In the 2012 film Knuckleball!, Newsday columnist David Lennon says, “Nobody grows up wanting to be a knuckleball pitcher. It’s born of desperation. It’s born of necessity.”
The knuckleball is something you learn when there are no other options to continue a career in professional baseball. Very few knuckleballers have been able to translate the unpredictable and enigmatic pitch into major league success. One of them, R.A. Dickey, has been more successful than virtually any other, capturing an NL Cy Young Award in 2012 and has positioned himself at the leading edge of an organization that has amassed more pitchers who throw the pitch than any other.
How many knuckleballers are there in affiliated baseball? Not a lot. Aside from Dickey, Charlie Haeger was one of the few active knuckeball throwers in the minor leagues last season, pitching in Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket in the Boston Red Sox’ organization. Haeger had decent numbers but, as is the case with knuckleballers, didn’t have very good control and wound up without a contract in 2014.
The Toronto Blue Jays, however, have given minor league free agent contracts to two other pitchers who have been experimenting with the knuckler. Tomo Ohka, a former Montreal Expo and Toronto Blue Jay, and Frank Viola III, the son of former Toronto Blue Jay Frank Viola, are both in the Blue Jays fold, getting another chance to hone their craft and learn (at least a little bit) from Dickey, the master.
As far as Dickey is concerned, he’s just trying to share the knowledge that was given to him by people like Charlie Hough and Phil Niekro. Dickey told me that he’s “paying it forward” with other knuckleballers who seek his advice. “It was done for me in a similar way. It changed the course of my career and trajectory of my career. If I can do that for another person what a gift that would be for me.”
While Dickey hasn’t had as much of an influence over Ohka’s development of the circus pitch, he has been instrumental in Viola’s development. Viola even spent a month in Nashville, Dickey’s home town, this winter to work with him on the pitch. Up until this winter, Viola had been dabbling with the pitch over the past several years, even showing off the pitch in an early stage of development to Dickey and some of the staff of the New York Mets in 2012. Viola even admitted that he “had only been throwing it for a month back then and . . . I was not in a position to be throwing a knuckleball to any hitters at that point, but took a lot in, and took a lot in from what R.A. had to say.”
As Tomo Ohka and Frank Viola throw knuckleballs to their catchers at the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league complex in Dunedin, Florida, they are searching for both the rotationless pitch with an unpredictable path as well as one that will be close enough to the strike zone to induce a batter to swing. They worked on their own, talking to their catchers more than each other but threw pitch after pitch, trying to find the right release point and the right way to push the ball out of their fingers in order to make the ball dance.
There’s a certain poetry to the knuckleball which goes any which way it wants. Scientific studies have proven that the pitch’s movement is random but throwing a ball without rotation goes against just about everything that mankind has been doing since rifling was discovered. By carving grooves into rifle barrels, the armourers would be able to make firearms much more accurate than muskets with a smooth bore. The grooves would force the projectile to spin and stabilize its trajectory, which is a process that we see when throwing a football with a “spiral” spin. Footballs spinning around their north/south axes are easier to control and catch.
A predictable trajectory is exactly what the knuckleball pitcher does not want. It is the only type of pitch that involves completely removing the spin from a baseball. A four-seam fastball is meant to get as much back-spin as possible which causes the pitch to drop as little as possible due to gravity on its flight towards home plate. Other pitches are thrown by inducing a certain kind of spin that makes the ball change direction sharply. Still others (like the splitter) are thrown very hard with less spin in order to make gravity’s effect more pronounced.
In many ways, the quest for a perfect knuckleball is a very zen-like endeavour. To throw the perfect knuckleball is one where the orb will not revolve even once on its way to the plate and will have a completely unpredictable movement that is designed to fool the hitter. Unfortunately, this unpredictability has the consequence that it is very hard to throw for a strike and therein is the catch-22: a pitcher wants the hitter to have no idea where the pitch will be but he needs to able to throw strikes with it. A.J. Jimenez, one of the Blue Jays’ top young catching prospects, spoke about the pitch’s unpredictability: “I think that’s the point of the knuckleball. You never know where it’s going to end up.”
Because of the unpredictability of the pitch and necessity for pitchers to live and die by how well they’re throwing it on any given day, there’s a tendency for the pitch to be distrusted by many. Radio host Tony Massarotti said in the film Knuckleball!,” Managers, coaches, catchers, nobody trusts the knuckleball. Nobody.” Ben McGrath, a writer for the New Yorker, followed Massarotti by saying that throwing the knuckleball “has always been a distrusted art.”
This distrust is what makes it so difficult for major league clubs to stick with a knuckleballer long term. It’s why Haeger is still without a job after a decent 2013 season. Ohka has already been released by the Blue Jays (as was first reported by Gideon Turk of Blue Jays Plus and confirmed yesterday by Baseball America’s Matt Eddy) and, while Frank Viola will get a chance with a minor league team to start 2014, he’s probably going to be on a short leash if he’s not effective. As Tim Wakefield said in Knuckleball!, “Because of the knuckleball, they give up on us too quick, in my opinion.”
Knuckleballers are very rare in baseball and even rarer in professional baseball. They’re almost always novelty stories like the “Knuckleball Princess,” Chelsea Baker, who not only pitches for her high school baseball team but threw two perfect games in Little League four years ago.
In the professional ranks, knuckleballers are failed conventional pitchers. Frank Viola realized before turning to the knuckleball that “there was really not a great chance that I’d have a major league career as a conventional [pitcher].” For Ohka, the knuckleball was a way back into professional baseball after a good major league career that saw him throw over 1,000 innings in the big leagues.
For those who find their way to the knuckleball, there is a realization that they need to commit to the pitch. It’s a commitment that they find in a large-scale sense — to practice the pitch and throw it almost exclusively — but also in a small-scale sense that sees a pitcher commit to every single pitch they throw in order to make it revolve as little as possible. In Knuckleball! Dickey commented that his success came from believing in the pitch and committing to it while Hough commented that “it takes a little nerve to throw a ball in the big leagues at less than all you’ve got.” Viola also talked about “throwing the ball with conviction” and both he and Ohka acknowledged that they’re still new to making the knuckleball their meal ticket. For Dickey, it took about five years of toil in the minors as a knuckleballer to find success with the pitch while both Viola and Ohka have been seriously working on the pitch for under a year.
The Blue Jays’ knuckleball experiment is about more than just bringing a couple of pitchers into camp. The Blue Jays appear to be creating a community around the pitch that will help the pitchers and the catchers get better. The Blue Jays’ minor league camp, at times, struck me as a knuckleball university where pitchers Viola and Ohka as well as several of the team’s young catchers got together to pool and share their knowledge.
For the catchers, working with coordinator Sal Fasano, having as many as two knuckleballers in camp allowed them get more repetitions in catching the dancing pitch. I spoke to Aaron Munoz and A.J. Jimenez, two catchers who were involved in backstopping Viola and Ohka. Munoz was candid when explaining what he had to do to catch the knuckler: “At the end of the day, you’re just trying to catch it. You don’t know what type of spin or what kind of movement it’s gonna have. It’s a fine line of not trying to frame it but being patient enough and relaxed enough to trust your eyes to catch that.”
Munoz notes that repetition is key in getting better, saying “obviously a knuckleball is going to do what it’s going to do but the more you see it the better, confidence-wise, you are in receiving it.” For Jimenez, who is expected to start the season in Double-A New Hampshire, being adept at catching the knuckleball could be a way to get to the big leagues: “We have to do whatever it takes to get to the big leagues and Dickey is now on the big league team so we’re getting ready for him.”
Whether the Jays are consciously trying to create an environment to incubate the growth more knuckleball pitchers or whether they’re trying to train their catchers to catch R.A. Dickey, the Knuckleball U offers Viola and Ohka a chance to learn more about the pitch from someone who is plying his trade on the biggest stage.
For his own part, R.A. Dickey is grateful for the opportunity to have other knuckleballers in the organization to and has advocated on their behalf. Dickey said, “I certainly mentioned about Frankie [Viola] to [GM] Alex [Anthopoulos]. Ultimately if his knuckleball’s good enough he was going to get a chance. If it wasn’t, he needed to probably to keep working on it a little bit more. Thankfully he threw well for them, they ended up signing him. . . . I think that they liked the idea of someone working with [A.J.] Jimenez who’s an up and coming prospect for us, a catcher, so maybe that was also one of the strategies. I can’t tell you intimately why it happened but I’m thankful that it did.”
Is Frank Viola going to be able to revive his career that was cut short as a conventional pitcher due to injuries? Is he going to be the next player who is able to rise like a phoenix as the next major league knuckleballer? Catcher Aaron Munoz probably said it best: “Dickey’s story is actually something special but I think there’s another story out there too. Maybe we can find the next knuckleballer just like Dickey. But I think it’s cool that the Blue Jays are doing that. . . . It gives another pitcher an opportunity and that’s what it’s all about.”
I’d like to thank the players that I interviewed for this piece: Tomo Ohka, Frank Viola, A.J. Jimenez, Aaron Munoz and R.A. Dickey.
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