Posts Tagged knuckleballers

Why is the knuckleball such an important style of pitching in the game of baseball?

First off, congratulations to the Vancouver Canadians and Hillsboro Hops for advancing to the Northwest League Championship Series, which begins on Saturday, September 6th. Vancouver, after finishing ahead of Tri-City for the second-half pennant and sweeping Spokane in the North Division Finals, is gunning for its fourth straight Northwest League title. Hillsboro, meanwhile, is in the finals for the first time in only its second season in the league, after the franchise relocated from Yakima, Washington.

Congratulations to both organizations.

Now, moving on to another topic…. On Quora.com, which is a Q&A website where questions are created, answered, edited, and organized by its community of users, I was recently asked the following question:

Why is the knuckleball such an important style of pitching in the game of baseball?

Here was my response on Quora:

Very few pitchers throughout the history of baseball have mastered the art of throwing the knuckleball, which is a difficult pitch to learn. It is also a difficult pitch to hit as well, as even the best hitters in the major leagues have trouble with the pitch because they are used to seeing 90-mph fastballs and the knuckler throws their timing off.

Bobby Bonilla was one of many major-leaguers who hated facing Candiotti's knuckleball.

Bobby Bonilla was one of many major-leaguers who hated facing Candiotti’s knuckleball.

Tom Candiotti, a knuckleballer who pitched in the majors from 1983 to 1999, told me on several occasions that All-Stars such as Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, and Bobby Bonilla always told him they never liked facing him and that knuckleball because it messed up their swing for a whole week after seeing it! Bonilla, a switch-hitter, didn’t want to bat left-handed against the right-handed Candiotti, because he was afraid it would mess up his left-handed swing.

Fred Claire, a former Los Angeles Dodger general manager, also once told me that having a knuckleball pitcher as part of your starting rotation helps to give opposing hitters a different look, to take their timing off. Claire’s Dodgers in the 1990s had only right-handed starting pitchers for several years, and he mentioned having Candiotti on the staff was valuable because his knuckleball broke up the pitching pattern, so that the opposition would be seeing different pitches and different speeds during a three-game series, instead of the same 90-95 mph fastballs all the time. The knuckleball simply messes up hitters’ timing.

candy torThe Toronto Blue Jays thought so highly of that knuckleball too that they specifically had Candiotti start Game One of the 1991 ALCS so that he could try to mess up the Minnesota Twins hitters’ timing. So, manager Cito Gaston went with a rotation of Candiotti-Juan Guzman-Jimmy Key-Todd Stottlemyre in that series, with a soft-tossing knuckleballer going first followed by a hard thrower (Guzman), then a soft-tossing finesse pitcher (Key) and another hard thrower (Stottlemyre).

Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame general manager who acquired Candiotti in Toronto, told me that he liked the change of pace that Candiotti brought to the Blue Jays pitching staff, because he could be put in the rotation in between a guy like Guzman and David Wells, another hard thrower.

Yes, there were other knuckleballers in the major leagues such as the Niekro brothers, Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, and R.A. Dickey since the 1960s. But Tom Candiotti was almost just as effective with the knuckleball. To read more about Candiotti’s career, check out Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs, which can be found on Amazon.

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Knuckleball long balls

On June 27, Toronto knuckleballer R.A. Dickey gave up four home runs in a 5-4 loss to the visiting Chicago White Sox, falling to 6-7 with a 4.24 ERA this season.

A few things of note here: Dickey’s four dingers allowed gave him 10 surrendered over his last five starts, which accounted for 13 of the 14 runs against him in that span. The four homers by the White Sox – including two hit by rookie Jose Abreu, who’s now got 25 on the season and is more than halfway toward breaking Mark McGwire’s rookie record (49 set in 1987) – were the most Dickey had allowed since giving up six against Detroit on April 6, 2006. That game happened to be Dickey’s first big-league start as a knuckleballer.

Interestingly, in Tom Candiotti’s career, the most number of home runs he ever gave up in a game was three. In his first major-league start as a knuckleball pitcher in 1986 – in his first two seasons he wasn’t a knuckleballer – Candiotti gave up only one run, and that was a homer hit by Rick Dempsey. In fact, that home run was hit off of a Candiotti fastball; otherwise, he would have pitched scoreless ball that evening against the Orioles.

Also, June 27 was the anniversary of the Candiotti trade from Cleveland to Toronto in 1991. He finished with an undeserving 6-7 record with a 2.98 ERA as a Blue Jay. Dickey, of course, is 6-7 for Toronto right now with an ERA that is much higher.

One more point about the home runs: According to newspaper accounts during that 1991 season, almost none of the homers hit off Candiotti – he allowed only 12 in 238 innings – came off of the knuckleball. Nearly every one of them came on a curveball or fastball, in situations where he didn’t want to pitch around hitters, where he wanted to go right after the hitter with runners on base.

Among the homers Candiotti allowed in 1991, at least four of them came off of fastballs, with Joe Carter, Mike Greenwell, Kevin Maas, and Juan Gonzalez doing the honors. Robin Ventura hit a grand slam off of him on a slider (one of just three bases-loaded homers over 451 major-league games for Candiotti). Tom Brunansky and Carlos Martinez hit curveballs off of Candiotti out of the park as well. That would be a total of seven homers at least, coming off of something other than a knuckler.

The other home runs Candiotti gave up that season were not indicated in the newspaper recaps for those individual games.

Finally, here’s a neat video from 1993 featuring Candiotti pitching for the Dodgers in Taiwan:

“Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs,” a biography of former big-league pitcher Tom Candiotti, will be released in July of 2014. You may pick up a copy either from Amazon.com or through the McFarland & Company website.

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