Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Best Knuckleball I Have Ever Seen

It was the Summer of 2012, June to be precise, late in the season for my son's 14 year old baseball team.  My son had used the knuckleball for his off-speed pitch for two Summers now.  Usually it was fairly effective when we called it in the right spots, mainly to give the batters something else to think about, to put a strange looking offspeed pitch in their minds.  It was sometimes more of a mental pitch than a truly effective breaking, off-speed pitch.

My son and I had made a point to see Tim Wakefield pitch the previous year when the Red Sox came to Kansas City.  Wakefield pitched well in the game, only to see the bullpen blow the lead and the win (although my hometown Royals won the game).  We had seats in the upper deck but nearly right behind home plate.  We could see the truly awful swings the batters were taking at the knuckleball, and the efforts of the efforts of the catcher to corral the pitch.  My son really enjoyed watching the veteran knuckleball master work the pitch.

Our June game was against the one of the top upper division teams.  We were something like 27-9 on the year, playing against teams with similar records.  Good, quality teams with fine young players.  At 14, there are some young men who can hit the ball 310 to 320 feet.  One of our players hit a couple of these, and our pitchers gave up a few long balls through the course of the season.  And, at 14, some of the players are taller than the coaches.  These are fine young athletes playing some serious baseball.

So, my son came in to pitch against one of the top teams in our league, and one of our traditional rivals.  It's a team with very good players, coached well.  Our games with them are always close, usually decided by one or two runs.  This game was no exception - a close one.

I remember watching Phil Neikro pitch for the Braves on TBS when I was growing up.  Rarely, though, as we did not have cable in my hometown.  So, I caught highlights every now and then.  "Highlights" for Phil Niekro usually meant an exceptional night of knuckling.  I seem to recall an inning where he struck out four (or five?) batters, and at least two got on base due to dropped third strikes.  Phil's knuckleball was almost too good that night.

I believe that my son retired the first batter on just a couple pitches, fastballs, when the batter hit into an out.  Maybe he threw a knuckler - I don't recall for sure.  If he did, it was not memorable.  Then the next batter came up.  First pitch - ball one.  Second pitch - a fastball fouled off for a strike.

Now, the physics of a knuckleball are too complex to describe, or even understand.  Thrown perfectly, there is no spin on the ball, so the wind, the air pressure, the velocity, the humidity, and other unknown factors all affect the ball.  But, one fundamental physical factor is that, if thrown with enough velocity, and if thrown without spin, the laws of physics as the ball flies through the air will actually make the ball slow down.  When it slows down, it drops.  Fast.  You can count on that, at least 60% of the time.  Everything else is pretty much God's Will.

With a 1-1 count, I called a knuckleball.  I rarely called them with 2 strikes, trying to avoid a passed ball and the batter advancing.  So with one strike, the time was right.  My son is right handed.  The batter was also right handed, waiting in the box for the next pitch.  My son wound up and threw the knuckler.

The trajectory of the pitch was probably a fairly routine trajectory to be on the outside half of the plate, crossing the path of the strike zone, a righty throwing outside to a righty.  Trajectory was hard to determine from our dugout point of view.

The pitch started high.  Had it been a fastball, it would have been chest high or more.  It was obvious that the batter decided not to swing.  Then, the pitch must have started to drop, so the batter decided to swing.  Then he stopped, then he started again.  This knuckleball started high, crossed through the stike zone, and dropped like a shot put rolling off a table.  The batter started his swing way late, wound up ahead of the ball anyway, lunged for it low and outside the zone, and still swung way over it.  Our catcher managed to stop the ball.  Strike two, with the most uncomfortable swing I've ever seen.

I turned to another coach in the dugout.  He said "Was that a knuckleball?"  I nodded.  He laughed and said "I don't like to laugh at other players, but that swing was terrible.  There was no way he could hit that pitch."

This knuckleball was so good, even our fans (parents) in the stands were amazed.  Even the Moms (no offense, ladies) saw what an incredible pitch it was.  The crowd reacted and buzzed over the pitch.  This pitch was unhittable.

The next pitch was a fastball, high and inside, that probably looked like it was 90 miles an hour.  Swing and a miss, the batter shook his head and walked back to the dugout.

I've seen Phil Niekro, Tim Wakefield, and R.A. Dickey throw their masterful pitches.  I've seen them make hitters look helpless and silly.  But I've never seen a knuckleball as killer as the one thrown that one evening in June by my son.

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