Knuckleball Pitchers: Passing the Torch

Tim Wakefield throwing the knuckleball. [Photo credit: Waldo Jaquith]

There’s just something about the knuckleball.

Something unique. Something workman-like. Something that makes us love and respect the pitcher who can make a career out of throwing that strange, fluttery pitch at the highest level. I suspect that it’s the humanity of the pitch that draws us to it. Not only does it’s slow-moving, take-it-as-it-is nature make us all feel like we could throw it ourselves, but the hit-or-miss success that even the best knuckleballer achieves really helps us identify with him. If anyone in the major leagues is the “everyman”, it’s the knuckler.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us are fascinated with the comings-and-goings of the few knuckleballers left in the big leagues. There have only been three knucklers to take the mound so far this year:

  • R.A. Dickey – Late last week, the Minnesota Twins released the 34-year-old seven-year-veteran to make room for another pitcher. They were not happy with his performance. One has to wonder if this could be the end of Dickey’s career, but his numbers – 4.62 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and 42/30 K/BB ratio in 64 1/3 innings – are good enough that he’ll likely find a few clubs willing to give him a chance.
  • Charlie Haeger – Still a young kid at age 25, Haeger has only made a couple of starts for the Dodgers so far this year. Both starts were strong, though. Dodgers’ fans, and fans of the knuckleball in general, have a lot to be hopeful about in Haeger.
  • Tim Wakefield – The godfather of the current generation of knucklers, Wakefield is still going strong at age 43. He even made his first All-Star team back in July, and though he didn’t make it into the game, his selection did elicit a surprising amount of support. It was a good reminder of just how popular he really is, even if that popularity is under the radar. But the injuries he’s been dealing with since then are worrisome. At his age, it could signify the end.

So what happens to the state of the knuckleballer when/if Wakefield does retire? With Dickey and Haeger as the only knucklers in the bigs, and with neither of them assured a spot on a team next year, we could be seeing the first year in a very long time that there is no true knuckleballer pitching.

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In fact, since 1908, when Eddie Cicotte made it to the major leagues for good, there has been at least one pitcher carrying the knuckleball banner in the big leagues every year – and that’s even ignoring the pitchers who only lasted 3 or 4 years in the majors. The chain of “star” knucklers is quite interesting, actually. When you look closely at it, you see that everytime one knuckleballer would retire, the next one would almost immediately take his place. It’s as if the baton was being passed from one grizzled, retiring veteran to a young, fresh-faced kid every two decades or so. And, depending on the years that you choose to demark the eras, you can even find a second chain, staggering the first. They’re both quite interesting.

Those staggered chains of  knuckleballers look like this (I used this fantastic list from KnuckleballHQ of nearly every player to ever throw the knuckleball as my main resource – as you can see there, there are many, many knuckleballers that aren’t mentioned here):

Eddie Cicotte (1905 – 1920): Cicotte didn’t make it up to the majors for good until 1908, but, when he did, he brought the knuckleball with him. The story goes that he invented the pitch a few years earlier and worked on it with either Nap Rucker or Eddie Summers. Eventually, though, it became the knuckleball that we all know and love. Cicotte, of course, was lost for good when he conspired to throw the 1919 World Series and Commissioner Landis expelled him from baseball. In that time, though, he was the foremost authority on the knuckler.

Jesse Haines (1920 – 1937)/Freddie Fitzsimmons (1925 – 1943): Haines is a Hall of Famer who reached the majors for good in 1920, as Cicotte was on his way out. Fitzsimmons showed up a few years later. According to the guys at KnuckleballHQ, Fitzsimmons’ pitch may have actually been a knuckle-curve. Both were successful pitchers.

Dutch Leonard (1933 – 1953)/Early Wynn (1939 – 1963): Leonard & Wynn each debuted a few years before Haines & Fitzsimmons retired, and each would enjoy a long career. Leonard would make four All-Star teams on his way to 191 wins and a 119 ERA+. Wynn, of course, would win exactly 300 games in his long career on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Hoyt Wilhelm (1952 – 1972)/Phil Niekro (1964 – 1987): Probably the two most famous knuckleballers in history. Wilhelm started his Hall of Fame career right as Leonard was leaving the majors, while Niekro started his Hall of Fame career as Wynn was wrapping up his. Wilhelm, of course, made his mark as a reliever, pitching in 1,070 games (and only starting 52 of them). That would remain the record for games pitched for 30 years. Niekro, on the other hand, started 716 games in his career and won 318 while posting a 115 ERA+ in 24 years. These guys were pretty good. (Wilbur Wood would also fit well here, pitching from 1961 to 1978).

Charlie Hough (1970 – 1994)/Tom Candiotti (1983 – 1999): Hough started his career as a reliever, just as Wilhelm was finishing his. He would pitch until he was 46 years old, with an almost perfect split in games pitched as a reliever and a starter (~420 games in each role). Candiotti learned the knuckleball directly from Niekro in 1985. I guess you could call it a direct passing of the torch between the two generations. Neither Hough nor Candiotti were Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers, but they both enjoyed nice, long, successful careers.

Tim Wakefield (1992 – ????): Which brings us to where we are today. Wakefield began his career with a bang, pitching so well down the stretch in the Pirates 1992 campaign that he finished third in the Rookie of the Year balloting. But his second year was nowhere near as good, and he was finally released by the Pirates in 1995. He has since pitched exclusively for the Red Sox, as a starter, reliever, and closer, and is now closing in on the club record for career wins.

So who does Wakefield pass the torch along to? In the past, there was always at least one other well-known knuckler still pitching when another was reaching the end of his career, so the knuckleball was never truly away from the game. But if Wakefield can’t shake these injuries, and if Haeger and Dickey can’t manage to attach themselves to a club, we might have to endure the first truly knuckle-free season in over a century. Let’s hope, then, that that doesn’t happen. Because, frankly, a knuckle-free MLB is not an MLB that I want to watch.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.