The knuckleball – a butterfly with hiccups

Robert Allen “R.A.” Dickey shouldn’t have been able to pitch. In fact the doctors who examined him said that a missing ligament in his right elbow should have made turning a doorknob a problem, let alone pitching a baseball in the majors.

Yet pitch he could and was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers in 1996, albeit on a much reduced signing bonus once the doctors’ report had been read. It took nearly five years to make his Major League debut and almost twelve before becoming anything like an established big-league player.

The spark that lit Dickey’s late career fire came from a change in pitching style. By 2005 his Major League career was hanging by a thread: he had become an unremarkable pitcher with a fastball that no longer travelled at speeds in the nineties and a rising ERA (Earned Run Average – a modified equivalent of cricket’s economy rate). Everything was heading in the wrong direction

At the suggestion of his manager, Dickey turned to the knuckleball– in his words, “the baseball equivalent of a carnival act”- an antiquity of a pitch that few in modern times would claim as their own and fewer would truly master. It was a decision of last resort. No American child grew up wanting to be a knuckleballer.

2011 cricket’s World Cup Quarter-Final, Ahmedabad. Australia, batting first against India, are at one of those moments were the innings could go either way: 150 for 3 in the 34th over, Ponting, in his cricketing dotage, is set but with Mike Hussey at the other end, new to the crease. A partnership here would set a platform for a push in the final ten overs; a wicket or two would put India on top.

Zaheer Khan delivers a slower, floaty, dipping ball; Hussey takes a step down the wicket, heaves across the line far too early and is bowled.

“Zaheer does it again” shouts the Cricinfo commentary. “It’s again that mystery bare-knuckle slower ball. It’s the latest invention from the Zaheer labs.”

Australia will be out of the tournament by the day’s end.

The knuckleball does what it does because of a lack of spin. The knuckles are kept tucked behind the ball in hand, sometimes resting against the surface, more often in baseball with fingernails pushing in to the leather below the seam. The aim is to keep the ball as still in flight as possible. It will rotate, inevitably, but the skilful knuckleballer will coax the ball to keep the rotation to a minimum. This leads to two phenomena:

One. The slowly rotating seam will cause the passing air to break at different points on the ball during its short flight, making it move erratically in the air – like a butterfly with hiccups, it was once said. The path of a well delivered knuckleball is as unknown to the pitcher as it is to the batter and to the poor catcher (who will often use a larger glove to limit the bruises).

The dance of the knuckleball will be more pronounced for the baseballer than the cricketer, as the baseball’s horseshoe shaped seam affords more opportunity to impart swing than the linear cricket seam (unless the quarter seam has been sufficiently raised). It will have slightly longer to travel as well, unless the cricketer bowls full-tosses (the pitching mound to home plate distance is roughly the same as popping crease to popping crease).

Two. Magnus force. Or, rather, the lack of it. Magnus is the force that causes a backwards rotating ball – your usual seam-up delivery – to remain flighted for a longer period (it also causes a top spinner to dip dramatically and a side-spun ball to drift, both useful tools of the spin bowler). The knuckleball keeps Magnus force to a minimum, allowing the ball to drop earlier than similar looking deliveries and, hopefully, earlier than the batter expects.

It is also an off-speed ball, though delivered without the need to slow the arm and give the game away. Most baseball knuckleballers will throw them somewhere between 60 and 70 mph. R.A. Dickey was one of the quicker practitioners of the art – usually clocking in the upper 70s and occasionally higher – and also the most versatile, with an even slower variety that dipped beneath the 60 mph mark. Knuckleballs in cricket tend fall somewhere in the low to mid 70s; Zaheer Khan’s to David Hussey was clocked at 73 mph.

Pitchers like Dickey or greats such as Phil Niekro and Tim Wakefield before him were dedicated to the knuckleball. It was their stock delivery. Dickey aimed to throw at least 80 percent of his pitches with the fingernails. His fastball was kept as an occasional surprise. In cricket the knuckleball was originally the surprise.

The slower ball in cricket has found a Renaissance in T20, where boundaries are the valued currency and pace can be turned against itself. Every self-respecting quick will have a slower-ball or two in the armoury and some more tricks than Cecil Parkin. Cricket has yet to find its own dedicated knuckleballer in the mould of an R.A. Dickey but are not far off in men such as Pat Brown or Andrew Tye who are happy to send down spells dominated by the slower balls. Both also have a mastery of the knuckleball. It is a delivery growing in popularity.

Yet, at the same time that bowlers are learning from pitchers, baseball has turned a different way. The knuckleballer is a dying baseball breed. In the 2019 MLB season, only two pitchers could be called by that name (and one of those only made the briefest appearance) and in the (albeit truncated) season of 2020 it was zero. As recently as 2011, 4,439 knuckleballs were thrown; in 2019, not much over 200.

It is hard to master, looks foolish when ill-executed and is just plain out of fashion in modern day baseball. Like Duncan Fletcher’s England in the early 2000s, baseball is currently in thrall to the speed gun. Greater velocity and more spin are the coaches’ goals, the very antithesis of the knuckleball.

They have succeeded. At the turn of the century, fastballs averaged at a little under 89 mph, by 2019 only a tick under 94 mph. Fastballs are being thrown slightly less often but they are arriving with much more heat.

The result has been to tilt the game of baseball firmly towards the pitcher. Strikes have risen, batting averages have fallen and the ball is in play far less. 2018 became the first year in MLB history where strikeouts outnumbered hits. The impact of this on the entertainment value of the sport has been of sufficient concern for the MLB authorities to introduce new rules limiting the regularity by which coaches can change pitchers in and out of the game; throwing at speeds of up to (and sometimes in excess of) 100 mph takes a lot out of an arm. The independent Atlantic League has gone further and moved the pitching mound two feet back to give batters more time to react to the thunderbolts coming their way.

The baseball batting community has tried to adjust to the shrinking reaction time afforded them by focussing on ‘launch angles’. It has been found that a ball leaving a bat at between 25 and 30 degrees will have the best chance of bringing a home run; 10 to 25 degrees, a line drive; outside of that, trouble. Swing at the right angle and if – if – you connect, the runs will come.

This development has not helped devotees of the knuckleball either. The slower pitch has a reputation (perhaps unfairly) as home run fodder when not executed perfectly. The trend towards the aerial launch angle does the perception of the risks associated with the knuckleballer little favour.

All this hardly produces a conducive environment to persuade emerging pitchers to spend years in the minor leagues perfecting the most challenging of all deliveries.

Conversely, the arrival of the knuckleball in cricket came in response to the increased supremacy of the bat. As limited-overs cricket became the financially dominant form of the game, the focus of the professional batter’s development centred on becoming faster, stronger and more versatile. Ramps, switch-hits, scoops; the 360 degree game. Scores and bowlers’ economy rates moved together northwards. Bowlers reacted with their own bag of tricks and the most successful tended to be those who had mastery of the slower speeds; be that the spin bowler or the quick with a range of well-disguised slower balls. Even the true speed-merchants needed their change-up, often including the knuckleball.

As in baseball, it is the most difficult skill to execute – witness Colin de Grandhomme’s errant knuckleball soaring over the heads of batsman and keeper in Delhi or Joffra Archer’s unfortunate beamer to Anrich Nortje at Centurion. Andrew Tye, probably the finest practitioner of the art in international cricket, whose bowling strategy is based on varieties of slower deliveries, spent years perfecting the ball. Patience paid off, no more so than in 2017 when he took 4 for 22 in the Big Bash – including a hat-trick – all from knuckleballs.

One would guess that, like the switch-hit or ramp-shot, the knuckleball is on its way to becoming just part of the fabric of game. Though the difficulty in its execution may limit its expert practitioners to the most skilful few. An American import at the exact same time that it disappears into the shadows of the American game.

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