Sunday, September 15, 2013

In Defense of Knuckleballers

Our Patron Saint
Those of you not reading Adam Sobsey's marvelous Bull City Summer series, about one year at the ballpark (and beyond) with the AAA Durham Bulls, have been missing out. Graceful, insightful, and fun, it's a long-form exercise that really gets to the heart of the material its covering, with genuine affection for the players, managers and characters who make the AAA game what it is.

But in a recent post, he takes a swipe at knuckleballers, and that's where I've got to draw the line. Sobsey's point is that knuckleballers are, in essence, a novelty act. They have precisely one (1) pitch, and they throw it every time out. And that, he posits, is an unenjoyable fan experience - there's no suspense over what's coming next, there's no chance for a pitcher to magically squeeze that extra bit of velocity out of his arm for that one vital pitch, there's nothing but the knuckler, darting and dancing and eventually making its way to the plate (and occasionally behind it, when the catcher fails to handle it). The comparison he settles on is the comedy of Steven Wright: off kilter, repetitive, and functional only within its own space.

Which, I think, misses the point of knuckleballing entirely. Nobody grows up and wants to be a knuckleballer. It's the pitch of last resort and desperation. If failed position players try to switch to the mound as a last attempt to save their careers, throwing the knuckler is the last gasp of pitchers, the thing they try when the breaking ball don't break and the fastball ain't fast. And when you're a failed position player who's also failing as a pitcher, well, the knuckleball's your destiny, and so, most likely, is a career in auto sales. Ask Mark Lemke about that one, the starting infielder for an NL championship team turned 6+ ERA knuckleballing flop for an independent league squad in the bushes. 

Except one in a million tries, that failed infielder who's a failed pitcher turns into Tim Wakefield. Or a highly touted pitching prospect born without a ligament in his elbow reinvents himself as a successful knuckler late in a fading career, and turns into R.A. Dickey. Everyone pulls for the scrappy guy who seemingly makes the majors on guts and grits and hard work, but there's a million of those guys out there. Knuckleballers are the real rarities, the survivors on the thinnest of edges.

Because the knuckleballer, of all the characters to walk across the diamond, offers nothing to dream on. The reliever who can't harness his stuff? Squint hard and you see a future closer. The scrappy middle infielder? He might just put it all together and prove the scouts and the sabermetrics guys wrong. The pitcher with great velocity and no idea where it's going? If he learns to pitch instead of throw, he's an All-Star. The toolsy outfielder who looks good in a uniform? The talent's there for him to put it together, even if there a thousand more Glenn Braggses and Paul Householders and Roger Freeds in the world than Domonic Browns.  

Everyone else, there's a reason to keep them around if they don't meet with immediate success. There's potential and "pitchability" and "the chance he'll grow into his body". There's a projectable path to what they might be, and that lets people dream on them, and hope, and give them more rope, even when they have seasons with 5.40 ERAs in the Eastern League or hit .241 at Winston-Salem. The knuckleballer? Not so much. The velocity's never getting better. It's never been about athleticism. It either is or it isn't, as they say, and if it isn't, then the leash is painfully short. 

Ask Charlie Zink. He got 1 (one) start in the major leagues. He blew it, and he was gone. Edwin Jackson, of the electric stuff, career ERA of nearly 4.5 and career WHIP of 1.44, has gotten 232. Every year in the offseason, you read about evaluators talking about how they think Jackson can finally harness that fastball, or how he's finally developed his secondary pitches, or finally "put it all together". Zink, last time I checked, was let go by the Lancaster Barnstormers in 2011.  

Or, to put it another way: how many shots do you think Rudy Seanez would have gotten if he'd thrown 74 with insane movement instead of 101?

So when Sobsey says he sees knucklers as a novelty act, I disagree. I see the most dedicated of the baseball lifers, the men out on islands. I see guys stepping into the spotlight without transcendent athletic talent to hide behind, knowing that if they don't have it then the crooked numbers are going to spin on the scoreboard and the manager might have words for them. And I see, on nights when its working, the delightful improbability of baseball at its finest, where a game that has been defined by radar guns and explosions of athleticism gets confounded by the erratic, the artful, and the relentless. Knuckleballers aren't Steven Wright; they're the 1960 Pirates, up against the impossible-to-stop Yankees in the World Series and doing it anyway. They're ivory-billed woodpeckers, teetering on the edge between hope and extinction. 

And I, for one, will always be glad to see one of those rare beasts in the wild, or at least on the mound. Even if he does throw the same pitch every time. 

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