Aug 19, 2019

The knuckleball pitch is going extinct

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
Expand chart
Data: Baseball Savant; Chart: Axios Visuals

The knuckleball has never been a popular pitch by any means (fewer than 100 MLB pitchers have used it as their primary pitch, per FanGraphs), but did you ever think it'd go extinct?

By the numbers: Just 727 knuckleballs were thrown in the majors last season, the fewest in the pitch-tracking era (2008-present). And since the guy who threw 719 of them, Boston's Steven Wright, has been limited to just six innings this year, we're on track for another record low.

Knuckleballs thrown in 2019:

  • Steven Wright, Red Sox: 114
  • Ryan Feierabend, Rays: 73 (currently in the minors)
  • Luke Maile, Blue Jays: 13 (catcher)
  • Total: 200

The big picture: The knuckleball's peak came in 1970, when 7 knuckleballers — including Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm — combined for 47 wins and 44 saves.

  • Fast forward to the pitch-tracking era, and it's basically been R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield (2008–2011), Dickey and Wright (2012–2017) and now it's just Wright. What happens when he retires?

What's next:

  • The good news for the knuckleball is that the next Tim Wakefield or R.A. Dickey could certainly be out there, and all it takes is one pitcher to stave off extinction.
  • The bad news for the knuckleball is that it's designed to induce fly balls, which is something teams are avoiding like the plague in today's era of launch angles and juiced baseballs. Plus, the lack of former knuckleballers to teach the pitch makes it harder to spread.

The bottom line:

"It will be sad when it's a lost thing. It's a great piece of curiosity that keeps people engaged .... The hopeful part of my heart says it's the natural ebb and flow of the pitch. The realistic part of my heart feels more and more front offices are not so inclined to give that type of pitch a chance over a guy who throws hard."
R.A. Dickey, per WashPost

Go deeper: "Knuckleball" movie trailer (YouTube)

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