A decade removed from majoring in English literature at the University of Tennessee, two kids born and another on the way, his career stuck in 4A mode as too good for the minors/not good enough for the majors and too old to stick in the minors anyway, he turned to the “ugly stepchild of pitches” for salvation.
At the time, according to his autobiography, R.A. Dickey thought of himself as baseball’s version of a carnival act for adopting a pitch that’s inspired more one-liners than the Montreal Comedy Festival. Bob Uecker, the former catcher turned Milwaukee broadcaster, retains claim to the most famous: “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up.”
Hall of Fame slugger Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates described the pitch as “a butterfly with hiccups.”
Joe Torre, former big-league catcher and manager, said: “You don’t catch a knuckleball, you defend against it.”
John Kruk, once the power-hitting first baseman of the Philadelphia Phillies, said: “You just hope it hits your bat in a good spot.”
The pitch, while inordinately successful – Hoyt Wilhelm, the Niekro brothers Phil and Joe, Tim Wakefield and precious few others have relied on the knuckleball to build fruitful careers – retains oddball status because so few dare throw it. People just can’t get comfortable with the knuckler, or the knuckleballer. It is the belly putter of golf clubs, the millionaire software developer in red running shoes at a black-tie event.
Not so coincidentally, the knuckleball fascinates scientists. Opposed to fastballs, curves, sliders and change-ups that break once if at all, and then at the end of their journeys, the knuckleball appears to follow a whimsical path from mound to plate, oscillating yet not spinning, challenging the attention span of hitter, catcher and umpire.
“There’s no prediction on a knuckleball and that’s what makes it tough,” says Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia. “It’s a really neat pitch and [as a catcher] you have got to have a feel for the way it could go, but you definitely can’t judge where it will go.”
Dickey, of course, has embraced the knuckleball unreservedly since his switchover in 2005, parlaying it into a National League Cy Young Award with the Mets last season and a $25-million contract extension from the Blue Jays. He studies the pitch with a zealous inquisitiveness, the enthusiasm in his voice akin to that of a neophyte physicist who thinks he’s on to something.
“I learn something more about it every day,” Dickey says. Likewise, kinesiologists and physicists apply tools that Detroit engineers might use in automobile development to understand why and how the ball behaves as it does. The evident unpredictability of the pitch, the mystery, gnaws at them.
“Many people think that a knuckleball ‘zigs and zags’ on the way to the plate,” Thomas Karakolis, a doctoral candidate in kinesiology, University of Waterloo, said in an e-mail. “But research has shown that isn’t true. Knuckleballs follow a path that is nearly as predictable as a fastball or a curveball. The problem is that the path isn’t predetermined like that of pitches with spin, and that is why hitters cannot anticipate early in the ball flight where the knuckleball will cross the plate.”
Dickey counters that the physics of air resistance interact with the protrusion of the seams on the baseball and the indentations on the leather hide to make the ball move. “There’s video proof – we slowed it down considerably and the video showed it actually moving. It was definitive,” Dickey says. “How can you predict it, if all the variables are changing constantly?”
Something called the Magnus effect causes a spinning ball to break away from a straight-line flight path. Flight engineers have to account for it in spinning missiles. On a typical pitched ball, top spin causes a downward swerve and side spin forces a swerve to either side, in both cases beyond the natural force of gravity.
Sure, fine, but when the oddball knuckleball is thrown perfectly, the ball takes maybe a quarter-turn on its axis. Professor Richard Fitzpatrick, a teacher of computational physics and quantum mechanics at the University of Texas, explained in online lecture notes that if a ball is not spinning, and the stitches of the ball are exposed on one side with the other side being smooth, lateral force is exerted in the direction of the exposed stitch. It takes Magnus effect out of the game, in other words.
Denis Leahy, a professor with the physics and astronomy department at the University of Calgary, boils it down: “There is some unpredictability in the path of the knuckleball. ... I would add that there is a small amount of spin so that the small force due to the baseball seams changes as the ball moves toward the plate.”
Former catcher and now Fox Sports announcer Tim McCarver has said, “Hitting that thing is like trying to catch a butterfly with a pair of tweezers.”
However, Karakolis says it is popular misconception that a knuckleball flits toward the plate like a dancing butterfly. Citing PitchFX data, he says, “A knuckleball, much like any normal pitch with spin, begins to move from a straight path over the first 10-20 feet. Once a knuckleball begins to move in a given direction, it continues to move in the same general direction until it is either caught by the catcher or hit by the hitter. Why it does not dance, as earlier experimental work suggested that it should, is still not fully known.”
What has been demonstrated is that angular orientations – the pitcher’s arm location – can dramatically affect the path of a knuckleball. Throughout spring training, Dickey talked of the need to “repeat” his arm mechanics, in order to better control the release point. He has sufficient knowledge and command on the pitch now to move the ball up and down in the strike zone, adding significantly to his effectiveness. Arencibia says there’s one sign for “every type of knuckleball he throws, and it’s just my job to catch it.”
Wilhelm et al floated the ball to the plate at speeds under 70 miles an hour, Dickey throws his in the range of 78-to-82 mph range at point of release, and it reaches the plate at 73 to 74 mph, typically.
Whatever the physics of the pitch, Dickey figured it out last season. He became the first pitcher in modern baseball history to record back-to-back complete-game one-hitters with at least 10 strikeouts in both starts, and the first to throw consecutive one-hitters since Dave Stieb of the Blue Jays in 1988. He won 20 games, struck out 230 in 230<AF>2/3<XA> innings while walking 54, and finished second in the NL in earned-run average.
Science? What science?
“There no science to hitting it,” says Prince Fielder, the Detroit Tigers slugger. “It’s a knuckleball. If it’s good, it’s going to be tough. If it hangs a little bit, you’ve got a shot. It’s really an easy day mentally – I mean, it’s tough to hit, but at least you know what you’re getting.”
But then, the (KISS) principle isn’t one to be embraced by the scientists.