knuckleball (or knuckler for short) is a baseball pitch with an erratic, unpredictable motion. The pitch is thrown so as to minimize the spin of the ball in flight. This causes vortices over the stitched seams of the baseball during its trajectory, which in turn can cause the pitch to change direction—and even corkscrew—in mid-flight. This makes the pitch difficult for batters to hit, but also difficult for pitchers to control. The challenge also extends to the catcher, who must at least attempt to catch the pitch, and the umpire, who must determine whether the pitch was a strike or ball.
The knuckleball was originally thrown by holding the ball with the knuckles, hence the name of the pitch. It was later modified by the pitcher holding the ball with his fingertips and using the thumb for balance. This grip can also include digging the fingernails into the surface of the ball. The fingertip grip is actually more commonly used today by pitchers who throw the knuckleball. However, youngsters with smaller hands tend to throw the knuckleball with their knuckles. Sometimes these youngsters will even throw the knuckleball with their knuckles flat against the ball, giving it less spin but also making it difficult to throw any significant distance.
Regardless how the pitch is gripped, the purpose of the knuckleball is to avoid the rotational spin normally created by the act of throwing a ball. In the absence of this rotation, the ball's trajectory is significantly affected by variations in airflow caused by differences between the smooth surface of the ball and the stitching of its seams. The asymmetric drag that results will tend to deflect the trajectory toward the side with the stitches.
Over the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate, the effect of these forces is that the knuckleball can "flutter," "dance," "jiggle," or actually curve in two opposite directions over its flight. A pitch thrown completely without spin is actually less desirable, however, than one with only a very slight spin (so that the ball completes perhaps between one-half and one rotations on its way from the pitcher to the batter). This will cause the position of the stitches to change somewhat as the ball travels, and therefore the drag that gives the ball its motion, thus making its flight even more erratic. Even a ball thrown without rotation will "flutter" somewhat, due to the 'apparent wind' it feels as its trajectory changes throughout its flight path.
The unpredictability of a knuckleball is such that it can be very easy to hit hard if it doesn't change direction in mid-flight. Since it normally only travels 55 miles per hour (89 km/h) to 75 miles per hour (121 km/h), far slower than the average major league fastball, it can be hit very hard if there is no movement. To reduce the chances of having the knuckleball get hit for a home run, some pitchers will impart a slight topspin so that if no force causes the ball to dance it will move downward in flight. Another drawback is that runners on base can usually advance more easily than if a conventional pitcher is on the mound. This is due to both the knuckleball's low average speed and erratic movement, which forces the catcher to keep focusing on the ball even after the runner takes off.
Throwing the knuckleball is almost a lost art. There are very few pitchers around that have mastered the technique. Most Managers, Coaches and Scouts are enamored with the ninety-five mile an hour fastball. They look for an overpowering pitch to combat those that have been trained to dig in at the plate and hit the ball a country mile. But there were those that not only mastered the pitch, but instead of overpowering the batter, kept him on his toes because he couldn’t guess what was coming, where it was coming from, how fast it was being thrown, and what optical illusion it would present before it neared the strike zone. In addition, the one and two knuckle curve, three knuckle fast ball and four knuckle flutter ball was mixed with the normal fast ball, curve, change up and screwball (now called the “gyro”). If the pitcher threw from all four cycles, overhand with a high kick, three quarter overhand with a normal kick, side arm with a cross-fire kick and lastly, a submarine delivery, he had the command of more than 32 different pitches from four different delivery cycles or more than eight per cycle. If he experimented with the fork ball and palm ball, he added more to his arsenal.
"The Last Knuckleballer" (Rel. Oct/Dec 2013) is a story of the life of a long forgotten artist of baseball. A game with many cloned artists in their own right, but very few who could master the art of "Knuckleballing."