Butterflies are not bullets

Butterflies aren’t bullets. You can’t aim ‘em—you
just let ‘em go.

— Charlie Hough

When I first started looking at the Pitch f/x data, data that gives us
an unprecedented amount of information about every single pitch that it
tracks, one of the first players that sprung to mind, one of my
favorite players of all-time, was Boston’s href="http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/stats/players/index.php?lastName=Wakefie
class="player">Tim Wakefield. You see, Wake is the only pitcher in the majors who
throws the coolest, neatest, quirkiest, most unpredictable pitch in
existence: the knuckleball. Now that we have over 1000 of Wakefield’s
pitches recorded by the Pitch f/x system, we can get a pretty good look at the

The strangest (and greatest) pitch

The knuckleball is different from all other pitches in many ways. First of all there is speed, or lack thereof: the knuckleball is one of the slowest pitches thrown on a major
league ball field. It’s not necessarily the slowest—Tim Wakefield’s curveball is slower than his knuckler, but we’ll get
to that in a minute. Another unique characteristic of the knuckleball
is the unpredictability of its movement. Nobody knows where it’s going to end up, including the
pitcher. And because of its erratic and unpredictable motion, I
believe it’s the only pitch that is not located: the knuckleball
pitcher does not aim for a certain part of the strike zone, he just,
as famed knuckleballer Phil Niekro put it, throws it at the catcher’s
mask and cheers for it on the way in.

There are other aspects that set the knuckleball apart: it’s hard to
catch; batters, when they do hit it, tend to make poor contact
(knuckleballers seem to be somewhat free of the constraints posed by
DIPS theory); there is no platoon split for knuckleball pitchers (or
at least it’s much smaller than the average split), and so on.

I suppose one of the most appealing things about the knuckleball to
Joe Average is that it doesn’t take a huge guy, with legs like Greek
columns and million dollar arm to throw an effective knuckler. Just
about anybody can learn to throw a knuckleball of some sort (even href="http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9906E4DB143EF932A1575BC0A96
target="new">Wade Boggs), although, clearly, very few can learn to
control it to the degree necessary for it to be a useful major league

Getting the breaks

So, just how does a knuckleball break? We’ve all heard the stories
about knucklers doing incredible things and obviously they do. Now,
with the pitch data available from mlb.com, we can begin to see what
is really going on.

The chaotic glory of the knuckleball is best shown with the
movement plot that I’ve

in the

This type of plot shows the vertical and horizontal movements of a
pitch relative to a hypothetical spinless pitch. These “movements”, which are
caused by the spin that is imparted to the ball by the pitcher, are useful, along with pitch speed, in
identifying the different pitch types.

This graphic compares the movement plot of Tim Wakefield with recent
Cy Young recipient C.C. Sabathia. First, let’s have a look at
Sabathia’s repertoire (left-hand plot). The big left-hander throws
three distinct pitches: a fastball with average speed of 94 mph (red
points), a changeup at 86 mph (green) and a hard curve at 81 mph
(light blue). Each pitch type has a fairly well-defined movement,
i.e. they look like fairly contained clusters in the movement plot.

Now look at what Wakefield’s pitches are doing: the knuckleball is
that huge splotch of green points that don’t seem to have a consistent
break at all. They tend to break in any direction, or perhaps not at
all. Crazy. Well, we all knew that the break of the knuckleball is
unpredictable, but seeing this plot really drives the point home,
doesn’t it?

As you can see, the large majority of Wakefield’s pitches are
knuckleballs, but he does throw a, ahem, fastball (red points, 75 mph)
and a very occasional curve (blue points, 60 mph). As we’ll see
shortly, Wakefield generally avoids these secondary pitches, unless
he’s behind in the count.

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