The knuckleball has always been on the fringe. In fact, at times, it’s even teetered on the edge of extinction. But a new steward of the knuckleball always rises, and he usually enjoys a long career throwing the knuckleball in the Major Leagues.
But these are lean times in the Big Leagues. Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright is hurt, so there’s nobody throwing the knuckleball at baseball’s highest level. And if Wright can’t return to form in next year, then 2020 threatens to be the first year without a knuckleball thrown in the MLB for quite some time.
The media likes controversial headlines, so sportswriters like to splash dire warnings like “Knuckleball Sputtering to Extinction” and “We May Be Seeing The Last Of The Knuckleball” atop their articles.
But, time after time, the knuckleball comes roaring back from the endangered list.
Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer takes a deep dive into the history of the knuckleball and the pitch’s future in his article “The Knuckleball Isn’t Dead Yet.” Ben was kind enough to reach out to me for an interview about technology’s emerging role in teaching the knuckleball to the next generation, and you can catch my take insight this very lengthy and interesting article.
If you don’t want to read the article in its entirety, then here’s are som excerpts:
“Chris Nowlin, a professional knuckleballer who runs an instructional company called Knuckleball Nation, argues that the pressure to keep pace with increasing fastball speeds may be further restricting the knuckleball talent pool. Some knuckleballers, including Dickey, Wright, and Jannis, have dialed up their knucklers into the 80s, but that takes arm strength that not every potential knuckleball pitcher possesses. “Now you’ve dwindled the prospective pool of knuckleballers, because the velocity paradigm has shifted,” Nowlin says. “You now need at least 85 mph in your arm, and guys with that type of velocity usually struggle for more velocity to emerge as conventional pitchers rather than spend years frustrated with the knuckleball. And without time, you can’t make a knuckleballer.”
“As Nowlin notes, hitters have optimized their attack angles and launch angles to counter conventional pitching, but because no one ever knows where the knuckleball will end up, “no amount of swing-plane analysis could counter it.” He also sees potential for evaluation and replication of the pitch to improve. “Tech can help set quantifiable, undeniable benchmarks similar to the ones used for conventional pitchers,” he says. “The proper tech could track hundreds of thousands of knuckleballs in different conditions to build a model of the perfect knuckleball. And that model would dispel the fear surrounding the pitch.”