The Disappearing Art of the Knuckleball in MLB

When Shohei Ohtani threw a 101.1 mph fastball against the Tigers recently, he broke his own record for a starting pitcher in 2018. Earlier this season, the Angels’ pitcher had reached 101 mph on multiple occasions. Of course, Ohtani is just one of the latest in a long line of flame-throwing pitchers who have brought the heat to MLB. He wasn’t even close though to the fastest pitch reliably recorded in MLB history. That honor goes to the then 22-year-old Aroldis Chapman who tossed a 105.1 mph heater in a game in September 2010.

It’s not hard for fans to think of some of baseball’s hardest throwing pitchers. Today, Stephen Strasburg and Justin Verlander come to mind. Names from the past include Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan and Bob Feller. But what about the guys who could get batters out without the heat? What about the knuckleball?

Generally speaking, there are only 2 or 3 knuckleball pitchers in the big leagues in any given season. The reason? The knuckler is extremely difficult to master. In fact, Phil Niekro is the only knuckleball pitcher to ever win 300 games. R.A. Dickey is the only knuckleball pitcher ever to win a Cy Young Award. Only three have won Sporting News Pitcher of the Year Ward. That list includes Dickey, Niekro and Wilbur Wood. When a knuckleball isn’t working, it can make the pitcher and catcher look inept, and have batters looking like Ty Cobb. It is such a difficult pitch to catch, many knuckleball pitchers have had their own catcher behind the plate when they were in a game.

Other knuckleballers of note include  Joe Niekro, Tim Wakefield, and Hoyt Wilhelm. Today, Steven Wright tops the list of knuckleballers in the MLB. It’s not a completely lost art, but it is far rarer than pitchers throwing in the mid-90’s and above. It is also still fun to witness.

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