The game of baseball has changed, like most sports, over the past few decades. Whether it be the rules (like the pitch clock), or something less significant like team uniforms. But there’s one thing that keeps finding it’s way back into the game every now and then, that you might not think about. That would be, the Knuckleball. The pitch that rotates less than the earth, slower than some freeway speed limits, but can move back and forth like a squirrel on drugs.
Throughout the history of the MLB, there have been 20,420 players in the league (as of June 21, 2023). Of those 20,420, only 33 pitchers have been known to throw a Knuckleball. Of course, not all of the players in history have been pitchers. So, for the sake of things let’s cut it in half, to 10,210. That still wouldn’t be even 1% of the 10,210, to have thrown a knuckleball (0.32%).
Until yesterday (June 24,2023), there had been a two-year hiatus of any pitcher throwing a Knuckleball. The San Diego Padres Matt Waldron, made his debut and threw 13 Knuckleballs. To honor the return of this great pitch, I thought we’d take a look at the guys who threw the best Knuckleballs.
Starting off with one my favorite players of all-time, and the man who kept the knuckleball alive for almost 2 decades, Tim Wakefield. “Wake”, as he was often called, wasn’t the best pitcher on any team he was a part of. He was consistent and you knew what you’d get out of him on the mound. That’s part of what kept him in the league so long. If you look at ERA, you’d probably wonder how he stayed a starter in the majors so long (Only 3 seasons with ERA below 3.50).
It was mainly due to his Knuckleball. It was his most used pitch by far, as he threw it over 80% of the time every season from 2002-2011 (via Fangraphs). If a pitcher throws something that much for so long, you’d think hitters would be able to smash the pitch more often than not. Well that wasn’t the case, as it was the pitch that the 1x All-Star gave up the least amount of runs off of (via Fangraphs). I feel as though it’s safe to say he mastered the Knuckleball.
Wakefield Career Stats: 200-180, 3,226.1 IP, 4.41 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 2,156 Ks.
Niekro is widely regarded as the “King of the Knuckleball”. There is a very good chance, that he was Tim Wakefield’s inspiration to throw the pitch. The low-impact on his arm thanks to the Knuckleball, helped Niekro pitch over 300 innings 4 times, including the 5th-most innings in a season since 1970 (342.2 in 1979). The Hall-Of-Famer’s Knuckleball was so good, that one former opponent is quoted saying:
“Trying to hit him, is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks.”- 5x All-Star OF Bobby Murcer
The Knuckleball ran in the Niekro family, as Phil’s younger brother Joe, also perfected the pitch leading him to 221 wins in a 22-year career. While Joe might have perfected it, Phil and his Knuckleball were on another level. The older Niekro finished top-10 in Cy Young voting 5 times, but could never reach the top and take home the hardware. The “King of the Knuckleball” passed away in 2020 after a battle with cancer, at 81 years old. He left behind a legacy and a pitch, that inspired many for years to come.
Niekro’s Career Stats: 318-274, 5,404 IP, 3.35 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 3,342 Ks.
Don’t let the fact that Wilhelm was on 9 teams fool you. He’s not your usual “journeyman” player. Usually guys who are on that many teams, are average or below average players. The 8x All-Star from North Carolina, was not that. He was seemingly regarded at one time as the “best knuckleballer, best reliever and best old player” for a good part of his career.
Unlike the two guys I listed before him, Wilhelm was 1) a relief pitcher rather than a starter, and 2) didn’t enter the league until he was 29. Whereas Niekro (25) and Wakefield (26), entered a few years younger than Wilhelm. But that didn’t stop “Old Sarge” from playing till he was almost 50. While he might not hold the record for games pitched or saves. The former Purple Heart Winner (World War II) was the first to pitch 1,000 games, and the first to compile 200 saves. Wilhelm was one of the first true relievers, that showed they mean as much to the game as starters do.
Wilhelm’s Career Stats: 143-122, 2,254 IP, 2.52 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 228 Saves, 1,610 Ks.
While there have been a few more “Masters” of the Knuckleball throughout MLB History. These three really paved the way for the pitch to be seen as a useful pitch and keep it around for generations to come.