Like most knuckleballers, he didn’t start out that way. He was drafted as a conventional pitcher but started mixing the pitch into his repertoire and using it as an out-pitch as he struggled in the minors. The Indians noticed and, in 2011, brought in longtime knuckleballer and former Indian Tom Candiotti to coach Wright a bit and see if he was cutout to convert to throwing it full time. It worked out, as Wright promptly cut his ERA to 2.49 over 20 games in AA and earned himself a trade to the Red Sox.
Being traded to the team that employed Tim Wakefield for 16 seasons was probably the best thing that could have happened to Wright. One of the recurring themes when knuckleballers talk about their experiences in baseball is about the lack of faith or trust that teams and managers have in them. An organization that employed a knuckleballer that got to 200 wins is likely to be a bit more understanding about the trials and tribulations that come with employing another one. Current Red Sox manager John Farrell was also the pitching coach for the Sox from 2007 to 2010 while Wakefield was still pitching, so it’s not his manager’s first knuckleball rodeo, which is important when you’re likely to give up some ugly bases on balls.
Wright got his first call-up in 2013 but didn’t get enough work in his first couple of years to give us much to go on. In 2013, he pitched 13 innings with a 5.40 ERA, 78 ERA+ and a 3.80 FIP. In 2014, he pitched 21 innings with a 2.57 ERA, 157 ERA+ and 2.85 FIP. His 2015 was his first extended look, as he started 9 games and through 72 innings. His 4.09 ERA, 104 ERA+ and 5.01 FIP weren’t exactly indicators that Wright would be one of the best pitchers in baseball the following season, but that is currently what Wright is.
Wright has a 2.01 ERA and leads all American League starters (fourth in MLB overall). He also leads AL starters with 0.37 home runs per nine (third in MLB overall). His 219 ERA+ is good for first in the AL (and third in MLB overall). By his FIP (3.30), he’s “only” 6th among AL starters (20th in MLB overall) but, when knuckleballers are good, they will outperform their FIP. Of course, the downside to being a knuckleballer is there’s going to be some free passes, so he’s just out of the top ten at number 11 for BB/9 for starters in the AL. As you can tell from his ERA and HR/9, those walks aren’t coming back to hurt him. We’re nearly halfway through the season and effectively wild appears to be working for Wright.
While you might look at Wright’s BABIP and worry about the fact that it’s .246, you probably shouldn’t. His BABIP last year was .252 and his career throughout the majors and minors is .261, so there’s some precedent here. Plus, knuckleball pitchers tend to have lower than normal BABIPs to begin with (Wakefield’s career BABIP was .274). The Red Sox are a top-ten defensive team this year, so taken with the above, that should (at least temporarily) allay any BABIP concerns.
It should also be noted that, unlike some other knuckleballers, Wright uses a fastball as well. While his knuckleball pretty much hangs out in the 70 to 80 MPH range, his fastball can get up to 88 MPH. While an 88 MPH fastball isn’t exactly a thing that inspires terror in this day and age, he throws it rarely enough that it’s another tool for keeping hitters off their guard. One that works, apparently, since batters are hitting .194 against it.
As it stands, Wright is making hitters look ridiculous and is currently on pace for the best season by a knuckleball pitcher in the past 50 years. At the end of the day, I am not so foolish as to say that Wright has “finally figured out the knuckleball” or something like that. I will say that Wright is young for a knuckleballer, as (a) it takes a while to learn the pitch well enough to earn the trust of a team and (b) they typically pitch longer thanks to the lower level of stress placed on your arm by throwing softer stuff. Any truth as to whether or not this is sustainable over a long period of time is going to have to wait. We’re talking about a pitch that relies on just how precisely groomed your nails are, leaves the result up to what is basically an exercise in chaos theory (when it is done correctly) and currently has only two active practitioners in the MLB.
Since PITCHf/x made its debut in the 2006 playoffs, we’ve literally only had two major league pitchers (Wakefield and Dickey) prior to Wright. Obviously, there hasn’t yet been much work done on knuckleballers in this era of increased understanding of, well, pretty much everything baseball. Interest in knuckleballing piqued after Dickey won a Cy Young, but then he went right back to being a league average pitcher, which vindicated the set of folks that believe knuckleballing isn’t really “pitching,” but just “throwing,” as if this sort of breakout-and-collapse doesn’t happen with “normal” pitchers all the time.
We’re working with a very, very small sample size when it comes to knuckleballers. If we assume there’s 12 pitchers on every team’s 25-man roster, for a grand total of 360 pitchers in MLB, that means two active knuckleballers makeup 0.006% of pitcher-space on active rosters. If you think about knuckleballers in terms of a baseball season, they make up less than one game. Small. Sample. Size.
If Wright has continued success, which means keeping it up for not just this season, but longer, I’d wager a bet that we’ll see a time when knuckleballers aren’t just the baseball equivalent of Sith Lords. In a time when pitchers are throwing harder and harder and we see young players lose their careers to injury seemingly every day, when teams are always on the lookout for the next Moneyball-style advantage, we’ll see more pitchers joining this exclusive club and bringing a little more chaos to the masses. Until that happens, though, it is and shall remain the most interesting pitch in the world.