A knuckleball or knuckler is a baseball pitch thrown to minimize the
spin of the ball in flight, causing an erratic, unpredictable motion.
The air flow over a seam of the ball causes the ball to transition
from laminar to turbulent flow. This transition adds a deflecting
force on the side of the baseball. This makes the pitch difficult for
batters to hit, but also difficult for pitchers to control and
catchers to catch; umpires are challenged as well, as the ball's
irregular motion through the air makes it harder to call balls and
2 Grip and motion
3 Naming and relationship to other pitches
5 Use in pitching
7 See also
9 External links
The origins of the knuckleball are unclear.
Toad Ramsey of the
Louisville Colonels in the old American Association—his pitch likely
resembled the knuckle curve—and
Eddie Cicotte of the major leagues'
Chicago White Sox, who in 1908, was nicknamed "Knuckles", are two
possible creators of the pitch. Other accounts attribute the
pitch's creation to Charles H. Druery, a pitcher for the Blue Ridge
League. In 1917, Druery taught the pitch to
Eddie Rommel who became
successful with the knuckleball for the Philadelphia Athletics.
Grip and motion
Eddie Cicotte, who is sometimes credited with inventing the
As used by Cicotte, the knuckleball was originally thrown by holding
the ball with the knuckles, hence the name of the pitch. Ed Summers, a
Pittsburgh teammate of Cicotte who adopted the pitch and helped
develop it, modified this by holding the ball with his fingertips and
using the thumb for balance. This grip can also include digging the
fingernails into the surface of the ball. The fingertip grip is more
commonly used today by knuckleball pitchers, like retired Boston Red
Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who had a knuckleball with a lot of
movement. There are other prominent knuckleball pitchers like Hall of
Famer Phil Niekro, who had a very effective knuckler and knuckle
curve, and current
Atlanta Braves pitcher R.A. Dickey. However, young
pitchers with smaller hands tend to throw the knuckleball with their
knuckles. Sometimes young players will throw the knuckleball with
their knuckles flat against the ball, giving it less spin but also
making it difficult to throw any significant distance.
Regardless of how the ball is gripped, the purpose of the knuckleball
is to have the least possible amount of rotational spin. Created by
the act of throwing a ball, the ball's trajectory is significantly
affected by variations in airflow caused by differences between the
smooth surface of the ball and the stitching of its seams. The
asymmetric drag that results tends to deflect the trajectory toward
the side with the stitches.
Over the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate, the effect
of these forces is that the knuckleball can "flutter," "dance,"
"jiggle," or curve in two different directions during its flight. A
pitch thrown completely without spin is less desirable, however, than
one with only a very slight spin (so that the ball completes between
one-quarter and one-half a rotation on its way from the pitcher to the
batter). This will cause the position of the stitches to change as the
ball travels, which changes the drag that gives the ball its motion,
thus making its flight even more erratic. Even a ball thrown without
rotation will "flutter", due to the "apparent wind" it feels as its
trajectory changes throughout its flight path.
Hitting a knuckleball is different enough from other aspects of
baseball that players specifically prepare for the pitch during
batting practice before games they expect it in. According to
physicist Robert Adair, due to the physiological limitation of human
reaction time, a breaking knuckleball may be impossible to hit except
by luck. If a knuckleball does not change direction in mid-flight,
however, then it is easy to hit due to its lack of speed. (A common
phrase for hitting a knuckleball is "if it's low, let it go; if it's
high, let it fly"; meaning that a batter should attempt to hit a
knuckleball only if it crosses the plate high in the strike zone.)
Since it typically only travels 60 to 70 miles per hour (97 to
113 km/h), far slower than the average major league fastball
85 to 95 miles per hour (137 to 153 km/h), it can be hit very
hard if there is no movement. One 2007 study offered evidence for this
conclusion. To reduce the chances of having the knuckleball get hit
for a home run, some pitchers will impart a slight topspin so that if
no force causes the ball to dance, it will move downward in flight.
Another drawback is that runners on base can usually advance more
easily than if a conventional pitcher is on the mound. This is due to
both the knuckleball's low average speed and its erratic movement,
which force the catcher to keep focusing on the ball even after the
runners start stealing their next bases. However, since a typical
major league starting rotation exceeds the length of a series against
any one opponent, one way a manager can mitigate this disadvantage is
to adjust his team's pitching rotation so as to eliminate (or at least
minimize) games in which a knuckleballer would pitch against teams
with a preponderance of fast baserunners. Some knuckleball pitchers,
Hoyt Wilhelm and Tim Wakefield, had catchers specifically
assigned to them to catch their knuckleballs.
A paper presented at the 2012 Conference of the International Sports
Engineering Association argues, based on
PITCHf/x data, that
knuckleballs do not make large and abrupt changes in their
trajectories on the way to home plate—or at least, no more abrupt
than a normal pitch. It speculates that the appearance of abrupt
shifting may be due to the unpredictability of the changes in
The knuckleball are also employed by the Indian cricket fast bowlers
Bhuvneshwar Kumar and
Zaheer Khan as their slower delivery. The
physics of the operation are largely the same. However, the seam on a
cricket ball is equatorial, and thus the extent of erratic movement is
reduced due to the symmetry (at least in the conventional release
position where the planes of the ball's trajectory and the seam are
nearly co-planar). In addition, the lack of backspin does shorten the
length of the delivery, and also tends to make the ball skid off the
pitch—faster than it would come off a normal delivery.
Naming and relationship to other pitches
Tim Wakefield in his throwing motion, showing his grip of the
Since it developed during a period when the spitball was legal and
commonly used, and was similarly surprising in its motion, the
knuckleball was sometimes called the "dry spitter". Cicotte was widely
reported to throw both the knuckleball and a variant on the spitball
known as a "shine ball" (because he would "shine" one side of a dirty
ball by rubbing it on his uniform). However, Cicotte called the shine
ball "a pure freak of the imagination", claiming that he did this to
disconcert hitters and that the pitch was still a knuckleball.
Other names for the knuckleball have generally alluded to its motion
and slower speed. These include the flutterball, the floater, the
dancer, the butterfly ball, the ghostball, and the bug.
The knuckle curve has a somewhat similar name because of the grip used
to throw it (also with the knuckles or fingernails), but it is
generally thrown harder and with spin. The resulting motion of the
pitch more closely resembles a curveball, which explains the
combination name. Toad Ramsey, a pitcher from 1885 to 1890, is
credited in some later sources with being the first knuckleballer,
apparently based primarily on accounts of how he gripped the ball;
however, based on more contemporary descriptions of his pitch as an
"immense drop ball", it may be that his pitch was a form of knuckle
curve. Two later pitchers,
Jesse Haines and Freddie Fitzsimmons, were
sometimes characterized as knuckleball pitchers even by their
contemporaries, but in their cases this again refers to a
harder-thrown, curving pitch that would probably not be called a
knuckleball today. Historically, the term "knuckle curve" had a usage
that was different from what it has in the game today. Many current
pitchers throw a curveball using a grip with the index finger touching
the ball with the knuckle or the fingertip (also called a spike
curve). This modern pitch type is unrelated to the knuckleball.
As of 2004[update], only about 70 Major League
Baseball pitchers have
regularly used the knuckleball during their careers, and its use has
become more rare over time. This can be attributed to a variety of
factors. The first is selection bias in scouting. Because the speed of
any prospect's pitch is one of the quickest and easiest metrics in
judging the skill of the prospect, the knuckleball, which is thrown
slower than any other pitch, gets overlooked.
Tim Wakefield argues
that "The problem is that [baseball] is so radar gun-oriented." Former
knuckleballer and pitching coach
Charlie Hough says that the increased
rarity of the knuckleball is due to scouts increasingly looking only
for the best arm. This effect is increasing over time as the
modern game continues to emphasize power in pitching and average pitch
Another factor contributing to the rarity of the knuckleball is the
difficulty of throwing the pitch.
R.A. Dickey estimates that it takes
at least a year to grasp the fundamentals of the knuckleball. The
knuckleball is radically different than any other pitch in a pitcher's
arsenal, and less predictable, thus difficult to control. It is for
this reason that the knuckleball is widely regarded as unreliable, and
knuckleball pitchers are prone to extended slumps, such as when Tim
Wakefield was released from the Pirates in a mid-career slump during
spring training in 1995. Another reason for the difficulty of the
knuckleball is due to the network effect. Because there are so few
knuckleball pitchers, the resources for learning and improving the
knuckleball are few compared to more common pitches. Pitching coaches
often struggle with knuckleball pitchers due to a lack of experience
with the pitch. "I think the hardest thing for me is just the
alone-ness that you feel sometimes because nobody else really does
it", said Wakefield.
Coaches have also been seen as a barrier to succeeding with the
Jim Bouton said, "coaches don't respect it. You can pitch
seven good innings with a knuckleball, and as soon as you walk a guy
they go, 'See, there's that damn knuckleball.'"
R.A. Dickey argues
that, "for most managers, it takes a special manager to be able to
really trust it – the bad and the good of it. Coaches are quick to
banish the pitch after one bad outing. This was common due to the
amount of practice one must put into the pitch. And traditionally, if
you look at Tim Wakefield, Joe and Phil Niekro, Tom Candiotti, Wilbur
Hoyt Wilhelm and all the guys that threw it, through their
success they had guys who really believed in what it could do
long-term and committed to giving them the ball every fifth day to do
In 1991, Hall of Fame catcher Rick Ferrell was quoted as saying, "I
think the knuckleball is fading out." Ferrell knows knuckleballs; he
had the task of being the Washington Senators' catcher in 1944 and
'45, when the Senators had four knuckleball pitchers in their starting
rotation. Furthermore, other factors, such as a dearth of knuckleball
teachers and the dramatic increase in the running game (base stealing
is often easier against knuckleball pitchers), may be contributing to
its demise. Says Bob Humphrey, a former major-league knuckleball
pitcher: "you just don't have time to mess with it." A fast-track
scheme is developing, eliminating the knuckleballer pitcher's chief
Tom Candiotti said: "to get signed, you have to be
impressive on the radar guns." The knuckleball takes time to master
and is not an attractive pitch on the radar guns, both of which may be
contributing to its demise.
Perhaps as a result, knuckleball pitchers often view themselves as
members of an exclusive club, with its own uniform number (49, first
worn by Wilhelm) and leader (Phil Niekro, whom
The New Yorker
The New Yorker in 2004
called "the undisputed Grand Poobah" of the group after Wilhelm's
death). Because they cannot discuss pitching with non
knuckleball-using teammates, they often share tips and insights even
if on competing teams, and believe that they have a responsibility to
help younger players develop the pitch. When, in 2012, R. A.
Dickey became the first Cy Young Award-winning knuckleball pitcher, he
called the award "a victory for … the knuckleball fraternity", and
of the dozens of phone calls he received after the announcement,
Niekro's was the only one he answered.
When originally developed, the knuckleball was used by a number of
pitchers as simply one pitch in their repertoire, usually as part of
changing speeds from their fastball. It is almost never used in a
mixed repertoire today, however, and some believe that to throw the
knuckleball effectively with some semblance of control over the pitch,
one must throw it more or less exclusively. At the same time,
pitchers rarely focus on the knuckleball if they have reasonable skill
with more standard pitches. Unlike conventional pitches, which perform
fast results without much exertion, a knuckleball pitcher must train
his body and muscle memory to be able to execute a 65 mph pitch
with under one rotation.
Use in pitching
The knuckleball does provide some advantages to its practitioners. It
does not need to be thrown hard (in fact, throwing too hard may
diminish its effectiveness), and is therefore less taxing on the arm.
This means knuckleball pitchers can throw more innings than other
pitchers, and, requiring less time to recover after pitching, can
pitch more frequently. The lower physical strain also fosters longer
careers. Some knuckleballers have continued to pitch professionally
well into their forties; examples include Tim Wakefield, Hoyt Wilhelm,
R.A. Dickey, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, and the brothers Phil
Niekro and Joe Niekro. Pitchers like Bouton have found success as
knuckleballers after their ability to throw hard declined.
Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro, and Jesse Haines, three pitchers who
primarily relied on the knuckleball, have been inducted into the
Baseball Hall of Fame. Additionally, Ted Lyons, another member of the
Hall of Fame, relied heavily on the knuckleball after injuring his arm
in 1931. Niekro was given the nickname "Knucksie" during his
career. Other prominent knuckleball pitchers have included Josh
Joe Niekro (Phil's brother), Charlie Hough, Dave Jolly, Ben
Flowers, Wilbur Wood, Barney Schultz, Tom Candiotti, Bob Purkey, Steve
Sparks, Eddie Rommel, Tim Wakefield, Steven Wright, and Dickey. During
the 1945 season, with talent depleted by call-ups to fight in World
War II, the Washington Senators had a pitching rotation which included
four knuckleball pitchers (Dutch Leonard, Johnny Niggeling, Mickey
"Itsy Bitsy" Haefner and Roger Wolff) who combined for 60 complete
games and 60 wins, carrying the Senators to second place.
Dickey of the
Atlanta Braves is one of only a few knuckleballers in
the big leagues, joined by Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox. Dickey
routinely throws an unusually fast knuckleball at 80 mph
(130 km/h). Minor leaguers
Charlie Zink of the Lancaster
Barnstormers, Joseph Zeller of the Peoria Chiefs, and Charlie Haeger
Albuquerque Isotopes also throw the knuckleball. Dickey himself
has taken an active involvement in helping younger knuckleballers
coming through, and in 2012, he started providing personal coaching
lessons to 18-year-old knuckleball pitcher Stephen Orso.  In
November 2008, it was announced that 16-year-old knuckleballer Eri
Yoshida was drafted as the first woman ever to play in Japanese
professional baseball for the Kobe 9 Cruise of the Kansai Independent
Baseball League. On March 2, 2010, she trained with
Tim Wakefield at
Boston Red Sox
Boston Red Sox minor-league training facility. And on April 8,
2010, she signed with the Chico Outlaws, debuting on May 29, 2010.
Detroit Tigers reliever
Eddie Bonine also throws a knuckleball,
though he does so infrequently as compared to pitchers who use it as a
primary pitch. Lance Niekro, son of Joe Niekro, attempted to convert
from a position player to a knuckleball pitcher. He started the 2009
season with the Gulf Coast League Braves, but is currently retired and
coaching college baseball at Florida Southern.
The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and
pick it up.
— Bob Uecker
As with hitters, the unpredictable motion of the knuckleball makes it
one of the most difficult pitches for catchers to handle, and they
tend to be charged with a significantly higher number of passed balls.
Former catcher Bob Uecker, who caught for
Phil Niekro said, "The way
to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it
up." Bouton said, "Catchers hate it. Nobody likes to warm up with
you." According to Adair, the 150 ms minimum human reaction time
may be too slow to adjust to a knuckleball's changing direction.
A team will sometimes employ a catcher solely for games started by a
knuckleballer. The "knuckleball catcher" is equipped with an
oversized knuckleball catcher's mitt, similar to a first baseman's
glove; Doug Mirabelli, formerly of the Red Sox, used a softball
catcher's mitt. The
Boston Red Sox
Boston Red Sox did this fairly systematically in
their 2004 world championship season, with Mirabelli regularly
catching in place of
Jason Varitek when
Tim Wakefield was pitching.
This use of a "specialist" catcher continued into the 2008 season
following the signing of Kevin Cash, and 2009 saw George Kottaras
fulfill this role. On August 26, the first time Victor Martinez caught
Wakefield, he used a first baseman's glove, instead of a regular
catcher's mitt. For a catcher, a key disadvantage to using a first
baseman's glove instead of a regular catcher's mitt is that first
baseman's gloves are not designed for easy extraction of a ball from
the glove, a trait which further intensifies the difficulty a catcher
endures in preventing baserunners from stealing bases.
On occasion, teams have traded knuckleball pitchers and their catchers
in the same transaction. For example,
Josh Thole and
Mike Nickeas went
with Dickey when the pitcher was traded to the
Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays in
late 2012, and the team later signed Henry Blanco, who also caught for
The record for passed balls in an inning (4 passed balls) was first
Ray Katt of the New York Giants in 1954, catching Hoyt
Wilhelm. It was tied by
Geno Petralli of the Texas Rangers in 1987
while trying to catch knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough, and tied
again in 2013 when
Ryan Lavarnway of the
Boston Red Sox
Boston Red Sox passed four
balls in the first inning, catching knuckleballer Steven Wright in
Wright's first major league start. Varitek holds the postseason
record with three passed balls in the 13th inning of
Game 5 of the
2004 American League Championship Series while catching Wakefield.
In the 2013 season,
J. P. Arencibia
J. P. Arencibia (then catching for the Toronto
Blue Jays) set a franchise record by allowing 4 passed balls in the
season opening game (a 4–2 loss) while catching for knuckleballer
R.A. Dickey. He never caught for Dickey again.
List of knuckleball pitchers
Knuckleball!, 2012 documentary
^ a b c Hoffman, Benjamin. "Not So Easy on the Eyes" New York Times
(June 23, 2012)
^ a b c d e McGrath, Ben (May 17, 2004). "Project Knuckleball". The
^ "Charles H. Druery" (PDF). Watertown Daily. 27 December 1968.
Knuckle Ball Inventor Dead". Cumberland Evening Times. 27 December
1968. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
^ Nathan, Alan M. "The Physics of Baseball:
^ Murphy, Dave (2012-12-21). "I am 2-time NL MVP Dale Murphy, former
MLB player for the Braves, Phillies and Rockies. AMA!". Reddit.
Retrieved December 21, 2012.
^ Neyer, Rob (June 24, 2012). "Will R.A. Dickey's Angry Knuckleball
Change The Game?".
Baseball Nation. Retrieved June 29, 2012.
^ Walsh, John (November 27, 2007). "Butterflies are not bullets". The
Hardball Times. Retrieved 31 October 2012.
^ Nathan, Alan M. (February 29, 2012). "Analysis of knuckleball
trajectories" (PDF). Procedia Engineering. 34: 116–121.
doi:10.1016/j.proeng.2012.04.021. Retrieved October 31,
2012. [permanent dead link]
^ Selvey, Mike; Marks, Vic; Bull, Andy; Hopps, David (April 4, 2011).
Cricket World Cup: The writers' verdicts". The Guardian. London.
Retrieved 7 October 2012.
^ a b c d "Knuckleballers' paths as tricky as the pitch". Major League
^ "MLB pitchers setting velocity records, altering balance of power".
Knuckleball pitchers may be a dying breed". Herald-Journal – via
Google News Archive Search.
^ "The art of the mysterious knuckleball is on the verge of
extinction". The Tuscaloosa News – via Google News Archive
^ McAdam, Sean (2008-07-22). "Wakefield, Dickey share a unique
relationship". ESPN. Retrieved 2013-05-03.
^ Schilken, Chuck (2012-11-15). "
R.A. Dickey calls
Cy Young Award
Cy Young Award a
victory for all knuckleballers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved
^ "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers". google.com.
^ Nate Beard. "The Future of the Knuckleball". Bleacher Report.
^ Administrator. "The Sunday Saga of Ted Lyons". sabr.org.
^ Martin, Dan (20 June 2012). "Mets pitcher OK with sharing his
secrets". www.nypost.com. Retrieved 25 October 2012.
^ Taylor, Phil (24 September 2012). "Striking A Blow For Slow". Sports
Illustrated. Archived from the original on 2014-03-10. Retrieved 25
^ Speier, Alex (March 3, 2010). "
Knuckleball life comes full circle
for Wakefield". WEEI. Retrieved May 24, 2011.
^ Witz, Billy (May 30, 2010). "Japan's '
Knuckle Princess' Arrives in
U.S." New York Times.
^ a b Keating, Steve (2013-04-02). "Arencibia lives knuckleball
nightmare on opening day". Reuters. Retrieved 2013-04-07.
^ Sullivan, Jeff. "All-Star
Game 2012: The Glove To Catch R.A.
Dickey". SB Nation. Retrieved 26 May 2014.
^ Barbarisi, Dan (August 26, 2009). "Victor Martinez passes the
Wakefield test". The Providence Journal. Archived from the original on
July 15, 2011. Retrieved May 24, 2011.
^ a b "
Red Sox catcher
Ryan Lavarnway ties big league record with four
passed balls". mlb.com. Retrieved September 27, 2013.
^ Mark Feinsand (19 October 2004). "Yanks, Sox headed back to NY".
MLB.com. Retrieved 2014-09-18. The passed balls allowed Yankees
batter Gary Sheffield to reach first after a strikeout, and then
advance to second and third. But no runs scored, and the
Red Sox won
Adair, Robert Kemp (1990). The physics of baseball (1st ed.). New
York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-096461-8.
McGrath, Ben (May 17, 2004). "Project Knuckleball". The New Yorker. An
The New Yorker
The New Yorker about the history of the knuckleball and
contemporary knuckleball pitchers.
Center, Bill (June 28, 2008). "Q&A with Josh Banks". The San Diego
Union-Tribune. Retrieved May 24, 2011.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Knuckleball
Knuckleball Headquarters – Comprehensive collection of information
about the pitch and those who have thrown it
The (Mostly) Complete List of
Knuckleball Pitchers – A list of just
about everyone who's thrown the pitch in the major leagues, with links
to each player's career stats.
NPR.org on the Red Sox's re-acquisition of Doug Mirabelli
Intentional ball (pitchout)
The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (2004 book)