Missing the knuckle curve

The knuckle curve* just doesn’t get the love it should. Often called the dry spitter, this seldom-learned pitch could be described, depending on how it is thrown, as a fast knuckeball or a slow spinning curveball. In both cases, the grip usually involved two fingers bent so the knuckles were actually on the ball and a normal follow-through with the arm and wrist. The main objective was to throw a pitch with limited or greatly reduced spin. This caused the various forces associated with a spinning pitch to have less effect, increasing drop and break, with late movement.

* Not the Mike Mussina, Cliff Lee knuckle curve when one of the fingers is bent to get a better grip on the ball.

Granted the knuckle curve can be a difficult pitch to master*, but it has been used successfully. What seems almost unique about it is that very few pitchers taught it to others. Fred Fitzsimmons taught it to Larry French, but that is the only case of “passing it down” I have discovered.

* Just slightly more difficult than your standard spitball. The dry spitter requires the feel of the knuckleball and skill of the spitball “popping the watermelon seed’’ release. But you don’t have to worry about loading up your finger and the ball and it isn’t illegal.

The last player I have seen throw a knuckle curve was Jason Isringhausen, who used the slow spinning curveball variation of the Knuckle-Curve.

As I weep for another season with a dry spitter (and no wet ones, of course. Right. Yep. Sure.) here is my list of some knuckle-curvers from the past (actually a rather impressive list of pitchers, not sure why more people don’t learn it).
Gene Bearden*, Toad Ramsey**, Ed Summers, Jesse Haines***, Fred Fitzsimmons, Larry French, Jason Isringhausen, Burt Hooton, Dave Stenhouse, Dave Goltz, and Pete Falcone.

* Inspiration for my research, also threw a wet spitter.
** Another example of early baseball over-usage and over-consumption
*** Hall of Famer

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  1. Allen said...

    It kind of seems like a lot of pitches go through “fads” for lack of a better word. For example, ots of people used to throw the splitter; now not many do.  Maybe that is what is going on here?

    Just theorizing.

  2. Mat Kovach said...

    @Allen Even when pitches go through “fads” the pitching is usually handed down. Most, in fact almost ALL, of the Dry Spitter hurlers learned on their own.

    Spitball was a bit different. It was an effective pitch that took off in early 1900’s, until it was band in 1920. Did hear much about it until ~1940 (there is a reason for that) and that went until about the mid-80’s.

    What helped the spitball around 1940? I hope to have an explanation for everybody next week.

  3. Bob B. said...

    Weren’t Goltz and Hooton teammates at one time? Any chance one taught the pitch to the other? My main memory of the pitch is Hooton (due to his time on the Dodgers in the early 80s) and when I hear ‘knuckle-curve’ I think of Burt Hooton. Anyway, interesting piece. Thanks.

  4. Ja4ed said...

    Robert Whitenack, Cubs farmhand, throws a true knuckle-curveball.  When he was in Boise the local paper had a picture of the grip in an online article, but they’ve since removed the article.  He has the top knuckles of his index and middle fingers on the ball.  When he was drafted in 2009, BAseball America had this to say about it, “His best pitch is an 80 mph knuckle—curveball with tumbling 12-to-6 action that some scouts rate as plus and others rate as plus-plus.”

  5. Mat Kovach said...

    @Ja4ed I had heard about him, but couldn’t find anything specific. Do you know the name of the local Boise paper?

    It sounds like he is trying the classic ‘Dry Splitter’, but I never have seen the grip.


  6. David Wade said...

    Mat- Good stuff. 

    I’d love to see something on the spike curve, if you’re ever so inclined.  Armed only with anectdotal evidence, I feel like the spike curve is bigger than I would have thought in college basball lately. 

    I watch a lot of University of Kentucky games and they have at least a couple of guys that use it.  One of the coaches told me it’s a good way to get the ball ‘deeper’ into your hand and the pitchers still have the same wrist action when they throw it.

    But, Drew Pomenranz pitched in Lexington last year against U.K. and he threw one that he claimed he ‘pushes’ out of his hand, although the night I saw him it had a pretty consistent 12-6 break.

  7. Mat Kovach said...

    Pomenranz throws the spike curve. Since the Indians drafted him, I got a couple of the beat writers to ask him. Since the spike curve is used to get a bit stronger grip, it may feel to some as if they push the ball out.

    Hmm, I’ll have to line up for THT Live some “pitch” stories. Shine Ball, Spike Curve, Forkball, Palmball.

    @Greg .. thanks for that info. I’ll have to bug them for the story/pics.

    @Hecubot It can be a really nice pitch. Might take a few years to really master, but as you seen .. it can be real nice. Bonus: a breaking pitching thrown like a fastball and change-up.

  8. Brad Johnson said...

    Everyone seems to have a different definition of what a knuckle curve is. I kind of think of it like a change up, it encompasses a fairly wide variety of grips that have a fairly wide variety of actions. I consider a spike curve to be a more specific type of knuckle curve even though the purpose of the spike curve is the opposite of how you define a knuckle curve – it gets more forward revolutions and hence a sharper, more sudden break.

    I’ve thrown a spike curve my entire curveball throwing life (think I finally picked it up at 14 or 15…I finally learned it to better succeed in HS ball). The spike curve can be devastating in the hands of someone who can locate it (which was sort of day to day with me).

    Know of any reports of pitchers who throw the dry spitter? I know Vicente Padilla uses it (according to Joe Kerrigan whom I learned the pitch from) but haven’t heard anyone else speak of it. Acts like a splitter if you slick up your fingers with sweat. Otherwise it’s a standard issue sinker.

  9. Hecubot said...

    The kid that lead my son’s team to a State (Divisional) Little League championship in 2008 threw a true knuckle-curve.  His dad threw an excellent knuckleball and taught him the grip.  It had a fantastic downward break.  If he didn’t hang it, it was just about unhittable.

    Though the catcher (in this case my son) has to work pretty hard since most of them dive into the dirt.

    Anyway, there are still some practitioners out there. And it’s a great pitch for younger pitchers because it doesn’t put any stress on the elbow.

    Trevor Cahill was throwing the spike curve all through the minors, and just switched to the traditional curveball last year.

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