To continue on with yesterday's baseball pitches theme, today I thought we'd look at the knuckleball, which was on display last night as Boston's famous knuckleball pitcher, Tim Wakefield, was knocked around by the Rays' offense. Outside of Wakefield, there are only a couple other Major League pitchers playing the game today who throw the unusual pitch. This is due in no small part to the level of difficulty not only throwing the ball, but catching it. An MLB.com headline yesterday, before the Boston game started, read: "Boston could be in real trouble if Tim Wakefield's knuckleball isn't fluttering"¦"
Throwing a fluttering, or dancing knuckleball is tremendously difficult because in order to make the ball dip, corkscrew, and flutter, there has to be very little spin of any kind. In fact, it's not unusual for the ball to make less than a couple rotations total before it reaches home plate. Making things even more complicated, the ball is thrown with very little velocity (generally between 55-75 mph). So a bad knuckleball is easy to track and swat out of the park, as happened three times last night. On the other hand, a good knuckleball makes the best batters look like amateurs. So what's the secret to throwing a knuckleball?
Well, first there's the grip. When the pitch was originally developed by early pioneers like Eddie Cicotte in the beginning of the 20th century, it was thrown by holding the ball with the knuckles. In fact, Cicotte's nickname was "Knuckles." But over time, pitchers started gripping a knuckler with the fingertips, to help prevent the ball from spinning in the air. It's still thrown that way today. Because the ball remains relatively motionless in flight, the air around it becomes turbulent at the ball's seams. This causes the ball to move erratically, fooling the batter and often making him look ridiculous as he swings futilely.
But the erratic movement of the ball also makes it hard to catch. For this reason, you'll often see the catcher wearing an oversized mitt or even a first-baseman's mitt to catch the ball. You'll even see special players in the game just to prevent the huge number of passed balls that can occur as a result of the flutter. If you remember the 2004 Red Sox, Doug Mirabelli would usually replace Jason Varitek as catcher when Tim Wakefield was on the hill.