Remembering Phil Niekro, King of the Knuckleballers (1939-2020)

Of the thousands of pitchers who have reached the majors, fewer than a hundred mastered the knuckleball — that maddeningly erratic, spin-free butterfly — well enough to rely upon it as their primary pitch. None of them succeeded to the extent that Phil Niekro did. “Knucksie” learned the pitch from his father, a coal miner and semiprofessional hurler, at the age of eight, and while he didn’t establish himself as a big league starter for another 20 years, he carved out a 24-year-career in the majors, winning 318 games, striking out 3,342 batters, starting more games than all but four pitchers, and earning a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Alas, in the final days of 2020, Niekro joined an all-too-inclusive subset of Hall of Famers, passing away on Saturday at the age of 81 after a long bout with cancer. He is the seventh Hall of Fame member to die this year, after Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, and Joe Morgan. That’s a record, either surpassing the total from 1972 or tying it, depending upon whether one counts the posthumous induction of Roberto Clemente via a special election in 1973.

Niekro spent the first 20 years of his major league career (1964-83) with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves before moving on to the Yankees (1984-85), Indians (’86-87) and Blue Jays (’87). He was nearly six months past his 48th birthday when he returned to make one final start for Atlanta on September 27, 1987. A five-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner, he never won a Cy Young award, but he started more games (716) than all but Young, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, and Greg Maddux, taking more turns than any starter who never pitched in a World Series. He’s one of 10 pitchers to attain the dual milestones of 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts — six of them cohorts from “That Seventies Group“— and ranks 16th overall on the all-time list for the former and 11th for the latter. He’s also 11th in the Baseball-Reference version of WAR, fifth in losses (274), fourth in innings (5,404), hits allowed (5,044), and home runs allowed (483), third in walks (1,809) and second in earned runs allowed (2,012) behind only Young. With his death, three of the top 15 pitchers in JAWS have died this year, with Niekro one spot below Gibson (14th) and seven below Seaver (eighth). He and his brother, Joe Niekro, who was born in 1944 and spent 22 years in the majors (’67-88) with eight teams, combined for more wins (539) than any other brotherly combination.

As you’d guess from those numbers, Niekro’s knuckler baffled hitters, making even All-Stars look foolish.

“Trying to hit against Phil Niekro is like trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks,” outfielder Bobby Murcer once said. “Sometimes you get a piece, but most of the time you get hungry.”

“It actually giggles at you as it goes by,” outfielder Rick Monday told Sports Illustrated in 1983.

“I work for three weeks to get my swing down pat and Phil messes it up in one night,” said Pete Rose. “Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living.”

The knuckler baffled Niekro himself, as he told SI’s Steve Wulf in 1984:

“Nobody has ever given me a good, definite explanation as to why the ball does what it does,” he says. “I’ve heard all about that aerodynamic stuff, and the Reynolds [Osborne, not Allie] number. [This states that a sphere with a three-inch diameter makes its maximum movement between 50 and 75 mph.] I’ve had people film it at 28,000 frames a second. I’ve had a guy do his college thesis on my knuckleball, but nobody’s made me understand it.

Philip Henry Niekro Jr. was born on April 1, 1939 in Blaine, Ohio, an unincorporated community near the Ohio-West Virginia border, and grew up in nearby Lansing, a town of just 634 people as of 2010. Parents Phil Niekro Sr. and Henrietta “Ivy” Klinkoski were both the children of Polish immigrants. Phil Sr. mined coal in Eastern Ohio and pitched in the sandlots of the Mine Workers League. He was a hard thrower until he injured his arm, whereupon he asked teammate Nick McKay, a former minor league player, to teach him the knuckleball. Every day, Phil Sr. would come home from the mines covered in black (“All I could see were his teeth,” Phil Jr. told The Athletic’s Joe Posnanski) and play catch with his sons until it got dark, even before changing his clothes or bathing.

Initially, older sister Phyllis served as her brother’s backyard catcher, before his closest friend, future Boston Celtics star and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer John Havlicek, took over. “[T]hat was one thing John couldn’t really do — catch that knuckleball,” Niekro told Posnanski. “Phyllis was better at catching it.”

Niekro played basketball, baseball, and (briefly) football at Bridgeport High School. He compiled a 17-1 record on the mound while relying upon the knuckleball, the lone blemish coming in his freshman year, when he served up a solo homer to Warren Consolidated High School’s Bill Mazeroski, himself a future Hall of Famer, and lost 1-0. Niekro declined scholarship offers from the University of Detroit and West Virginia University in hopes of pursuing a career in professional baseball but drew no interest from nearby scouts until he attended a Milwaukee Braves tryout camp on an island in the Ohio River in July 1958, more than a year after graduation. Braves scout Bill Maughn signed the 19-year-old Niekro for a $500 bonus and $275 a month, but the Braves held off on starting his career until the following spring.

He was not an overnight success. Pitching for the Braves’ Class-D team in Wellsville, New York, Niekro was lit for a 7.46 ERA in 10 appearances totaling 35 innings. The team planned to release him once the Braves sent bigger-money signings to Wellsville. Flush with cash given their emergence as an NL powerhouse with the move to Milwaukee — with six straight league leads in attendance and back-to-back pennants in 1957-58, including a championship in the former year — they had a lot of them. Niekro, fearing that he too would wind up working in a coal mine or a steel mill, begged for another chance, and he had a backer in Birdie Tebbetts, a legendary scout and former manager then serving as the Braves’ executive vice president. Sent to the Braves’ other Class-D club in McCook, Nebraska, where he crossed paths with future wildman-turned-author Pat Jordan, Niekro improved, striking out 48 while posting a 3.12 ERA in 52 innings out of the bullpen.

Niekro climbed the ladder slowly, his progress further delayed by his spending the 1963 season in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. After impressing Braves manager Bobby Bragan in the spring of 1964, he made the big club, joining a team that featured future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Torre, and Warren Spahn. He debuted on April 15 against the Giants, retiring the only batter he faced, Jim Davenport, on a groundout, and made 10 appearances totaling 15 innings, with a 4.80 ERA, before being sent to Triple-A Denver in 1964. Working regularly as a starter for the first time, he posted a 3.45 ERA in 172 innings, with 13 complete games out of 21 starts, no small feat given all that we now know about pitching at altitude.

Yet the Braves would not commit to Niekro as a starter. He spent all of 1965 and most of ’66 with the team, pitching reasonably well in the former year (2.89 ERA and six saves 74.2 innings), the team’s final one in Milwaukee; on September 17, 1965, he made his first major league start, also against the Giants tossing five innings while allowing just one unearned run opposite Juan Marichal. He scuffled to the point of being sent back to Triple-A for more than two months in mid-1966, a year in which he struck out just 17 while walking 23 in 50.1 innings.

After spending the first half of the 1967 season pitching out of the bullpen, the 28-year-old Niekro finally made his second big-league start on June 13, and threw a two-hit shutout in a 1-0 win. The key: a new catcher, Bob Uecker, who had been acquired from the Phillies just a week before. Light-hitting and self-effacing, Uecker was hardly the “knuckleball specialist” that the Braves presented him as being, but Torre, the regular catcher, was at wit’s end, and Uecker did have experience catching the knuckleballs of the Cardinals’ Barney Schultz, and before that the Braves’ Bobby Tiefenauer. He was game for the task, telling Niekro to throw the knuckleball on every pitch. “My job is to catch it.”

“The easiest way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up,” Uecker would often joke over the next half-century or so. That year, while catching just 76 games (59 for the Braves), he set a modern NL record with 27 passed balls, but his batterymate thrived. Niekro completed 10 out of 20 starts and finished the year with an 11-9 record and an NL-best 1.87 ERA in 207 innings. On July 4, he threw a four-hit complete game victory against the Cubs and brother Joe, a 22-year-old rookie.

Niekro wasn’t quite so stingy in 1968, pitching to a 2.59 ERA (116 ERA+), but he broke out to go 23-13 with a 2.56 ERA (142 ERA+) with 6.0 WAR in 284.1 innings in ’69, and made his first All-Star team. In the first year of division play, he helped the Braves win the NL West (!) title, collecting a win in the clincher on the second-to-last day of the season against the Reds. Matched up against Seaver in the NLCS opener, he carried a 5-4 lead into the eighth inning before the Mets erupted for five runs, four of them unearned; they went on to sweep the best-of-five series. After the season, Niekro received the lone vote in the NL Cy Young balloting that did not go to Seaver.

In an August 4, 1969 feature in SI, Roy Blount Jr. attempted to describe the knuckleball in general and Niekro’s delivery in particular:

All knuckleballs are eerie, if they work, since they seem to transcend natural law. Unlike any other projectile known to man, a properly knuckled ball will change direction suddenly, several times, in different ways and for no apparent reason. If someone had thrown a knuckleball down out of that tree, and Sir Isaac Newton had seen it coming and dodged it three times and it had hit him on the head anyway, it is frightening to think what we might now believe about the universe.

What happens is that when Niekro arches the first two fingers of his right hand so that only their tips and nails touch the ball, he forsakes all humanly imparted spin and consigns his delivery to the diverse air currents between him and the plate. That is why he has hit so many catchers in the forehead. It is also why some sluggers just take their 0-for-4s and forget about it when they have to face Niekro. “When I was with the Phillies,” the Braves’ Bob Uecker maintains, “Richie Allen used to go up there and just swing at anything and sit down. He didn’t want to mess up his swing fooling around with a thing like that.”

Elsewhere in the piece, Blount presciently suggested that “because knuckleballs seem to suspend the natural aging process in the arm,” Niekro might stick around to an even later age than his 46-year-old knuckleballing teammate, reliever Hoyt Wilhelm. “That would be eerie,” he wrote.

Aside from that 1969 season, the Braves had been within a few games of .500 every year since moving to Atlanta, and they would continue a similar tack, though from 1970 to ’73, they finished above .500 just once, that with an 82-80 record in ’71. Niekro pitched to a 3.37 ERA (116 ERA+) while averaging 256 innings and 4.2 WAR during that span. After a fairly successful 1972 (16-12, 3.06 ERA, 5.4 WAR), he nonetheless began the ’73 season being used out of the bullpen, due in part to a sore arm and to mismanagement by the Braves, who were awash with a surplus of young starters. Though unhappy about the decision, Niekro held his tongue while totaing just 19.1 innings over the first month of the season as the Braves stumbled to a 10-18 start. Finally, Mathews (now the manager) returned him to the rotation, where he allowed just three runs over 19 innings in his next two starts, both complete-game victories.

On August 5, 1973 at Fulton County Stadium, Niekro no-hit the Padres, walking three while striking out four and becoming the first Atlanta pitcher to throw such a gem. Cito Gaston, who would later cross paths with Niekro as a teammate in Atlanta and as the hitting coach in Toronto, grounded out for the final out.

Two days after the no-hitter, the Braves claimed Joe off waivers from the Tigers; the two would spent the rest of the season and most of 1974 as teammates, even appearing in a handful of games together, though two of Joe’s four blown saves in 1973 came in games started by Phil.

When the Braves won 88 games and finished third in the NL West in 1974 — the best they would do between 1969 and ’82 — the 35-year-old Niekro led the way, pacing the NL in wins (20), innings (302.1), and complete games (18) while ranking second in WAR (7.9). He placed third in the NL Cy Young balloting, the only non-Dodger to crack the top four in a year where reliever Mike Marshall won via his monster 208.1-inning season.

That season kicked off an exceptionally productive stretch for Niekro even as the Braves’ competitive fortunes began to wane. From 1974-80, he averaged 304 innings, 201 strikeouts, a 3.26 ERA (122 ERA+) and 7.3 WAR — and an 18-16 record. So often a victim of lousy run support, he led the league in losses annually from 1977-80, a span during which the Braves averaged 92 losses a year and one that saw the beginning of Bobby Cox’s managerial career in ’78. From 1977-79, Niekro threw a jaw-dropping total of 1006.2 innings and completed 65 of 129 starts; his lowest total of innings in that span was 330.1. He lost 20 games in both 1977 (against 16 wins) and ’79; in the latter year, during which he picked up his 200th win on May 1 against the Pirates, he went 21-20 and became the only pitcher since 1901 to lead the league in both wins and losses. His 262 strikeouts led the league in 1977, the only year he would do that. He made All-Star teams in 1975 and ’78, began a run of three straight Gold Gloves in the latter season, and won the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 1979 and the Roberto Clemente Award in 1980.

Additionally, Niekro led the NL in WAR in both 1978 (with a career-high 10.0) and ’79 (7.4), with three second-place finishes and one fourth-place finish in that span. His 50.9 WAR over that span not only led the majors, it was 13.1 more than runner-up Rick Reuschel. Only two pitchers have produced more WAR from ages 35 through 41, namely Randy Johnson (53.9) and Young (51.8), but neither they nor anyone else would outproduce Niekro from age 35 to the end of their careers:

Highest Pitching WAR from Age 35 Onward
Rk Pitcher Years Ages WAR
1 Phil Niekro 1974-1987 35-48 65.5
2 Randy Johnson 1999-2009 35-45 60.4
3 Cy Young 1902-1911 35-44 58.1
4 Jack Quinn 1919-1933 35-49 46.6
5 Roger Clemens 1998-2007 35-44 46.0
6 Lefty Grove 1935-1941 35-41 45.4
7 Dazzy Vance 1926-1935 35-44 38.5
8 Hoyt Wilhelm 1958-1972 35-49 37.8
9 Gaylord Perry 1974-1983 35-44 37.5
10 Warren Spahn 1956-1965 35-44 34.8
11 Jamie Moyer 1998-2012 35-49 34.3
12 Nolan Ryan 1982-1993 35-46 34.2
13 Dennis Martinez 1989-1998 35-44 32.4
14 Curt Schilling 2002-2007 35-40 32.2
15 Charlie Hough 1983-1994 35-46 31.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Niekro was solid in the strike-shortened 1981 season, the final one of Cox’s first stint in Atlanta. As he had before Cox was hired, he offered himself up as a player-manager candidate, but Braves owner Ted Turner rebuffed him, instead tabbing Torre. The team jumped out to a 13-0 start under the new regime, but the 43-year-old Niekro missed it by landing on the disabled list for the first time in his career due to rib and ankle injuries. Thanks to a league-best 5.3 runs per game of offensive support, he posted a gaudy 17-4 record and made his fourth All-Star team, but his ERA was an unremarkable 3.61 (104 ERA+), and he completed just four out of his 35 starts due to a quicker hook by Torre and Gibson, his pitching coach. As Torre told Wulf, “Knucksie was the type of guy who never wanted to come out, and I think the media made more of it than it should have because in all the years when the team wasn’t good, they just left him out there.”

While Niekro may have chafed, he helped the Braves to another NL West title, and closed the season with back-to-back shutouts, a two-hitter against the Giants in Game 156, and then, on three days’ rest, a three-hitter against the Padres in Game 160. That was no small matter in a race that was decided on the final day of the season, when Morgan’s three-run homer for the Giants prevented the Dodgers from matching the Braves’ 89 wins.

In the NLCS against the Cardinals, Mother Nature and baseball’s rulebook dealt the Braves a cruel blow. Niekro started the opener and was leading 1-0 with two outs in the fifth inning when rain delayed the game. After two hours and 20 minutes, umpires decided conditions were unplayable, and under the rules at the time, that meant the proceedings to that point were wiped out (today it would be resumed as a suspended game). The Cardinals pounded Pascual Perez in the makeup Game 1. After another postponement, Niekro returned for Game 2, but Torre pinch-hit for him in the top of the seventh inning with a 3-2 lead, and the Cardinals rallied late for a win en route to a three-game sweep. Niekro never got another shot at the postseason.

Niekro spent one more year in Atlanta, but slipped to 11-10 with two complete games, a 3.97 ERA (98 ERA+) in 201.2 inning, and 2.7 WAR. The Braves won 88 games but finished three behind the Dodgers. The Braves botched things when Turner told the 44-year-old Niekro that Torre and his staff wanted him to retire. “When I was a catcher, I couldn’t catch him; when I was an opposing player, I couldn’t hit him; and the last two years, I’ve found out I can’t manage him,” Torre had said.

Niekro wasn’t ready to retire, so the Braves released him without so much as a formal announcement. “I guess this is the end of a 25-year marriage,” he told reporters at an impromptu clubhouse press conference on the day of his release. “I would have liked to have known when I was going to walk off the mound for the last time. It would have been a special day. I would have liked for my mother and my friends to have been there.”

A free agent for the first time, Niekro was pursued by the Cardinals, Pirates, A’s and Yankees. Clyde King, a special assignment scout for the Yankees (and soon their general manager), had managed Niekro in Atlanta in 1974-75, sold George Steinbrenner on what his presence could mean to the staff. Niekro signed a two-year, $1.5 million deal and at 45 enjoyed a renaissance. Incorporating a slider, screwball, and 80-mph fastball into his arsenal, and working well with catchers Butch Wynegar and Rick Cerone, he went 16-8 with a 3.09 ERA and 4.6 WAR, the top showing ever for a pitcher 45 or older. He made his fifth and final All-Star team, and on July 4 in Arlington, notched the 3,000th strikeout of his career by whiffing the Rangers’ Larry Parrish, becoming the ninth pitcher to reach that milestone. The Yankees won 87 games but finished third in the AL East, a distant 17 games behind the hot-starting Tigers.

The Yankees came closer in 1985, and while Niekro again won 16 games, his ERA increased by a full run. On September 8, he beat the A’s for the 299th win of his career. A week later, after his first unsuccessful bid for win number 300, the Yankees acquired brother Joe — who himself had won his 200th game on June 2 — from the Astros to help with their playoff push. Phil went to the well three more times in pursuit of the milestone but was tagged for 17 runs in 19.2 innings. The Yankees won just one of those three starts, and on October 5, on the season’s second-to-last day, they were eliminated by Cox’s Blue Jays.

Though Niekro was lined up to start the season’s final game in Toronto, he debated skipping his turn given that nothing was at stake for the Yankees. But with his 72-year-old father critically ill in a West Virginia hospital, he steeled himself. Using everything but his knuckleball for the first 26 outs, he held the Blue Jays hitless into the fourth inning. Before the ninth, manager Billy Martin sent Joe out to catch his warm-up pitches; the brothers embraced on the mound, and then Phil bounced his first knuckleball of the day off of Joe’s leg. After giving up a two-out double to pinch-hitter Tony Fernandez and then a loud foul ball against former teammate Jeff Burroughs, he broke out the knuckler and got the final two strikes for win number 300, becoming the 18th pitcher to reach that milestone and, at 46 years and 188 days, surpassing Satchel Paige as the oldest pitcher to throw a shutout (Jamie Moyer would later eclipse him on that front):

“I figured if there’s anyway I’m going to win my 300th game by striking the guy out, I was going to do it with the pitch that won the first game for me,” he told reporters afterwards while admitting that he would have traded the milestone for “a game that meant something in the pennant race.”

Via the Hartford Courant’s Claire Smith, he said, “The nicest feeling of the whole day was right after I came off the mound Joe told me they took my dad out of intensive care,” Phil said. “I’ll go home tomorrow. I’m going to take him my hat and give him my baseball. He was as much a part of these 300 wins as I was.” His father lived for three more years.

While the Yankees re-signed both Niekro brothers on January 8, 1986, they released Phil at the end of spring training. He caught on with the Indians, and put up a league-average-ish season while helping 28-year-old Tom Candiotti establish himself as a formidable knuckleballer in his own right.

Hopes were high for the Indians after climbing from 60 wins in 1985 to 84 in ’86, so much so that they landed on the cover of SI in the spring of 1987. But things did not go well, for Niekro, Candiotti, or most of the team as they skidded to 101 losses. His June 1 win over the Tigers gave the Niekro brothers 530 wins, one more than Gaylord and Jim Perry, but on August 9, while carrying a 5.89 ERA, Niekro was traded to the Blue Jays. He was even less effective for them, making just three turns before drawing his release at month’s end.

It looked like the end of the line, but with fans and media clamoring for a proper sendoff for the 48-year-old future Hall of Famer, Cox (now the Braves’ GM) signed Niekro to a $1 deal with plans for him to start the final home game of the season. Wearing his familiar number 35, which the Braves had ceremoniously retired during an off-day for the Yankees in 1984, Niekro shut out the Giants for three innings while being staked to a 5-0 lead, but allowed the first five batters to reach base in the fourth inning and was pulled. He received a lengthy, hearty ovation before things escalated into a six-run rally.

“I’m not embarrassed by getting beat around. I’ve done that before,” said Niekro afterwards. “The most important thing was to wear the (Braves) uniform again.”

In retirement, Niekro spent one season managing the Braves’ Triple-A Richmond affiliate, and four more (1994-97) piloting the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-female professional team that barnstormed, playing men’s amateur, semi-pro, and indy league teams. “I think it’s time that everyone saw what females could do if given the chance to compete in professional baseball at the minor league or major league level,” Niekro said. Brother Joe and son John were both enlisted as coaches. Though the team won its final game to finish with its first winning record in 1997 (23-22), the Coors Brewing Company discontinued its sponsorship, and they folded.

Niekro also mentored knuckleballers such as Tim Wakefield, Steve Sparks, and R.A. Dickey, as well as nephew Lance Niekro, who after spending parts of 2004-07 playing for the Giants made an unsuccessful bid to return to the majors as a pitcher. Alas, knuckleballers have become an endangered species.

“He had a presence that just transcended what you encounter every day in the clubhouse,” Dickey — who won the Cy Young in 2012 — told the New York Times‘ Tyler Kepner. “Supernatural, that’s what he was for me — that supernatural representation of what the pitch could become.”

Niekro became eligible for election to the Hall of Fame in 1993, but he fell short, receiving 65.7% of the vote while Reggie Jackson was the year’s only honoree. He had three more years of close-but-no-cigar; Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt cut the line as the lone honorees in 1994 and ’95, but then the fools in the BBWAA failed to elect anyone in ’96, with Niekro receiving 68.3%, Tony Perez 65.7%, and fellow 300-game winner Don Sutton 63.8%, making for the writers’ first shutout since 1971. Finally, Niekro was elected with 80.3% in 1997. By all accounts, he particularly took to Cooperstown, returning regularly for Induction weekend, later serving on both the Expansion Era Committee (which in 2014 elected Torre) and the Hall’s board of directors, and managing one team during the Hall of Fame Classic exhibition. “He was in Cooperstown more than any other Hall of Famer I know,” said former Hall president Jeff Idelson, who told him jokingly, “If you spend any more time here, you’ll have to start paying taxes.”

Upon learning of Niekro’s passing, former teammate Dale Murphy — who as his catcher was once charged with four passed balls but then wisely converted into an outfielder and won two MVP awards — paid tribute by calling him “the ultimate gamer and competitor. “When people ask me who was an influencer and an example to you that helped you in your career, Knucksie is the first guy I think of,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Tim Tucker. “Even if I had a few aches and pains, I was going to get out there and play, because Knucksie would.”

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

that mike marshall season will forever live rent free in my head

3 years ago
Reply to  lmcgagin07

Fun Mike Marshall Facts:

– Over the 1973-74 seasons, Mike Marshall pitched a total of 378 1/3 innings without making a single start. Over the 2018-19 seasons, only nine pitchers threw more innings in all of the major leagues (starters and relievers)

– Marshall, Bill Campbell, and Bob Stanley are the only pitchers to throw 162+ innings in a season without making a single start. Both Marshall and Campbell relied on the screwball as their out pitch.

3 years ago
Reply to  tz

The screwball is, sadly, a mostly lost pitch. It would be incredibly effective in today’s game as hitters swing hard and go for launch angle. Like a knuckleball, it would be deadly against that type of approach by hitters, assuming a pitcher could master it.