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In MLB, the knuckleball is quickly going extinct

Steven Wright, a 34-year-old with the Red Sox, is the only active knuckleballer in MLB. (Elise Amendola/AP)

The tightknit knuckleball community includes Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and two-time World Series champion Tim Wakefield. They showed that, if mastered, the pitch is one of the most effective in baseball, nearly impossible to hit. Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell, a Hall of Famer, once compared its flight to “a butterfly with hiccups.”

But coaches and knuckleballers believe the pitch may be nearing extinction.

Forever underestimated, never fully embraced on the instructional level and long an option of last resort for struggling pitchers, the knuckleball always has been somewhat rare. Its peak came in the 1970 season, when seven major league practitioners of the floating, fluttering, slow ball combined to earn 47 wins and 44 saves.

The disappearing knuckleball -- Since 2008, the first year the stat was tracked, usage of the knuckleball in MLB has varied. Its peak came in 2011 when 4,439 knuckleballs were thrown, but the pitch has seen a massive drop over the past season and a half.

But last year, just 727 knuckleballs were thrown in the majors, the fewest since the statistic was first tracked by Baseball Savant in 2008, and that number could dwarf this year’s total. Boston Red Sox right-hander Steven Wright is the only active knuckleballer in major league baseball, and he has been limited this season by a suspension and injuries. A knuckleballer has yet to record a victory this year.

The decline has been exacerbated by a confluence of factors, above all baseball’s emphasis on velocity and spin rate, characteristics that are virtually absent from a knuckleball. The focus on grooming pitchers who can overpower hitters makes it even harder to find coaches who can teach the knuckleball or organizations with the time and patience to develop a knuckleballer.

“Spin rate and velocity — that’s the rage,” Colorado Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster said. “It’s always been a scout’s delight."

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Foster said his knowledge of the knuckleball — next to nothing — is indicative of its increasing rarity. As a player, he never played alongside someone who threw it. He hasn’t coached a knuckleballer, and he is almost certain the Rockies don’t have one in their entire organization.

“For a knuckleball, it has to be the right place at the right time with an organization that has patience,” he said. “In today’s game, it’s hard to find that that exists.”

‘My own pitching coach’

One of the few remaining knuckleballers has bounced around the minors, pitched in South Korea and earlier this season was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays’ Class AA affiliate after being designated for assignment. Ryan Feierabend, 33, was a third-round draft pick in 2003, when his fastball sizzled in the low 90s. He had fooled around with the knuckleball previously, but after years of scuffling, he decided to deploy the pitch with more frequency. He felt he had little to lose.

Without the knuckleball, he says, he would “be sitting at home trying to find a job.” But he also understands the stigma.

“Not only could it make for an interesting day behind the plate, but is a team willing to sacrifice all of the time [to develop a knuckleballer]?” Feierabend said. “As a knuckleballer, you get labeled as a junk-ball pitcher. Kids don’t want to be known as that, even if they get guys out.”

Feierabend gets at a number of the factors that endanger the knuckleball.

Catching the pitch isn’t easy. Teams often reason it isn’t worthwhile to carry an otherwise inferior catcher just because he catches a knuckleball well. Velocity isn’t only in demand — it’s simply cooler.

There also are changes across the sport in swing paths: The knuckleball is designed to induce flyballs, a no-no for pitchers in today’s era of the launch angle, which itself came into vogue to counter the increase in power pitching.

All of this leads Wakefield to believe nobody will get drafted again by throwing the knuckleball.

Wakefield was a struggling position player who became a knuckleballer because a coach spotted him throwing one in the outfield just for fun. Soon he was in the instructional league as a full-fledged knuckleballer. Quickly, he learned his margin of error was small and the group that could mentor him was even smaller. “I don’t know what to tell you” about the pitch, pitching coaches told him. He started jotting down self-help tips.

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“I had to be my own pitching coach,” said Wakefield, who won 200 games in a 19-year major league career that ended in 2011.

Dickey had been an all-American, an Olympian and a first-round draft choice by the Texas Rangers thanks to a mid-90s fastball combined with a quality change-up. But as his velocity declined, he became a spot starter and long reliever, a journeyman with a rising ERA.

In an April 2005 meeting, Rangers pitching coach Orel Hershiser proposed an idea. He knew Dickey threw a decent knuckleball once or twice per start, and he asked him whether he would be interested in a demotion to the minor leagues to implement the pitch full time.

“We watched Tim [Wakefield] come in here and kick our butts with a 68-mph knuckleball,” Dickey recalled being told. “We want one of those guys. You’re the closest we have to that. Go be that guy.”

Dickey had to change the mechanics that made him a major leaguer, and he spent hours on minor league bus rides with little to do but think about who he was and where he was headed. Doubt lingered with him from his very first start as a knuckleballer, when he was clubbed for 14 hits and 12 runs.

It took Dickey five years to feel comfortable with the pitch, but in 2012 he led the National League in strikeouts for the New York Mets and won the Cy Young.

“It will be sad when it’s a lost thing,” said Dickey, who retired after the 2017 season, another cause of the massive drop in knuckleballs thrown in baseball since then. “It’s a great piece of curiosity that keeps people engaged rather than just seeing another right-hander that throws 92. Throughout, I felt this tugging on my heart: ‘I want to succeed because I know what it takes and how hard it is.’ ”

Hope for survival

But this also is how the knuckleball, however threatened or disrespected, has hung on: Through patient, staunch pitchers such as Dickey, Wakefield and Feierabend, on the brink of quitting but determined to revive their careers. And perhaps that is the craft’s path to survival.

While Wakefield acknowledged the unlikelihood of a knuckleball renaissance, he said: “I don’t think it’ll ever disappear. It’s a very valuable weapon. The pitcher himself becomes very versatile for the club. You can start, relieve, pitch on short days’ rest, multiple days in a row. Things like that create a dynamic for a ballclub.”

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Wakefield said there always will be career hiccups, guys whose promising trajectories came to a screeching halt, leaving them with the choice of quitting the game or trying the knuckleball. He would know.

“I always say, ‘I wish there were more people throwing it,’ ” Wakefield said. “Just have fun. The whole point is getting an out. I used to love the phone call [to the bullpen] that I was coming in after someone throwing 95. It’s a complete change of pace, and I have movement.”

But with fewer clubs appearing open to the idea of letting a player test out an unorthodox pitch for years in the minors, there is no guarantee the experiment will work.

“There’s no entry point outside of failing,” Dickey said. “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.”

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