Aug 19, 2019

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

☀️ Good morning from the Bay Area, where the Raiders are already sick of Antonio Brown's antics and it's not even September.

  • Today's word count: 1,426 words (5 minutes).
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1 big thing: ⚾️ The knuckleball is going extinct
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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 seven 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?

Looking ahead:

  • 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 final word:

"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)

2. 🏈 Coming this fall to HBO: A national treasure

Mike Leach. Photo: Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Washington State will star in HBO's college version of "Hard Knocks" this season, which is fantastic news because it means more camera time for Cougars head coach Mike Leach — the most interesting man in college football.

His QB meetings sound hilarious:

"Maybe five plays into watching film, something happened that sparked a classic Mike Leach tangent. For at least an hour ... he talked about everything from growing up in Wyoming to having a pet raccoon, getting paddled by the principal at his junior high, the origins of football and eventually just a full-blown Native American history lesson."
"The one-hour meeting lasted probably three hours. I remember looking at the veteran QBs in the room with a 'what is happening right now?' look on my face, but I could tell by their reactions that this was just a normal thing."
— Former WSU QB Isaac Dotson, per The Athletic

And he has a unique coaching style:

"All through my senior year, I was probably calling 70% of the plays. He would give me a formation and then I would call the play. His coaching philosophy is, you're out there on the field, you can see the way the defense is lined up better than I can. So it's my job to get you to the best point of believing in yourself and believing in your ability to call the plays.."
— Former WSU QB Connor Halliday, per The Athletic

Meanwhile, the guy is super successful, has one of the most impressive coaching trees in the country and literally invented the "Air Raid" offense, which produced QBs like Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray and is taking the NFL by storm.

  • The bottom line: Mike Leach is a national treasure, and we'll be getting a weekly dose on HBO this fall. Definition of must-see TV.

Go deeper: Mike Leach's most memorable quotes (SB Nation)

3. 📸 Photos of the weekend
Photo: Britta Pedersen/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

BERLIN — Fans of the newly promoted Bundesliga club Union Berlin held up photos of supporters who passed away before getting the chance to see them play in Germany's top division. Sports, man.

  • Meanwhile, in Portland: Atlanta United's Josef Martinez extended his goal streak to 11 games, the longest in MLS history.
Photo: Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, PA. — The Cubs beat the Pirates 7-1 in the third annual Little League Classic — a one-night celebration of baseball in its purest form that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said was "like a trip to an amusement park."

Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Stipe Miocic avenged his 2018 loss to Daniel Cormier and regained the UFC heavyweight championship with a fourth-round knockout on Saturday night, which begs the question: Is he the greatest heavyweight in UFC history?

4. ⛳️ FedEx Cup Playoffs: 30 golfers remain

Justin Thomas celebrates winning the BMW Championship yesterday. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

After two events, just 30 golfers remain in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and all 30 of them will be at the Tour Championship in Atlanta next week with a chance at the $15 million prize.

How it works: Not everyone starts at even par this week. Instead, the leader of the year-long points race — that would be Justin Thomas, who won this weekend's BMW Championship — starts at 10 under. Second place starts at 8 under, third place starts at 7 under, etc.

Top 10 leaderboard:

  1. Justin Thomas (-10)
  2. Patrick Cantlay (-8)
  3. Brooks Koepka (-7)
  4. Patrick Reed (-6)
  5. Rory McIlroy (-5)
  6. Jon Rahm (-4)
  7. Matt Kuchar (-4)
  8. Xander Schauffele (-4)
  9. Webb Simpson (-4)
  10. Abraham Ancer (-4)

Notably absent: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day all failed to qualify, meaning their seasons are officially over.

5. 🤓 By the numbers
Barack Obama's high school basketball jersey. Courtesy: Heritage Auctions
$120,000

🏀 Auction: A Punahou School basketball jersey believed to be worn by Barack Obama during his high school basketball days sold at Heritage Auctions for $120,000 on Saturday.

40 dingers

⚾️ MLB: Mets rookie Pete Alonso hit his 40th home run last night, moving him past Cody Bellinger for the NL rookie record. With 38 games remaining, Alonso trails only Aaron Judge (52) and Mark McGwire (49) on the all-time rookie list.

19 years old

⚽️ La Liga: 19-year-old Joao Felix, the Portuguese wunderkind who has been compared to a young Cristiano Ronaldo, dazzled for Atletico Madrid in his La Liga debut before limping off with a hip injury. This nutmeg is filthy.

6. Aug. 19, 2001: ⚾️ Danny Almonte takes the nation by storm
Photo: Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News via Getty Images

18 years ago today, 12-year-old Danny Almonte pitched a perfect game in the Little League World Series. But what happened afterwards is what people will never forget.

  • Weeks later, it was discovered that Almonte was actually 14 years old and that his father had falsified his birth certificate.
  • The fallout: Almonte, who had gone on to strike out 62 of the 72 batters he faced in the LLWS, was retroactively declared ineligible — and his team, the Bronx Baby Bombers, had to forfeit all of their wins.
"They just told me 'say what I say. If I say you're 12, you're 12.' The way I was raised, if my dad says something you've got to do it."
— Danny Almonte, per ESPN

The big picture: Almonte continued playing baseball, but never made the majors. Today, he serves as an assistant high school baseball coach in New York City.

Go deeper: Revenge of the baseball gods (ESPN)

7. 🏀 NBA trivia
Screenshot: My Twitter
  • Question: How many of the NBA player logos above can you name?
  • Hint: Every row has at least one retired player.

Answer at the bottom.

8. The Ocho: 💦 Welcome to Cliff Diving Week
Photo: Romina Amato/Red Bull via Getty Images

This week, we'll be exploring the world of cliff diving. More specifically, we'll be taking you inside the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series — a multi-stop tour that takes divers all across Europe.

  • Previous stops: Philippines, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Lebanon.
  • This weekend: The season's penultimate stop is in Mostar, an ancient city in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What to expect: Over the next few days, you'll learn everything there is to know about cliff diving and get a taste of what's in store for the divers in Mostar.

  • You'll also hear from two of the world's best cliff divers about how they got into the sport, what their day-to-day lives are like and where cliff diving goes from here.

Welcome to Cliff Diving Week. See you back here tomorrow.

Kendall Baker

See you tomorrow,

Kendall "This made me cry" Baker

Trivia answer: Top row: LeBron, D-Rose, AI, Kobe, Blake Griffin ... 2nd row: Shaq, Penny Hardaway, Kyrie, Westbrook, CP3 ... 3rd row: Steph, T-Mac, Kawhi, Paul George, Klay Thompson ... 4th row: Damian Lillard, Dwight Howard, Lonzo Ball, John Wall, D-Wade ... 5th row: Giannis (unsure about this one, tbh), MJ, KD, Melo, Harden.