In French, the knuckleball pitch is called “balle papillon”, which translates to “butterfly pitch”. My oh my was the butterfly fluttering last night.
When I see my team’s upcoming pitching matchups and “Tim Wakefield” shows up as an opponent, I can’t help but feel a spark of excitement within me as I ponder the prospect of the Jays hitters teeing off on the softballs sure to be lofted towards the plate. Some nights it happens, and others turn out like last night. When that pitch is jumping, the hitters are powerless.
The factors that affect a knuckleball range from pitching ability to humidity index. When there’s more moisture in the air, the ball’s movement will be affected on its way to the plate by the extra resistance. This is the main reason why it’s so hard to count on a knuckleballer, and probably why we don’t see more of them in the Majors. You can imagine how frustrating it would be for a manager to witness a performance like yesterday’s by Wakefield (8 IP, 5 Hits, 1 ER), only to watch him go in his next start and post numbers like he did last week against the Angels (4.1 IP, 11 Hits, 7 ER). Most of the time, mechanics have nothing to do with it – you’re just at the mercy of the weatherman.
I don’t know how I’d deal with one of these guys if I were a manager. Sure it could be frustrating some nights, but on the other hand they can often take the mound and completely mistify the hitters. Not only that, but when they’re effective, they can go deep into games because the knuckler is the easiest pitch on one’s arm. It’s no wonder that Wakefield has been at this for 17 years with no signs of slowing down (I remember him frustrating Expos hitters in those great early ’90’s pennant races with the Pirates!), and why Charlie Hough, another prominent knuckeballer from baseball history, pitched 25 years until the age of 46. Does a knuckleball pitcher really need 4 days rest? This would fly in the face of modern convention, but perhaps a visionary manager could have a knuckleballer in the starting rotation, then have him in the bullpen on off days. If the humidity index is through the roof with your team leading 3-1 in the sixth inning, you bring in the “papillon”. Just a thought.
Another downside to having a knuckleballer on staff is that they aren’t very effective when the games become most important. Humidity tends to drop in the fall, and as mentioned earlier this affects the knuckleballer’s effectiveness: the ball doesn’t dance nearly as much in dry air. For example, Wakefield’s career E.R.A. is a respectable 4.31. In the playoffs, meanwhile, his E.R.A. jumps 244 points to 6.75. Hough’s stats also support this theory: he had a 3.75 E.R.A. for his career, but his postseason E.R.A. was 4.82.
Still, how do you tell a guy who went 17-12 during the regular season (as Wakefield did in 2007), that his stuff just isn’t good enough to pitch in the playoffs? That year Red Sox manager Terry Francona did try to hold Wakefield back, until he needed a pitcher deep in the ALCS against Cleveland. He finally relented (out of necessity) and was rewarded with 4.1 innings pitched with 5 runs allowed, completely contrary to the way Wakefield had pitched throughout a stellar regular season.
Last night’s game was a perfect exhibit for the advantages of having such a pitcher in your starting rotation. Once the Jays established that Wakefield was throwing strikes, they got real aggressive and starting swinging at the first pitch. Most of them ended up in the air, then harmlessly falling into the glove of a Red Sox infielder. Wakefield threw 96 pitches in 8 innings of work, barely breaking a sweat in the process. Francona brought in his closer in the ninth, almost as a courtesy to Papelbon so he could pick up an easy save against a dispirited team.
Want to learn to throw a knuckleball?
Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, Tom Candiotti; these are the knuckleball pitchers I remember from the past 20 years. Can you think of any others?