On Knuckleballs

There’s something awesomely defiant about the knuckleball. I’m sitting here watching Red Sox starting pitcher Stephen Wright, one of two guys currently throwing a knuckleball in the bigs. In a game where everything is so carefully statted, every piece of data carefully measured twice and cut once, every pitch a result of scouting reports and groupthink and advanced statistical analyses, the knuckleball basically tells all of these things to fuck right off. It’s a knuckleball and it doesn’t care what anybody thinks about anything, it’s going to do whatever the hell it wants, always.

This is the sport where people figure out things like “with runners in scoring position and two balls (but not three) Xander Bogartes can sometimes be vulnerable to low and away breaking pitches that surround— but not cross— the strike zone.” I mean that’s a pretty goddamned specific piece of strategy, and that’s not even coming from professionals— that’s just me watching too much baseball recently. My point is there isn’t anything on a baseball field that isn't measured and evaluated and predicted. Except the knuckleball.

It is chaos, pure and simple. The knuckleball breaks whatever direction it wants to, at whatever time it wants to, like a Massachusetts driver. The hitter has no idea where it’s going, the catcher has no idea where it’s going, even the pitcher has, at best, a vauge idea of the general area the thing is headed. The only thing you know for sure is that nobody knows for sure. Sometimes wind can make it extra-unhittable, and yet somehow in domes, where there is no wind, the pitch occasionally becomes bizarrely even more unhittable. You might be tempted to ask how that last contradiction could possibly be true, but of course, there is only one answer: because it is a knuckleball, and fuck you.

A knuckleball is so delightfully unpredictable, the perfect unexpected spice in the industrial-sized-vat of soup that is a major league baseball season. Depending on literally anything, a knuckleball can dance in unnatural, unhittable, unpredictable jolts and jabs in any direction, then, on the very next pitch, hang in the air like a batting practice curveball, a slow, still floater, as easy for a major leaguer to crush as if it were on a tee. It can’t be charted, no coach really knows how to offer any advice on it, and even the all-time greats would occasionally have somewhere from one to twenty five of them in a row that just looked pathetically hittable. The main thing you hear from knuckleballers is “you can’t really teach it” followed quickly by “you can’t really control it” and usually rounded off with “you can’t tell when it’s going to be good or not”. It sounds less like a description of a practiced skill and more like the description of a bad dog, the kind that stops a burglar and then celebrates by pissing in the bed, because: knuckleball.

It’s the only pitch ever invented that doesn’t physically destroy the pitcher’s arm, and so can be throw basically forever; knuckleballers don’t really have pitch counts, or inning caps, or even an age at which they’re meant to retire— of the four knuckleballers in the hall of fame, all four of them pitched more than 20 big league seasons, the way nobody can, ever. And yet, nobody ever really tries to be a knuckleballer, it’s always a last ditch effort to stay in the game. Today’s hot new knuckleballer, Stephen Wright, is making big league starts consistently for the first time in his career: he’s 30 years old, and it’s totally conceivable that he has just now begun a decade long major league career. This week, a 19 year old kid pitched for the dodgers, if he were a knuckleballer (he’s not) he could have a 25 year career that would end in the year 2041, during President Bryce Harper’s second term.

Anyway, its memorial day, and it seems to me to be the perfect day for this knuckleballer, who himself is kind of a living memorial to former Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. The knuckleball is weird and strange and fun. It is the black sheep of baseball, and, like any good black sheep, it never totally goes away, always hanging around just enough that you have to account for it when making lists.

(PS as I finish that final paragraph, Wright, who had been pitching a shutout, allowed three hits and a sacrifice fly in the span of about 8 pitches, tying the game. Suddenly the unhittable is hittable. The inning is not yet over— he just walked a guy. Just like that, it’s all gone. Knuckleballs!)