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The Knuckleball: Baseball`s Toughest Pitch

Posted July. 15, 2009 08:22,   


Veteran pitcher Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox is 43 but will play in this year’s All-Star Game in St. Louis today. With a record of 11-3, he is tied for the most wins in Major League Baseball this season.

In Japan, 17-year-old pitcher Eri Yoshida made history in November last year by becoming the first woman to break into a men’s baseball league in her country. Yoshida joined Kobe 9 Cruise after being picked seventh overall in the Kansai Independent Baseball League while in the 11th grade.

So what allowed these two pioneering pitchers to overcome age and gender barriers and make history in their sport? The knuckleball.

Wakefield was originally an infielder in the minors but became a knuckleball pitcher after a scout told him that Wakefield could not go beyond AA with his skills at the time. The pitcher has gone on to record 189 career wins in 19 seasons.

The elusive pitch with an erratic and unpredictable motion is also known as the secret to Yoshida’s success.

○ Trickiest ball to hit

A pitcher and catcher exchange signs to prevent a batter from predicting the next pitch, but Wakefield and Eri both openly throw knucklers. The batter knows he will swing at a knuckleball but misses nonetheless.

The knuckleball is thrown using the index and middle fingers as if pushing the ball. Wakefield uses his index and middle fingernails. When he throws balls this way, it moves randomly just before reaching the batter instead of rotating.

Neither the pitcher nor catcher knows where the ball will go. For this reason, the knuckleball is called the trickiest of trick pitches. Wakefield’s knuckler has been timed at 100 kilometers per hour.

Major League batters can easily hit a fastball going 150 kilometers per hour but are often powerless against a knuckleball. If a pitcher mixes his pitches with fastballs of 120 kilometers per hour, this will give the batter headaches.

○ Pros and cons of the knuckleball

Even the catcher can hardly predict where a knuckleball will go. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek often missed Wakefield’s knuckleballs in the 2005 playoffs, saying, “Catching knuckleballs is like trying to catch flies with chopsticks.”

Boston has kept a catcher exclusively for knuckleballs -- Duck Mirabelli through the mid 2000s and George Kottaras this season.

The knuckleball is also influenced by temperature, humidity, altitude and wind. It works better in cloudy days but not so well in a high altitude area.

Wakefield has no match when he is on his game, but a slump can mean that batters can hit against him at will. The knuckleball is advantageous for the pitcher in that his elbows and shoulders are less burdened than when throwing other slower balls.

The pitcher usually feels no discomfort even after throwing 200 to 300 pitches a game. Hall of Fame pitcher and knuckleball expert Phil Niekro played until age 48 and had 318 career wins.

○ Absence in Korean baseball

Korea has yet to produce a knuckleball specialist. Woori Heroes manager Jang Jeong-seok tried to become a knuckleballer for the Kia Tigers in 2003 after playing outfield but failed. “Ball control was the problem. I threw balls efficiently but could not throw strikes as I wanted,” he said.

Heroes pitcher Ma Il-young has thrown the knuckleball since last year, but only two to three per game. Throwing too many knuckleballs will reduce the speed of his fastball so his coaches want him to limit knuckleballs.

Southpaw relief pitcher Kim Kyung-tae of the LG Twins is the closest thing Korea has to a knuckleball specialist. About half of his pitches are knuckleballs.

“I just throw a knuckleball to the center of the strike zone,” he said. “I’m still trying to improve my pitches. If I continue practicing for about two more years, I think I can become a knuckleball specialist.”

○ For gifted pitchers only

Becoming a knuckleballer requires considerable patience and effort. Fingernails are the most important element for a knuckleballer.

LG’s Kim has repeatedly broken his fingernails on the index and middle fingers and suffered contusions under his fingernails. To properly push down the ball, a pitcher must flatten his rounded fingernails.

For this reason, Kim carefully flattens his fingernails every morning as if shaving a beard. He also applies fingernail cream every three days.

Even through these painstaking efforts, only the most gifted pitchers can master the knuckleball.