Player’s View: The Best Non-Knuckleballer Knuckleballs

There aren’t many knuckleball pitchers in baseball, but there are a lot of would-be knuckleball pitchers. Most everyone has tinkered with the butterfly. It’s common for players — particularly position players — to mix in knucklers when playing catch before games. A handful of them can really make it dance.

Who are the best among the wannabe Wakefields and Niekros? To answer the question most accurately that would require extensive polling throughout both leagues. I considered tackling the task, but ultimately decided that such an exercise was a bit too frivolous.

Querying a cross-section of players was far more practical. I talked to a dozen, most of whom have experience either throwing or catching the game’s most enigmatic and entertaining pitch. Along with asking who has the best they’ve seen, I had several of them to assess the quality of their own knuckleball.

———

Alex Avila, White Sox catcher: “It would have to be Danny Worth. He’s actually pitched in a game with it. We were with the Tigers, it was a blowout game, and he came in. He’s got a great arm — he’s an infielder — and he’d always throw a knuckleball warming up, just messing around. He threw a bunch of them, and it was dancing pretty good.”

Curt Casali, Rays catcher: “If you watch closely, you’ll see Longo (Evan Longoria) throw one to the pitcher between innings once in awhile when we’re throwing it around the horn. He’s probably not trying to make it as nasty as he can, because he wants the pitcher to catch it, but you’ll see him throw a knuckler to him.

Nick Franklin has a pretty good one, but as far as the best on the team, I’m going to claim that one. (Hank) Conger has to put up with me throwing it to him every single day, too. I love him for that.

“Mine kind of comes and goes. If the ball has smooth seams, I’m not going to be able to throw a good one. I also bite my fingernails, which is kind of a problem. But if the seams are slightly elevated, I can get a proper jiggle on it. If I throw it softer, I have a better chance of the no-rotation one and it will drop. If I throw it hard, I’ll get more of the wiggle that I like.

“I almost pitched the other day. We were getting beat pretty bad and I was warming up. Hank and I were talking after the game and he said, ‘You better throw the knuckleball if you ever get in there.’ I was like, ‘No way; I don’t know where it’s going half the time.’ He said we’d have had a mound visit if I shook off the knuckleball, so I guess I would have flung one in there had I pitched.”

Hank Conger, Rays catcher: “There’s a guy here who definitely has above-average stuff, knuckleball-wise. That’s Curt Casali. The arm action he presents with the knuckleball is very good. He gets a lot of movement on it.

“Mine is terrible. I try to throw it and end up getting on top of it and just rolling it over. But sometimes I do all right. It’s easier if I drop sidearm, or maybe just three-quarters. It’s a little better then, but it’s nothing like Curt’s.”

Ryan Hanigan, Red Sox catcher: “Guys definitely mess around with it, but that’s mostly position players. The only guys I play catch with are pitchers. Mani (Martinez), our bullpen catcher, can throw a knuckleball.

“I have a pretty good one. I’ve always been able to make it knuckle a little bit, although it’s not very consistent. Maybe one out three is good. I don’t really even throw it right; I just make it happen.

“Every once in awhile, Steven (Wright) will throw me one when he’s warming up and I’ll get annoyed and throw one back, just to mess with him. I’ve never actually thrown one off a mound, so I couldn’t see myself throwing one if I ever pitched.”

Bryan Holaday, Rangers catcher: “It’s Danny Worth. Dude, he’s unbelievable. I played with him in Detroit and he came in against the Rangers twice in one series. The ones he threw in the game didn’t even do him justice. In the bullpen, I couldn’t even catch him. It moved too much. But he got nervous when he got out on the field. They were still good; he struck a few guys out. He throws it hard and he can actually control it. It’s a true knuckleball.

“I threw a knuckleball when I pitched the other day, but the one that (Eduardo) Nunez whiffed on was my hybrid. I have a different one that I can control a little better. It’s more of a palmball knuckleball. It’s not like I know what I’m doing out there, but I can throw it really slow and get it over the plate. It does knuckle.”

Ryan LaMarre, Red Sox outfielder: “The best one I’ve seen was in spring training. David Murphy is left-handed, and his knuckleball is borderline ‘You can’t catch it.’ There’s no rotation and it’s moving all over the place. The first time he threw one to me, I wasn’t expecting it and I completely whiffed. It hit me in the thigh. I was like, ‘Wow.’

“I can throw one a little bit. Every now again I’ll catch lightning in a bottle, but it’s a tough pitch to repeat. I definitely have a lot of respect for the guys who can do it every pitch. When I pitched the other day, I threw one in the bullpen, just messing around, and almost threw it in the stands. Had it been a good one, maybe I’d have tried it in the game.”

Brett Lawrie, White Sox infielder: “I haven’t come across too many guys who have a super one, but a lot of guys throw it before games. Josh Phegley has a pretty good one, I guess.

“I pitched until I was about 15 or 16 years old and a knuckleball was one of the pitches in my arsenal. I threw a bunch of them in games. I’ve never (volunteered) to pitch, but if it ever came upon itself, I’d like to do it. I’d mix my pitches, but there would be some knuckleballs in there.”

Mitch Moreland, Rangers first baseman: “David Murphy, who just retired, sticks out. I remember throwing with with him back in the day, and he always had a filthy one. It was dirty. I think he threw some in a game where he came in to pitch.

“Mine is about like a four-seam fastball. It spins. There was no chance I was going to try one (in the game I pitched). I have the pitching background, but I’m not a knuckleball guy. I’ve tried, but for some reason I don’t have it. Some guys are good at it and some aren’t. Mine isn’t very good.”

Dioner Navarro, White Sox catcher: “There are so many of them. That’s what we do during warmups. Every time we play catch, the last 5-10 throws are knuckleballs.

Dan Johnson has a good one; he was trying to make a comeback as a knuckleballer with the Rays. Brett Lawrie has a good one. J.B. Shuck has a good one. I’ve played with so many guys over the years that I can’t remember who else does.

“It’s nothing about command. You’re just trying to make that thing move as much as you can. You’re not trying to throw a strike, you’re trying to hit the other guy in the knee.

“I can throw one a little bit. Not much, but a little. It’s good, but just not as good as some other guys. I think maybe it’s because my hands are small.”

Mike Trout, Angels outfielder:Cliff Pennington has a good one. That’s the best I’ve seen. It’s nasty. I try to mess around with one, but it’s terrible. Some days it’s better than others. People do miss it every once in awhile, which is the plan. If I ever got into a game, I think I’d mix one in. I’d mess around with it, for sure.”

Mark Trumbo, Orioles outfielder:Adam (Jones) has a good one. J.J. (Hardy) has a good one. There’s proof in the pudding there, because I’ve seen it. I think Hank Conger and Peter Bourjos might have decent ones. Mine tumbles. Incorrect technique.”

Steven Wright, Red Sox pitcher: “Ryan Hanigan has a pretty good knuckleball. Everybody throws one. Matt Barnes has a pretty good one. He throws it so damn hard. Barnes throws a thousand miles per hour, so his knuckleball is probably 90.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

11 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
LHPSU
6 years ago

Maybe Danny Worth should consider a job change.

MustBunique
6 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Or David Murphy should consider a comeback in a new role. Great article, fun read.

Zachary Kellicuttmember
6 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

He did. He actually got offers from teams to try it I believe, but ultimately decided against it.