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The Lefty Knuckleballer

This Saturday I put the White Sox/Blue Jays game to see that the Blue Jays were starting a left hander who throws a knuckleball, Ryan Feierabend. It's not his main pitch, it's his number three pitch and picking it up was his ticket back to the MLB after five years away from The Show, but it's an incredibly rare trait in a pitcher. The announcers were in the middle of talking about how rare of an appearance it was when his second pitch of the game gave up an absolute bomb of a home run to Leury Garcia. The White Sox broadcast team had an expert, former White Sox left handed knuckleballer, Wilbur Wood (1967-'78), available to call in and illuminate a little about his time in Chicago as Feierabend was getting knocked around by White Sox hitter before the game was shortened by rain in the fifth inning.

With a name like “Wilbur Wood,” a ballplayer is going to be “baseball weird.” Baseball players are generally strange people, with odd superstitions, strange sense of humor and peculiarities off the field. Wilbur Forrester Wood was strange for what he was on the field. He was a left-handed knuckleball pitcher.

Wilbur Wood, Public Domain, 1973.

Lefthanders are so rare in life that they have a bit of a leg up on on players because the ball is coming at hitter from a different angle than they are used to seeing their whole ballplaying lives. They don’t need to throw mid-90’s to make the majors and there’s even a class of player, the crafty lefty, a pitcher who is able to stick around the majors for a long time despite having minimal velocity on their pitches. They have what it takes to show hitters what they do not expect to the extent that they continue to be productive. The classic example is Jamie Moyer who pitched until 2012. In his last game he was older then, at 49, than Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr is NOW. Moyer racked up 269 wins, a 4.25 ERA and 49.8 WAR.

Jamie Moyer, Public Domain, 2007.

Knuckleballers are much more rare than lefties, as there are are usually only one or two in the majors at a time and very often there is a risk that there will be none in the league at a time. The only other pitch that is more rare for a pitcher is the screwball, a pitch that acts as a slider that cuts in the opposite direction that every other pitch from that pitcher’s handedness cuts. The most recent pitcher to really use it with regularity was Fernando Valenzuela, and it propelled him into being the most exciting pitcher in the league for a few years in the 1980’s. The lefty Valenzuela would take away the lefty-righty advantage of hitters by cutting his screwball away from right handed hitters. The screwball puts such a tax on the arm that it wears the arm down into injury faster than other pitches. It’s a pitch whose oddity can give great success then take all ability to pitch away and end a career.

A more recent popular pitch that creates success before taking away everything like a Greek myth or a deal with the devil is the power sinker. The power sinker is basically a ball with movement, that drops, but is thrown at the speed of a fastball. It comes to the batter like a bowling ball, dropping as they swing at it, so that the hitter is almost forced to hit the top of the ball, sending it into the ground. Jason Dickson of the Angels used one. He pitched 7 games in his rookie year of 1996, was an All-Star in his first full season of ‘97, and only played in parts of ‘98 and 2000, both seasons injury plagued from the pitch and suffering an ERA over 6.00.

Chase Field, Opening Day 2013. Picture by Pete Talbot.

One of the most recent stars with a power sinker was the Diamondback's Brandon Webb, winner of the NL Cy Young Award in ‘06 and second place finisher in both ‘07 and ‘08. He led the league in wins in ‘06 and ‘08 (16 and 22) and shutouts in ‘06 and ‘07 (three each). He had one start in ‘09 what would have been his seven season in the majors at the age of 30, throwing only four innings before leaving with an injury, never to come back to play on a major league field again. He only pitched six full seasons but won 87 games, with a 3.27 ERA, and a 31.1 WAR.

The knuckleball is a pitch that is so non-taxing on pitchers that it is often used to revitalize a career for players who just can’t make it otherwise. Tim Wakefield flamed out as a shortstop in the minors before taking up the pitch and pitching 19 years in the majors and winning 200 games. R.A. Dickey’s draft stock dropped when newspaper photos showed that he wasn’t holding his arm out straight, later physicals showed that he had a tendon abnormality that would keep him from a prolonged career as a fireballer as he had been as an amateur. He ended up pitching 15 years in the majors and winning the 2012 NL Cy Young Award with the Mets at the age of 37 and a Gold Glove the next year with the Blue Jays.

The knuckleball is a strange pitch that must be treated as an art rather than a science. A pitcher tries to throw the ball with as few revolutions as possible on the trip from his fingertips to the plate, and most knucklers say that they want it to make only a single revolution on its way to the plate. This creates a lot of drag on the ball from the stitches meeting wind resistance, pockets of warmer or colder air, rain or even snow. The ball will flutter like a butterfly moving up and down in a few directions on the way to the plate. there are too many variables to consider for the path of the ball to be able to predict its direction beyond a sense of the feel of the ball on the fingertips. The hitter doesn’t know where the ball is going to go, “if it’s high let it fly, if it’s low let it go” is the mantra. The catcher doesn’t know where it’s going, the Red Sox once had to make a transaction to reacquire Tim Wakefield’s personal catcher Doug Mirabeli, racing him to the park with a police escort from the airport because the previous catcher was unable to curtail the mounting passed balls he had accrued from the knuckleball.

Not all knuckleballs are the same, Wakefield’s came in to a batter at about 65 miles an hour and fluttered a lot. Dickey’s knuckler was closer to the 75 mile an hour range and he would mix in a fastball in the 80’s. Wilbur Wood threw his from the left side, to be the best of the unpredictability of a knuckler and the craftiness of a lefty.

Wood was an iron man of pitching, an ironwood. In 1973 he led the league in wins and games started, winning 24, and starting 48. He was a 20-game winner that year but also a 20-game loser, going 24-20, one of only three pitchers (with Walter Johnson and Joe Niekro) ever to do so. I can only assume he was Ernie Banks’ favorite crosstown rival ever, starting both games in a double header for the White Sox that year, winning both games on May 28th… He tried it again of a July 20th double header, losing both ends. “Let’s play two,” indeed. Over his 17 year career from 1961 to 1978 he was was four-time 20 game winner, three time All-Star, three time top-five Cy Young vote-getter, he led the league in games started with over 40, for four straight years, and won 164 games to go with a career 3.24 ERA and a WAR of 50.0. Those win numbers don’t seem to add up because he was only a starting pitcher in the last eight years of his career. In his last three years as a reliever he led the league in games played with 88, 76 and 77 games. His ERA was 1.87 and he won 13 games as a reliever in 1968, the year that he pitched in 88 games.

Hoyt Wilhelm, Public Domain, 1959.

He was 25 years old when he joined the White Sox and met Hall of Fame knuckler Hoyt Wilhelm, whom he names as the greatest knuckler of all-time. Wilhelm’s career was almost exclusively as a reliever, pitching in 1070 games with an ERA of 2.52 and 228 saves. Wood learned to master the knuckleball he had been “monkeying around with” since junior high from Wilhelm and his career took off from there.

Working with pitching coach Johnny Sain (of “Spahn, Sain and pray for rain,” fame of the 1940’s Braves) Wood attempted a two days rest regimen as a starter from ‘71 to ‘75. It was a dead ball routine, championed by a pitcher who nearly came from that time. Sain believed, in a very Mike Marshall philosophy that a pitcher’s “arm will rust out before it wears out” believing that rest could be detrimental to longevity. The experiment ended after Wood’s 4.11 ERA in 1975, his highest of the stretch,attendance was down, the team was sold to Bill Veeck who fired manager Chuck Tanner and Johnny Sain moved on to Boston to work with Hall of Fame knuckler Phil Niekro. Under Sain, Niekro only pitched on short rest once compared to Wood’s short rest 85 times over two seasons from ‘72 to ‘73.

Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn in 1951. Public Domain.

Wood learned his knuckleball from Hoyt Wilhelm, Sain brought some knowledge from Wood to Phil Niekro, Phil and Joe Niekro mentored Wakefield early in his career and Wakefield mentored Dickey through the fellowship of knuckleballers.

As crafty as Wood was as a pitcher, he was a terrible hitter. He didn’t get a hit for the first six years of his career. His best year for batting average was 1972, when he hit .136, but he struck out 65 times, a record for a pitcher. He was pardoned from the embarrassment from hitting the next year as the AL introduced the designated hitter.

Wood was an anomaly. “Baseball weird.” He was a great reliever, and a prolific starter. He was lefty and a knuckler. He was durable but ultimately wore down from injury. He struggled with weight in his later years but his injuries came from comebackers to both knees. His injuries slowed him down, but a sense of being “gun shy” for fear of batted balls hitting him. He is considered to be the best lefty to throw a knuckleball in major league history.

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