The History of the Knuckleball

Eddie Rommel stood in the stretch, his right cleat rested against the rubber and he faced Shibe Park’s third base line stands. He wound up and threw it with a normal arm motion, but his fingers pushed the ball instead of flicking it, an effect produced by the grip he held with his fingernails digging into the canvas of the ball. The ball fluttered and seemed to hang motionless in the air every few feet before moving to another location, at times it rotated so slowly that Babe Ruth could see each individual seam. As the pitch neared home it lost its sporadic action and floated like a poorly-thrown change-up or a hung curve-ball, and the Babe wound up to take a massive swing. But just as the barrel should have made contact, the ball darted into the dirt and he hit nothing but air. 

  ‘Knuckleball’ is an appropriately deceptive name for baseball’s most unpredictable pitch. The knuckleball is not thrown with the knuckles on the ball, but rather the fingernails and fingertips. This allows the pitcher to slow the speed of the ball, and most importantly, reduce its spin rate as much as possible. 

     While Eddie Rommel was dubbed the “father of the modern knuckleball”, he was not the inventor of the pitch or the first to throw it successfully in the major leagues. It is unclear who actually invented the pitch, but Eddie “knuckles” Cicotte was the first to consistently throw the knuckleball. He once told John J. Ward of Baseball Magazine, “I think it is no exaggeration to say that out of 100 average balls that I throw, 75 are knuckle balls.” 

     This early knuckleball was thrown with a slightly different grip. According to Jim Sandoval of the Society for American Baseball Research, Cicotte gripped the ball by holding it “on the three fingers of a closed hand, with his thumb and forefinger to guide it, throwing it with an overhand motion, and sending it from his hand as one would snap a whip.” 

     As Cicotte fooled batters with his unpredictable knuckler, the baseball media compared this strange pitch to another ‘junk ball’ pitch common in the dead-ball era, the spitball. The spitball’s erratic motion was not caused by the pitcher’s grip, but rather by a substance, such as saliva or petroleum jelly, that was applied to one side of the ball to drastically alter its wind resistance. A 1908 Washington Evening Star article described the knuckleball’s motion, “The ball shoots toward the plate in the same way that the spitter does, without twisting or turning in the least. You can count the seams in the ball as it comes toward you. Being pushed against the air without any revolving movement, it floats along with a jerky movement.” 

     Cicotte paved the way for Rommel by being the first big league hurler to rely on the pitch, then Rommel modernized it and found success with the grip that virtually all knuckleballers have used since.

“He (Hoyt Wilhelm) had the best knuckleball you’d ever want to see. He knew where it was going when he threw it, but when he got two strikes on you, he’d break out one that even he didn’t know where it was going.”

     Dutch Leonard had a successful career as a knuckleballer. He was selected to six All-Star teams and retired with a career earned run average of 3.25, but his greatest contribution to knuckleball pitching may have been who he inspired. As a teenager, Hoyt Wilhelm saw a Dutch Leonard baseball card that showed how he held the ball, using the index and middle finger to grip the seams. Wilhelm then taught himself to throw the pitch, and in the year of 1952 he made his major league debut as a relief pitcher for the New York Giants. In his first season Wilhelm became the first full-time relief pitcher to finish with the league’s lowest ERA (2.43), establishing himself as the game’s next great knuckleballer. 

     Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson praised his Oriole teammate saying, “He (Hoyt Wilhelm) had the best knuckleball you’d ever want to see. He knew where it was going when he threw it, but when he got two strikes on you, he’d break out one that even he didn’t know where it was going.” This last point made by Robinson emphasizes how difficult Wilhelm’s knuckleball was to hit, but also how difficult his catchers’ jobs were. Several times in his career Wilhelm’s catchers allowed four passed balls in a single inning. However, this problem is not unique to Wilhelm, as Red Sox catchers would later struggle to catch for Tim Wakefield, causing the team to assign Doug Mirabelli his assigned catcher, and the league to allow him to use a modified softball catcher’s mitt. 

    The greatest knuckleball pitcher in baseball history grew up the son of a coal miner in Lansing, Ohio. Phil Niekro’s father learned the pitch from another coal miner, and taught it to his two sons, who would both throw the pitch in the major leagues. As Hoyt Wilhelm’s career came to an end Phil Niekro rose to prominence, ensuring that the knuckleball would be a fixture in professional baseball throughout the 1970s and 80s. Niekro led the National League in wins twice, threw a no hitter in 1973, and retired after the 1987 season with 318 career wins, the most ever for a knuckleball pitcher. 

     A scout told Tim Wakefield, then a first base prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system, that he wouldn’t make it past double A ball as a position player. Wakefield, determined to make the major leagues any way he could, then started developing the knuckleball. Wakefield transitioned to being a full-time pitcher, and for the first few years of the 90s he perfected his pitch in the minor leagues. In 1995 the Pirates released Wakefield, and the Boston Red Sox signed him six days later. 

      Wakefield went on to win 200 games for the Red Sox, and was a member of their World Series winning teams in 2004 and 2007. 

Although the knuckleball had a strong presence in professional baseball for most of the 20th century, R.A. Dickey’s historic 2012 season was the pinnacle of knuckleball pitching.

     The knuckleball also had a redemptive effect on R.A. Dickey’s career. From 2001-2005 he had limited success as a conventional pitcher for the Texas Rangers, so at the beginning of the 2006 season he began the transition to throwing the knuckleball. 

     Dickey gave up six home runs in his first start since becoming a knuckleball pitcher, tying him with Tim Wakefield for the most ever given up by a single pitcher in a major league game. Dickey was later demoted to the minor leagues, and he had stints with the Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, and the Seattle Mariners before signing with the Mets in 2010. 

     The 2010 season was Dickey’s best in the majors since 2004, he finished with an ERA of 2.84 and struck out 104 batters. Dickey followed his strong 2010 season with another solid year in 2011, but his 2012 season will always be remembered as the greatest single season by a knuckleball pitcher in baseball history. 

     Phil Niekro said of Dickey’s hot start to the season, “I had a few streaks, but nothing like he’s going through. I don’t know if any other knuckleballer has ever been on a hot streak like he has been.” In June of that season Dickey threw back-to-back one hitters, and at one point in the season he recorded 32 ⅔ consecutive scoreless innings, a Mets franchise record. 

     After winning the 2012 NL Cy Young award Dickey received numerous phone calls in congratulations, but he famously only answered Phil Niekro’s call.     

     Although the knuckleball had a strong presence in professional baseball for most of the 20th century, R.A. Dickey’s historic 2012 season was the pinnacle of knuckleball pitching. Now, after over one hundred years of use in baseball, it looks as though the knuckleball is fading out of the game. The only active knuckleballer in the MLB, Steven Wright, went 0-1 with an 8.53 ERA in 6 ⅓ innings in his only appearance for the Red Sox after serving an 80 game suspension for using performance enhancing drugs.  

     Perhaps due to the emphasis on launch-angle (knuckleball pitchers tend to generate more fly balls) or velocity and control for pitchers the knuckleball is becoming less popular. Whatever the reason is, the fact remains that baseball’s most deceptive pitch is losing its place in the game. 

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Why the Way That You “root, root, root, for the home team” is Changing the Game

Written By: Brooke Brady

“What’s it been- 30 years now of the Sunday tradition coming to the old ball game?” Ben gleams. “Where’s Jim?” Ronald turns to him and asks. “Darn box office prices got to him again. These costs just keep soaring. I’m not sure if we can keep this weekly venture up…” Ben stiffens. Ronald looks around at the cold empty seats by his side. He reflects on the time when he could barely get a spot in the nosebleeds to see his favorite team play in the sweltering heat. Now, no one comes out to the plate anymore- it’s all seen on TV.

Bat and ball has become a whole new ball game for baseball lovers around the nation as more and more people are watching from the comfort of their home. With the rise of live stream and online viewing for sports, major decrease in fan attendance to the actual game has followed according to the NY times. Not only is accessibility a cause for decrease, but also the lack of actual game play. Sources such as The Washington Post have found that box office numbers are “directly tied to the rise in strikeouts and fall in base hits.”

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Baseball fans around the country have continuously complained of the changes the game is experiencing. From a major increase in strikeouts, to an excruciatingly long play time, baseball is said to be becoming the game with “not enough action” as said by the Boston Globe So what exactly does this mean for the future of baseball?

It means less money in ticket sales and less people in the stands for the entirety of the game. Wait times between plays have increased substantially. According to Sports Illustrated, “the average time between balls put in play is a staggering 3 minutes, 45 seconds.” USA Today reports that “the game is simply devoid of action, with players striking out, walking or hitting home runs in 34 percent of their plate appearances. So, for more than a third of every game, there’s not a fielder involved in the action.” 

On the contrary, sports columnist, Noah Frank, has decided that these claims are simply the “perspectives of people who watch the game every day, for work… while they may be some of the most informed when it comes to the minutiae happening on the field, they are necessarily blind to the fan perspective.”

He believes that baseball has been and always will be “entertainment.” He doesn’t think that people will stop coming to the game simply because it takes too long, but more so because it costs too much. Wtop sports reports, the truth is that “the value of such entertainment isn’t measured in pitch clocks or percentage of balls put in play — it’s measured in dollars and cents.” Frank continues to elaborate on his view that baseball as a sport is too costly. He incorporates the fact that parking has become outrageous, food prices are continuing to skyrocket, and even the ticket price has “doubled since the year 2007.” All of these factors build over time and eventually discourage people from attending the big game.

 

“I know it’s a hassle getting to the ballpark. I get it. Even if we’d have won 100 games, who knows if it would have been different?”

– Kevin Kiermaier (Rays outfielder)

 

Frank does turn to the numbers for support as well. Pointing out that the minor league has actually had a “increase in average attendance and overall since 2016.” This is because people view the minor league as the “best entertainment value” and a more “loyal fan base” found among the 160 teams.

There is no shortage of conversation among the fans and their fellow attendees. People have taken advantage of the internet and the ease of communication it has brung among the “common folk” and the big corporations which run many sports leagues.

One service in particular for users to directly interact with companies and sponsors is the social media network “twitter.” With only 280 characters, people have their opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions. The platforms main form of communication features “tweets” which are ultimately posts to a world wide bulletin board. After analyzing tweets containing the words, “mlb attendance,” it is easy to see that the dialogue around baseball turnout today isn’t a positive one. Overall, there is a trend of criticism combating the numerous claims of attendance lowering throughout the league. Audience members throw around the word “ratings” and claim that all MLB wants is to make more money.

To understand the fan-baseball attendance relationship, I decided to dig deeper and analyze the language and recurring media trends seen throughout the tweets. I found this collection of data as the best methodical approach due to the fact that many times, twitter conversations are typically candid and show a great depth of personality. They give a unique glance at the public’s reaction to minute events and show us how individuals use the network to make their voice heard. As a casual form of media, twitter engages users in a continuous conversation which can be seen by everyone. This distinctive feature distinguishes the platform from other forms of communication and social media.

There remains an open discussion among fans asking why this is happening and whether or not the patterns will continue. Many of the tweets feature linked articles or responses to prior conversations in the twitter world around MLB motivations. Most of the talk is streamed directly from personal accounts, but every now and then a touch of accredited news sources or organizations will pop up. What does this mean for the companies in charge of the big business of baseball? Are they hearing their fans out or are they simply doing what is best for the enterprise.


 

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Nationals play Seattle Mariners 5/25/2017

“This game was moved to 12:05 from 4:05 start to get avoid rain expected later. Resulting in rather low attendance as we watch the first Seattle batter come to the plate.” 

Michael Neubert, Getty Images



One user account, @ProblemsMlb, is dedicated to the sole purpose of striking up a conversation around the issues in the MLB. A specific conversation the account pursued brought in the perspective of the family. On December 6th, 2018, he wrote a response to an initial tweet made by WOWK 13 News linking their article on the “steep attendance drop” throughout the league. 

The additional use of hashtags to advertise ones tweet has also remained relevant in the discussion around MLB. Popular hashtags include: MLB, Fans, Attendance, and even things like the mentioned above, affordability. All of 

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 3.52.17 PM.pngthese factors point to the fact that the fans of the MLB want particular pieces of their tweets to stick out. The hashtag gives a user the ability to follow a certain word through a like strand of tweets containing the same tag. This gives the tweets more exposure and in the case of frequent tweeters such as @Problemsmlb, a consistent track of their previous comments and thoughts.

Everyday another account updates their twitter with an opinion about the MLB and their attendance policies. These postings can range from parody articles, to statistics, to angry rants, but the fact that there is still an ongoing conversation proves to be a good thing. As the saying goes, “bad publicity is still publicity” and it can be considered that the MLB will continue to take everything and make it a home run.

An additional piece of evidence worth understanding is the MLB year-by-year statistical report with average attendance, average attendance per game, and average number of pitchers used by individual teams in the season.

“Average attendance” provides average numbers  based on the amount of tickets sold during home games. The table shows a substantial increase from 2000 until 2007, when the numbers of average overall attendance begin to drop again. This trend downward may be due to the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 in which many people began to eliminate frivolous entertainment practices. From 2008 to 2009 is when we can see the biggest drop as explained by @ProblemsmlbSeason tickets are automatically renewed the year before, so this drop in 2009 as opposed to 2008 was probably due to the fact that people had to cancel their tickets later than they wanted to due to renewal constraints.

Screen Shot 2018-12-10 at 9.00.33 PM.pngIn the far left column of the table also stands the pitchers statistic. The only significance this pattern shows is the continuing increase in the number of pitchers teams keep on their roster. With more team members, comes more costs and more salaries to pay so as this goes up, so will prices, and then attendance will fall.

Dynamic pricing has also become a hot button for the people whom are purchasing tickets to the game. The algorithm many ticket specialists are using is said to “measure demand and price sensitivity to a particular game on a real-time basis” as fangraph explains. It’s not just a one and done deal for pricing consultants and teams alike, “many factors are considered, including the weather, a winning or hitting streak, the debut of a hot prospect and the price tickets are selling for on the secondary market, like StubHub.”

All in all, people are beginning to focus their interests and money elsewhere. After reading endless tweets about fan complaints and experiences, it was seen that people simply don’t want to spend the money and time anymore at the actual game. Families and even just regular old sports fans don’t like the amount of bills traveling from their wallet to the ticket stands. When they go to purchase their tickets or anything else included in the home game experience, they feel ostracized by their favorite sport. If prices of all aspects of baseball continue to rise, people will find cheaper alternatives to actually showing up to be the live audience.

Times are changing according to Beyond the Boxscore report which states that “the average age of a baseball fans is almost 55.” The average sports fan attention span is slowly degrading as big media companies are working towards making the next big sport faster, better and bigger. The NFL is bringing in the viewers who “don’t have the time to watch nothing happen.” Sports watchers want a lively game for their entertainment. Although baseball has remained prevalent in American culture, will it be able to save it’s long standing decline in attendance? Will it continue to be “America’s favorite past time”? It seems that question will be answered when you attend your next home game.

 

featured image from: http://fortune.com/2018/06/15/mlb-attendance-rate-declining/ 

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Thin Air vs. the Numbers; Does Elevation Affect Batting Statistics?

Statistics rule the game of baseball. It’s a game of skill, where the biggest, strongest, fastest guy isn’t always necessarily the best. Experts perform studies, watch reruns of games, and analyze the stats day and night to try to formulate the best factors to look at in a player, team, setting, etc. These stats can help properly evaluate a strategy to see if it really is effective. Every single detail and decision of a player can be factored into statistics. People track every foul ball hit, every time a pitcher throws over to first base to check the runner, every missed ground ball, etc.

The game has been played the same way for the past hundred-so years, with bases at 90 feet apart, and home plate being 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound. Baseball’s heritage and tradition are richer and deeper than those of other sports, with more numbers and more history making the statistics so important to evaluate. Through all the numbers, though, which are the most important to look at? More specifically, does a field’s elevation affect how well a team performs offensively?

Before trying to use the numbers to determine if there is a significant answer to this question, it’s important to decide which batting statistics should be used to investigate the issue.

 

wOBA – Weighted On-Base Average

This uses linear weights to determine exactly how valuable each offensive outcome truly is. We know a single is better than a walk and a triple is better than a double, be we can actually compute the precise values with this statistic.

 

BABIP -Batting Average on Balls in Play

These tend to fall for hits based on three factors. The first is how well the ball was hit, the second is the quality of the defense, and the third is luck. The first one is important, but you don’t want to penalize a hitter for the second two. Luck and defense will eventually even out over a big enough sample, but it can take 500 to 1,500 PA in some cases.

 

wRC+ – Weighted Runs Created Plus

This credits a player for total production rather than on an at bat by at bat basis. It combines the virtues of a weighted statistic like wOBA, with the virtues of counting stats that give players credit for producing at a given level over a great number of plate appearances. It provides a measure of how many runs a player contributed to his team with their bat. It’s also very simple to read. League average is always 100, so the average hitter in 1998 and 2014 would both have a 100 wRC+. Therefore, a player with wRC+ of 110 would be doing 10% better than the league average.

 

HR/FB – Home Run per Fly Ball

This is the ratio of home runs a player hits out of their total number of fly balls (including home runs). While a player’s raw total of home runs will tell you something, their HR/FB ratio can be useful in providing context about how sustainable their power is. According to FanGraphs.com, an average HR/FB rate is about 9.5%, where a good hitter will be around 15-20% and a poor hitter ranges from 1-5%.

 

Physics

When comparing these different statistics across different levels of elevation, physics is the most important factor to consider.

Newton’s first law states that every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. This is normally taken as the definition of inertia. The key point here is that if there is no net force acting on an object (if all the external forces cancel each other out) then the object will maintain a constant velocity.

Newton’s second law explains how the velocity of an object changes when it is subjected to an external force. More simply, force (F) equals mass (m) times velocity (a). Newton’s third law, on the other hand, states that for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.

When combining all three laws in baseball terms, the force that’s applied when hitting the baseball determines how far the ball will actually go. Then, any ball hit into the air will have the force of atmosphere (pushing against the ball when it comes to distance) and the force of gravity acting on it (pushing the ball down as it goes into the air).

Physics

 

Elevation

Therefore, does the different amount of atmospheric pressure at different elevations influence how much force is applied on the ball downward and resisting it to go further? Using wOBA, BABIP, wRC+, and HR/FB, we can compare to see if the ball tends to travel further in thinner air at higher elevations, causing singles to turn into doubles, fly balls into home runs, etc.

Next, to analyze the numbers, let’s establish a base upon which we’ll be using for comparison. The Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field has an elevation of about 5,211 feet above sea level. The next highest field elevation is that of Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field at 1,059 feet above sea level. The average elevation of a major league baseball field is 355.86 feet, excluding Coors Field. Including Coors Field makes the average elevation 517.53 feet. If that’s not enough to understand the difference in field elevation, here’s a bar graph that shows the differences.

 

Elevation

*all field elevations were found at BaseballPilgrimages.com

 

The Players

To approach an understanding of differences in elevations, I decided to compare the players from the Colorado Rockies to see how they played at home versus on the road at another field. It’s important to note that more away games are played within their NL West league than out of their league, however I was not able to find the away statistics within their league compared to out of their league, so the numbers might have some skew. Other factors such as not normally playing against a team or in an unfamiliar away field may play in as well.

A rather difficult task that I didn’t think needed much focus was choosing the players which I was going to compare, yet it ended up being one of the hardest parts. I started off wanting to use the 10 players who had the highest plate appearances within the last 10 years to compare. Although, I only wanted to compare players who had a significant number of plate appearances, which I identified as at least 200 to allow for the chances of random error and chance to not have a huge effect on the numbers.

Then, I had to dwindle the number of players to those who have stayed with the Rockies for at least 10 years, and practically all the players had been removed from the “possibly usable” list. After some tweaking and trying to find what was going to work out best, I have chosen 5 players to compare over the last 6 years. I’ve gathered their stats for home vs away games, averaged them, and put each stat in a graph for each player.

 

Nolan Arenado

It’s evident here the difference makes for at home games versus away games over the last six years.

Nolan Arenado

Charlie Blackmon

Though the numbers here are closer together, there seems to be a large difference in home run to fly ball ratio at Coors Field compared to other ballparks

Charlie Blackmon

DJ LeMahieu

Again, the numbers are close together, with a large difference in home run per fly ball hit.

DJ LeMahieu

Carlos Gonzalez

Differences seem to be pretty consistent across the board for Carlos Gonzalez

Carlos Gonzalez

Chris Iannetta

Chris Iannetta

Chris Iannetta seems to have a significantly different trend of stats when comparing to the other players. He seems to have a better average when it comes to away games, yet he tends to hit more home runs at his home games.

 

Another thing to note is the different layouts of different major league fields. A fly ball in the Astros’ stadium could be a home run in Fenway Park. Other factors must be taken into consideration as well when comparing home to away games like how sleep/travel could affect a player, an opposing crowd, etc.

It’s possible to further analyze this data in several ways as well. One could look at the same stats for other teams to compare how well they play at their home fields versus away fields to see if there is a significant difference in numbers between them and the Rockies. Also, someone could compare how specific, individual players play at fields of higher altitude compared to that of lower altitude. All in all, there seems to be a consistent trend of the Rockies’ players to hit better in their home field, which has a significantly higher elevation than that of other fields.

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