The knuckleball is a rare art that few can master. Could more of them be coming? Well, we’ll see as MLB Network has kicked off its new reality show the Knuckler, which will feature former college and NFL quarterbacks, most notably Boston College legend (and mediocre NFL QB) Doug Flutie, attempting to learn the knuckleball from Tim Wakefield with the pitcher showing the most promise getting an invite to the Diamondbacks’ major league camp. This is clearly is gimmick and the chances of it working well are slim- it takes years to get hold of the knuckleball, so how in the world will these guys do it in just a few weeks? In any event, it should be a fun spectacle to watch football players making complete fools of themselves trying to learn knuckleballs and maybe there’s a one in a million chance one of them develops some promise with the pitch.
Speaking of knuckleballers, there are four currently in MLB-affiliated organizations now that Wakefield is retired: the obvious one and the best one, R.A. Dickey on the Blue Jays, two in the Red Sox organization, Charlie Haeger and Steven Wright, and then the recently-signed Zach Staniewicz in the Orioles system. Wait- all of them are in the AL East! Could the Rays and Yankees be next? In any event, Dickey has a real chance to go down in baseball lore (although the Rays sure hope that his magical run comes to an end), but the most interesting name on the list might be Wright, 28, coming off a season at Double-A where he went 10-7 with a 2.54 ERA in 25 starts and 141.2 innings pitched. His strikeout to walk ratio was only 119-69 (plus 8 hit batsmen) and he still needs to conquer Triple-A, but Wright has a chance to be the next impact knuckleballer in the major leagues and we’ll have to see if that materializes.
In Rays history, there have been two knuckleballers, and neither went well. Dennis Springer was selected from the Anaheim Angels in the 1997 expansion draft and split time between the rotation and the bullpen in 1998, having a couple moments, including a complete game loss to (believe it or not) the Blue Jays in May, but pitching horrifically overall, going just 3-11 with a 5.45 ERA, a 3.6 K/9, a 4.7 BB/9, and a 1.6 HR/9 in 17 starts, 12 relief appearances, and a 115.2 innings pitched. Believe it or not, he actually outperformed his FIP- it was a ghastly 6.63! But the other pitcher we’ll talk about was even worse. Mark Comolli had been a pitching prospect in the Blue Jays organization (again?) before bombing out and converting himself to a knuckleballer and showing enough potential that the Devil Rays signed him in 2004. They sent him to their High-A Bakersfield affiliate and he got annihilated, going 4-15 with a 7.74 ERA, a 6.4 K/9, a 10.1 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 23 starts, 6 relief appearances, and 116.1 innings pitched. Needless to say, that was the end of his career in affiliated baseball, although he did spend two more years in Independent ball.
Beyond Springer and Comolli, there was one other famous knuckleballer: Wade Boggs for an inning in 1998. Boggs will always be much better known in the annals of baseball history and Rays history and baseball history for his hitting exploits, but coming in and throwing knuckleballs just added to the Wade Boggs legend.
The knuckleball is an extremely difficult pitch to throw and even as more people are trying to throw it, the ones how find success with it will be few and far between. But with interest in the pitch spiking, maybe it’s only a matter of time before more surface throughout baseball- and maybe even another knuckleballer will end up in the Rays organization.