Knuckleballers unite

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R.A. Dickey showing off his knuckleball grip. (Icon/SMI)

“I always thought the knuckleball was the easiest pitch to catch. Wait till it stops rolling, then go to the backstop and pick it up.” – Bob Uecker

Quick, name all the pitchers who have thrown a knuckleball in the majors in the past two years? I’ll even give you a hint: There are five.

Stumped? Okay, here is the full list: Tim Wakefield, Charlie Zink, R.A. Dickey, Charlie Haeger and Josh Banks. Pat yourself on the back if you got all five.

Now, Zink and Haeger have spent only brief time in the majors and Banks doesn’t use the knuckleball as his main pitch, but anyone who says that the knuckleball is a lost art or is dying out is just flat wrong. The knuckleball is alive and well and now that PITCHf/x is on the scene we have a chance to look at a real sample of knuckleballers and see how each uses the pitch.

Of course, the most famous current knuckleballer is Tim Wakefield, and John Walsh already has done a tremendous job of breaking down Wakefield’s knuckleball, so I will not be adding too much about him. What I want to do is to compare Wakefield’s gold standard to the other knuckleballers and see how they match up. Who throws the second best knuckleball and how close to Wakefield does he get? To answer this, of course, we are going to have to quantify what makes a good knuckleball. For that, we will start with Wakefield.

Tim Wakefield

Normally when I talk about a pitcher’s stuff, I say things like his average fastball is 92 mph with five inches of horizontal movement and 10 inches of vertical movement. Talk like that doesn’t make a lot of sense when describing knuckleball because the beauty of pitch is it sometimes will move down and in and other times will move up and away. So when you average the knuckleballs together, you get something like a 65 mph pitch with two inches of horizontal and vertical movement.

As John pointed out, knuckleballs that don’t break get hammered (yes I am linking to John’s article on Wakefield again; if you haven’t read it go skim that section at least). This makes a lot of intuitive sense and, as John found, it doesn’t seem to matter if the ball is moving up or down or right or left—it’s just that it is moving that is important. So the goal for a knuckleballer is to throw his knuckleballs with as much spread as possible (within reason).

Mathematically, we can measure that by looking at the standard deviation of each pitcher’s knuckleballs. The higher the standard deviation, the better the knuckleball is. Wakefield has a standard deviation of 5.6 inches horizontally and 5.4 inches vertically on his knuckleballs for a total standard deviation of 7.8 inches. Because the horizontal and vertical spread is very similar for all current knuckleballers, from now on I will report only the total spread. This puts Wakefield as the leader in the clubhouse; now, how do our other knuckleballers match up?

R.A. Dickey

Dickey is a 33-year-old who has been bouncing around baseball for years now. He spent several years with Texas before catching on with the Brewers’ Triple-A team last year and signed with Seattle in the offseason. Dickey got off to an excellent start in Tacoma this year and has been up and down for the Mariners, working both as a starter and a reliever.

Dickey’s fastball is actually a sinker that he throws in the mid-80s and bores in quite a bit against right-handed batters. Dickey throws his sinker about 27 percent of the time, which is a lot compared to Wakefield, who throws his fastball at about 18 percent. Dickey’s knuckleball is also faster than Wakefield’s, in the low 70s, and he has a total standard deviation of 5.8 inches with his knuckleball. Unlike Wakefield, who also throws a curve, Dickey throws only a sinker and a knuckleball.

Here is what his movement chart looks like.

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Charlie Haeger

Haeger has been a farmhand for the White Sox since 2001, when he was drafted in the 25th round. He got a cup of coffee with Chicago in 2006 and then an eight-game trial at the end of the 2007 season. He has pitched well in the minors the last few years and is only 24, so he could have a long future ahead of him. Like Dickey, Haeger throws just two pitches, though his fastball is a four seamer around 84 mph. PITCHf/x got to track only 101 pitches for Haeger last year, with 20 of them being fastballs and the other 81 knuckleballs, so the statistics for him are rather slim. His knuckleball is in the upper 60s and his standard deviation is 6.5 inches.

Here is Haeger’s movement chart.

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Charlie Zink

Zink was a hot prospect a few years back but he has fallen on hard times recently. Zink is 28 now and was having a much better year at Triple-A this year before getting a call-up to replace Wakefield in the Red Sox rotation. I don’t have to remind you how that turned out. Again we have some small statistics for Zink with only 60 knuckleballs to look at. Zink’s fastball is in the low 80s, with a slider in the upper 70s and his knuckleball right around 70 mph. His knuckleball has a total standard deviation of 5.7 inches.

Here is his movement chart.

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Josh Banks

Banks is an extremely interesting pitcher whom I plan to profile soon. Banks only occasionally throws a knuckleball, as did Tom Candiotti. The knuckleball is a small part of a huge eight-pitch arsenal for Banks. You might be wondering how the catcher signals for all those pitches and it turns out he has an interesting method. Like Haeger, Banks is just a pup, turning 25 this year, and also like Haeger, Banks has had solid success in the minors the past few years.

I can find seven of the eight pitches he claims to throw (being just a second change-up short) but it is possible that he scrapped one of his change-ups as the articles I linked to are all from preseason. In any case, today we are interested in Banks’ knuckleball, which is actually a little hard to pull out from his splitter. After some work we can find that he throws the pitch about 22 percent of the time, more to lefties than righties, and he averages 6.6 inches of movement with the pitch. What is really remarkable is that he generates that movement with a hard knuckleball, like Dickey’s, in the mid 70s and can manage that while topping out in the low 90s with his fastball.

Here is a look at his terribly messy movement chart. You can see how he is all over the place with his pitches, but for now try to focus on the knuckleball.

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Conclusions

The knuckleball is alive and well in majors, with not only a handful of pitchers plying the trade but several young pitchers who should still be on their way up. As expected, Wakefield remains the king of the knuckleball with the highest spread when he throws, it but Banks and Haeger aren’t too far behind. Banks claims he can throw a slow knuckleball like Wakefield and it is possible he could get Wakefield-like movement with that pitch, since he already is getting a ton of movement on his hard knuckleball.

If you are a fan of pure knuckleballs, then Haeger is probably the guy you want to be rooting for. He is the youngest of the bunch, and the knuckleball is his main pitch. Banks, though, is the most likely pitcher to stick, so if you don’t mind seeing some conventional pitches (and he has quite an array of them) tune in next time he takes the mound.

Zink and Dickey are nice stories, but they don’t seem to get quite the break they probably need to be successful in the big leagues. Also, neither exactly has been lighting up the minors consistently, so that seems like another strike against them.

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