Pitching a ball that flutters or dances its way to the mound is incredibly difficult. But is that even possible? Yes, it is! That’s a knuckleball (KN) pitch.
Mastering knuckleballs isn’t child’s play. Only a few players can execute it correctly. What’s impressive about this pitch is that it can render a hitter powerless.
Let’s discover what is a knuckleball in baseball, the physics of a knuckleball, its pros and cons, and the legendary players who pulled it off.
- What Does a Knuckleball Do in Baseball?
- Speed of Knuckleball
- Tips to Throw a Knuckleball (Grip and Motion)
- Why Knuckleball is So Hard to Hit?
- Why Knuckleball is So Hard to Catch?
- What are the Advantages of Knuckleballs?
- What Are the Disadvantages of Knuckleballs
- Best Knuckleballers in Baseball
- Frequently Asked Questions
What Does a Knuckleball Do in Baseball?
A knuckleball pitch is thrown with a low spin rate to create an erratic movement. The unpredictability of the ball’s direction and the “zig-zag” or “dancing” motion of the ball tend to confuse batters, making it extremely hard for them to hit the ball.
Knuckleballs often lead to whiffs and soft-contact balls. They are the most difficult pitch for umpires to call and the hardest pitch for catchers to catch.
Speed of Knuckleball
After knowing the KN definition, let’s turn to the speed of KN.
Knuckleballs travel at a slow velocity and have little to no spin causing a random and unpredictable movement.
They travel at 60 to 80 mph, which is way slower than the average major league fastballs at 85 to 95 mph.
R.A. Dickey threw the fastest knuckleball at 102 mph, much higher than the average knuckleball speed.
Tips to Throw a Knuckleball (Grip and Motion)
Knuckleball is inarguably the hardest pitch to learn. How do you throw a knuckleball? How do you grip a knuckleball? Here are some useful tips:
- Keep your wrist stiff when throwing the ball.
- To Hold a knuckleball, use your knuckles or fingertips. You can use two, three, or four fingers. You may dig your fingers on the surface of the ball. The fingertip grip is more common among knuckleballers nowadays.
- Guide the ball using your middle finger. Place it below the red seam of the ball. Stabilize the pitch using your thumb and ring finger.
- The pinky fingers should not touch the ball.
- It’s important to release the ball using your fingertips and not your knuckles. Too much movement on your knuckles can create spins on the ball.
- Do not push the ball with your fingers. Let it slip from your hand. Throw it hard, but not too hard. All fingers should let go at the same time as you throw it.
- Make sure your momentum goes straight to the plate.
- Target the top-middle of the strike zone.
Regardless of your grip, aim to eliminate or reduce the rotational speed of the ball. Remember, constant practice is the key to mastering a skill.
Why Knuckleball is So Hard to Hit?
Even the best players in MLB or in cricket have a hard time hitting a knuckleball. This pitch is extremely difficult for hitters because of the ball’s minimal spin, contributing to its erratic and unpredictable motion.
Knuckleball’s slow motion shouldn’t be underestimated. Knuckleballs can jiggle, flutter, dive, or dance their way to the catcher’s mound, which can confuse and throw off batters. That combined with human’s limited reaction time, makes it much harder to predict the ball’s direction, let alone hit it.
It’s all in knuckleball physics. Here’s a simple explanation.
The atmosphere greatly influences the movements of the baseball. Variations in airflow can affect the ball’s trajectory and increase fluttering or zigzag motions. The airflow around the ball causes the ball to move randomly in the left and right directions.
When the seams have small rotations, the ball loses its stable lift, causing it to move erratically. Unlike other pitches, knuckleballs don’t have a pattern, making it nearly impossible to predict.
Why Knuckleball is So Hard to Catch?
As batters struggle to hit knuckleballs, catchers also have difficulty catching them. It’s hard to follow the direction of the ball due to its erratic movement.
Knuckleballs sometimes land directly in the strike zone. They often result in passed balls.
While there is no exact technique for catching knuckleballs, according to Bob Uecker, wait for the ball to stop rolling before picking it up. Teams also use a special knuckleball catcher’s mitt, which is lighter, larger, and more flexible than the typical catcher’s mitt.
See more other types of baseball pitching grip and learn more details about the difference between slider and cutter here!
What are the Advantages of Knuckleballs?
For the pitchers, it causes less wear-and-tear on the throwing arm, helping extend their career in baseball. The erratic flight path of the ball makes it hard to hit it squarely.
For the batters, poorly executed knuckleballs can result in easy-to-hit balls or free passes.
What Are the Disadvantages of Knuckleballs
Knuckleballs are extremely hard to hit for both the batters and the catchers.
For the pitchers, pulling off knuckleballs isn’t merely a walk in the park. Putting too many spins or throwing the ball so hard can result in a batter’s successful hit.
When not done correctly, it can result in a hanging curve, which is easy to hit. Because of its low velocity, a runner has extra time to steal a base. Not to mention, it takes a long time to master this pitch.
As you can see, though powerful, knuckleballs are extremely risky. The opposing team can punish this throw if executed falsely. Most teams would opt for safer pitches, such as fastballs or breaking balls.
Best Knuckleballers in Baseball
Throwing knuckleballs is a risk to take. The knuckleball pitch is considered the most difficult pitch to execute. Still, there are incredibly talented players who can do it flawlessly. Some of them even made it to the Baseball Hall of Famer. Can you name one?
On our list, we have Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey, Hoyt Wilhelm, Tim Wakefield, Dutch Leonard, Charlie Hough, Wilbur Wood, Eddie Cicotte, Tom Candiotti, and Joe Niekro.
Most sports enthusiasts and fans agree that Phil Niekro is the best knuckleballer in MLB history.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who invented the knuckleball?
It’s Thomas “Toad” Ramsey. He damaged the tendon of his index finger working as a bricklayer. The accident prevented him from holding the ball normally as the players of his generation.
Instead, Ramsey held the ball by his fingertips, exploring the very first version of the knuckleball pitch.
Is a knuckleball a good pitch?
Knuckleball pitch is uncommon, but it can effectively strike out a batter. It’s nearly impossible to hit a knuckleball. So yes, it’s a good pitch. However, we don’t see it very often due to its risky nature.
What happens when you hit a knuckleball?
When a player lands a hit on a knuckleball, they’re either very lucky or very good. Knuckleball movement can be deceiving. It’s hard to predict its direction. The most you could do is soft contact with the ball, if not a whiff.
What is the difference between a knuckleball and a fastball?
A knuckleball has no or very little rotational spin, whereas a fastball has several spins. And of course, a knuckleball cannot be classified as a fastball because it is anything but fast.
Are there grip variations in knuckleballs?
Yes, there are. The three variations in grip in throwing knuckleballs are two-fingered, three-fingered, and four-fingered knuckleballs.
Who throws a knuckleball in MLB?
In the history of MLB, there are quite a number of knuckleballers – players who mainly rely on their knuckleball pitch. In 2022, only nine players threw knuckleballs. The one stands out the most is Matt Waldon.
Why is a knuckleball uncommon in baseball today?
There are only a few players who can throw knuckleballs. That’s because they are utterly hard to master. It’s also stigmatized as only a “trick pitch” that does not present real baseball.
Now that you’ve learned, what is a knuckleball in baseball, do you think it’s worth mastering?
Throwing a knuckleball is notoriously tricky. But hitting and catching it is even more challenging. How is it possible to hit a ball that seems to jiggle its way to the mound?
There are pros and cons to pitching knuckleballs. It’s a risky play that only a few dare to do, and even fewer pull them off perfectly. That’s why knuckleballs are terrific but are rarely seen, even in MLB games.
A powerful swing and the ball is flying across the field, just one hit, and we might never forget the thrill it brings. I do not know about you, but I never do. Every baseball game is the chance to compete with others and cooperate with your teammate. It is among my biggest passions.