The End of an Era?
With salaries as high as they are, it's surprising that more pitchers don't try to become knuckleballers. Over the past 20 years, those who have thrown knuckle-balls skillfully and almost exclusively, like Hoyt Wilhelm, Wilbur Wood, Phil and Joe Niekro and Charlie Hough, have enjoyed success into their late 30's or 40's. Yet Hough of the White Sox and Tom Candiotti of the Indians are the only active major leaguers who throw a knuckler, and Candiotti isn't really a true knuckleballer. He'll throw curveballs 60% of the time when the knuckler isn't breaking right. Hough, 43, who was 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA at week's end, may be the last true knuckleballer the game will see.
No batter enjoys facing a knuckleball, which is the hardest pitch to hit when it's thrown correctly. Throwing it puts little strain on the arm, and even moderate success with the knuckler often will get a player a look from a big league club. Daniel Boone, 37, was out of baseball in 1985 but he had some success with the knuckleball in 1989 in the now defunct Senior League. He made it back to the bigs as a September 1990 call-up by the Orioles. They released him this spring, but Oklahoma City, the Rangers' Triple A team, has signed him.
So why aren't there more knuckleball pitchers? "It all starts in Little League," says Hough. "The kid with the best arm always pitches. The kid with the best arm gets a scholarship and gets drafted. In pro ball, the first guy they look at is the one who throws 90 [mph]. They'll keep that pitcher 100 percent of the time until he stinks."
Hough couldn't throw 30 mph after he hurt his arm while pitching in the Dodger farm system in 1969. Learning the knuckler was his only chance to make the majors. He says the knuckler looks easy but, in fact, is difficult to master.
Wilhelm, the greatest knuckleball pitcher ever, agrees. He's a Hall of Famer who played until he was 49 years old, winning 143 games and saving 227 more, and is now a coach in the Yankee system. He doesn't even try to teach the pitch. "You can teach a changeup, a slider, but I don't think you can teach anyone to throw a knuckleball," he says. "Of all the staffs I've been on, I've never found anyone who could throw a good one."
Hough believes not enough pitchers who experiment with a knuckleball use it as their number one pitch. He cites former major leaguer Al Nipper, who is now attempting a comeback with the Cardinals' Triple A team in Louisville. "He had a good one, but he used it as his third or fourth pitch," says Hough. "If you're going to try it, it has to be your number one pitch. The problem is convincing guys they can win throwing 60 miles per hour."
There's one player on the horizon who could carry on the knuckleball tradition. Dennis Springer, 26, is a knuckleballer for the San Antonio Missions, the Dodgers' Double A farm team. He's struggling this season—he had a 1-2 record and a 10.07 ERA as of Sunday—but he remains patient. "Last year my pitching coach [Dave Wallace] asked me if I was in a hurry to get to the big leagues," says Springer. "He asked me if I'd like to spend age 28 to 40 in the majors. That kind of put things in perspective. With the money to be made in baseball, I'll give baseball as long as baseball will give me."
Springer was throwing 80 to 85 mph fastballs for Fresno State when the Dodgers chose him in the 21st round of the 1987 amateur draft. He was using the knuckleball 5% to 10% of the time. "The Dodgers told me my only potential was with the knuckleball," says Springer. "They told me, 'Just throw it, we don't care how you do, just throw it.' "
Springer began throwing it 85% of the time midway through the 1988 season. He went 13-7 that year at Class A Bakersfield. Last season at San Antonio, he was 8-6 with a 3.31 ERA. "I used to fall behind 2-0 and 3-1, throw the fastball and whack!" says Springer. "Now I've realized the knuckleball is my number one pitch. I still give up a lot of homers, but if I get beat, it's going to be with my number one pitch."