2 Tips for a Better Knuckle Ball

Chris Nowlin at a single-A ballpark with college knuckleballer Jackson Bond

I was recently visited by an aspiring professional knuckleballer here in Northern California, where I am currently a starting minor league pitcher. His name is Jackson Bond, he’s 17 years old, from Dallas TX and throws left-handed. I wish I was left-handed because it would make it easy to deal with the running game. You could pitch with a full leg kick every time! I am jealous.

Jackson has a good knuckleball for his age. But working with him reminded me of a few things that everyone trying to develop this pitch should remember:

1. Don’t try to be someone else…

Jackson was warming up while playing catch with me. And I have a fairly unique way of throwing a baseball that helps me when I am pitching. My arm swings back in a long arch at glove break and then windmills up. If you freeze-frame me before the arm cock phase, it looks like I am carrying the baseball on a platter. Then I staple the ball to the back of my head before accelerating the knuckleball in a straight line at the plate. This gives me a little bit of deception because most long-armpitchers deliver the ball in a smooth arch, making it easier to time at the plate. I hide the ball right behind my head at the last minute, where it hangs up for a split second, right before I deliver the ball.

Jackson immediately asked me if he should do the same. And I immediately responded “No!”. You deliver the ball how you deliver the ball. You shouldn’t try to make major changes to your natural delivery. It will cause you frustration and delay your development. Learn really quick, right now, to be comfortable being you. Be you no matter how it looks. And be proud of it.

2. Process vs Result

Jackson would get fairly frustrated when the ball didn’t do what he wanted it do. In the beginning, we all do. But he was too focused on what was happening at the plate and was missing what was happening on the mound.

What happens at the plate is the result, which you CANNOT control! Don’t even try. Give up on controlling that right now. What happens on the mound is the process; the process of throwing the ball. This, you can control.

In baseball, the result USUALLY follows the process. If you complete the process well enough, the result will LIKELY be what you want. But it is not a direct relationship. It is not a cause-and-effect procedure. It is CORRELATED. That means a good process is LIKELY, not guaranteed, to produce a good result.

But what does this mean? Well, it means that you cannot control what happens at the plate. You could throw a knuckleball with ZERO spin and also get ZERO movement. But should you be upset if that pitch gets hit out of the park? NO! Absolutely not! You should be pumped that you controlled the process as well as you did. You executed on your end and when the ball is out of your hands, it is figuratively out of your hands. There is no more control. It is up to the wind, the baseball gods or the universe.

You cannot control the result… ever… not now and not in the future. Focus on the process, with all its fine moving parts, and the results will slowly start to follow your progress. Don’t fret at a bad knuckler. Don’t get down because the ball is spinning. Pick one adjustment that is critical for the knuckleball, focus on that, execute it well and live with the results. Once you nail that down, move on while keeping the adjustment itself as the goal. Every time you nail it, no matter the result, get excited that you are getting one step closer to you goal of being an MLB knuckleballer.

Posted by Chris Nowlin

How to Throw a Knuckleball and a Fastball for Strikes

Throw at the catcher’s mask to throw a knuckleball for a strike

I have been throwing one heck-u-va knuckleball these days. A fellow pro knuckleball friend of mine, Zach Staniewicz, and I have come up with a coding system for knuckleballs. “Chough Stuff”, pronounced CHUFF-STUFF, is the highest accolade for an individual knuckleball. Named after our mentor, Charlie Hough, these knuckleballs do no spin at all. Not one bit. Nada. Zilch.

You have probably thrown at least one Chough Stuff in your lifetime and it felt magical. That slight tingling in your fingertips as it left your hand. The majestic arch of a ball not spinning. The chaotic flight path and the dance of your catch partner all delight you.

Well, I have been throwing about 70% Chough Stuffs this year. No spin, crazy movement and no contact. But there is just one problem — it is really hard to control.

Charlie once told me that he got so good with the knuckleball, that at the end of his career, he had to throw more fastballs. “Why?” I asked Charlie. “So I wouldn’t walk so many,” Charlie replied.

And now I know what he means. My gosh!

I now, for the first time in my career, have to plan out my secondary pitches like a conventional pitcher in order to cut down on walks. I threw a knuckleball that got an audible “Wow!” from the crowd… and it was a ball! When it moves so much that the crowd behind the backstop can applaud a ball, you know you got it going on.

I’ve had strike three swing-and-misses got the backstop. Pitches come right down the middle of the zone called for balls because it fooled the umpire. I even have professional hitters swinging, making contact and looking the wrong way for the ball off of their bat. That’s right, my knuckleball is even fooling hitters that make a modicum of contact.

So I’ve gotten really good at placing four-seam fastballs in two places — low and away, and in on the hands. They are both effective in their own right, but you need to use them at the right time. And let’s be clear about something, my fastball is Wakefield-ian in its velocity. I am a classic knuckleballer with a fastball that ranges from 72 to 77 miles per hour. That brings my knuckleball in at anywhere from 55 at the slowest to 68 at the fastest. Just like good old Wake.

Low and away works for those love-to-pull power hitters. Usually, if you place it carefully enough, they’ll ignore it. They’ll just watch it sail by and wait for the next flutterball that they can wave a heavy swing at. Unless there are two strikes of course. Then they have to protect. But you can float one in for a strike. Or, better yet, have them foul an angry knuckleball off for a strike, and then go with this fastball to put them into a cripple count.

In on the hands will always work, as long as the hitter has seen the floater. You’ll catch them leaning out over the plate and you’ll stand them up. Psychologically, it will make them more susceptible to the next pitch — a knuckleball. Physically, it will get in under their hands and that inside pitch takes the longest time to swing at. The hitter has to pull in, clear the bat and punch the ball. That all takes time. Time they don’t have. So you can probably steal a strike on the way to a cripple count and a nasty knuck. Or, you can even lock them up for a strike out if you catch them really leaning. Just make sure the ump has established that inside corner during the game. Once the ump says it is a go with his calls early in the game, ATTACK! But use sparingly. Don’t get beat with you second-best pitches.

Posted by Chris Nowlin

One Pitch at a Time

You and the manager are likely to get mad at the umpire, but keep your cool

It’s been a while since I have posted, but there’s been something on my mind lately. I am up here in Northern California playing at a high-A level of professional baseball. And the minor leagues come with its own umpires. Yes, they are professional umpires. But these umps are also minor league umps, as in: they are not Major League umps.

Now, I do not envy the umpires job one bit. Every close call is going to make you an enemy on one side of the call or the other. The fans yell at you. You get called “Blue” even when you are wearing black. And all umpires make mistakes. It’s just that minor league umpires make more mistakes.

There are going to be days when you notice that the ump isn’t making the right calls. Perhaps you are fooling the ump too much because your knuckleball is moving too much. Maybe the ump sets up inside and doesn’t call a good outside corner. And, the most common mistake of all, the ump won’t give you the call when the catcher moves his glove too much to catch the pitch.

Now, the movement of the glove, or even if the catcher misses the pitch cause your knuck is nasty, shouldn’t influence the call of balls and strikes. But it does. And you have to accept that. You have to expect that as a knuckleball pitcher.

When this happens, do not show up the umpire. Do not sulk, lower your shoulders or say anything out loud. Get back on the rubber, put your head down and focus on the next pitch. Let your manager talk to the ump in his own way. Let him plead your case.

Your job, whether you like it or not, is to focus on the next pitch. Period. Do that and no calls will get to you. You’ll be untouchable.

Although, it is easier said than done. That’s what I struggled with last game.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in How-to

Min Hur’s First Win Shows the Importance of Mental Toughness

Min Hur delivering a professional knuckleball

Longtime Korean knuckleball pitcher Min Hur scored his first professional win in the United States on Memorial Day Monday, but it wasn’t easy. Hur gave up three loud runs in the first inning. But the pitcher, who has been throwing the knuckleball for more than 10 years, stuck to the game plan, never wavering from throwing his butterfly over the plate. And it earned him the win.

Hur’s team, the Rockland Boulders, faced off against the Quebec Capitales at home. Quebec is the most prolific team in the double-A level league, winning the last five CanAm League championships. The reigning champs attract some of the best bats the minor league game has to offer and Min Hur’s mental toughness ground them down.

Rockland responded to the three-run first inning with six runs of their own in the bottom half of the inning. Hur returned to the mound with the lead and never looked back.

Quebec’s hitters seemingly came out of their game plan. They stopped taking balls and looking for the walk. They stopped trusting the guy batting behind them. They stopped grinding out at-bats and they started to flail at the knuckleball. And on a day when Hur did not have his bat-missing stuff, they got themselves out. They repeatedly swung for the fences, only to fly out in the cavernous confines of Provident Bank Park.

And this serves as a lesson for all aspiring knuckleballers. No matter what your knuckleball looks like on game day, stick to the plan. Keep filling up that zone with your best pitch. Mentally bear down and you’ll wear out your opponent. They will lose the mental game, come out of their swing and hit themselves into outs. It is one of the many ways a knuckle ball pitcher can win games.

Mental toughness is of the utmost importance for a knuckleballer. Never waver, never apologize and never give in. it just might earn you a professional job and your first professional win.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in News

The Knuckle Ball Pitcher’s Cone of Nasty

Drop the ball into the knuckleball pitcher’s cone of nasty

The knuckleball flies in the face of conventional pitching. With a conventional pitch, you are trying to impart as much spin on the ball so that the break is sharp. With a knuckleball, you are trying to kill the spin to absolute zero.  You want to throw a conventional pitch as hard as you can to reduce the hitter’s reaction time. You want to throw a knuckleball at a competitive speed, knowing that you aren’t getting it by anyone. You want a sharp downward bite on conventional stuff, but you don’t have to worry about throwing a knuckleball downhill so much.

Here is another difference. This difference is fundamental for a every knuckleball pitcher to understand, and it is this:

With a conventional pitch, you want late break that the hitter has difficulty picking up (I.E. Mariano Rivera’s cutter). But with a knuckleball, you want the ball to break early.

It’s strange, but true.

The knuckleball has the ability to break more than once, and you want the first break to start out of your hand. This confuses a professional hitter to no end, and in Charlie Hough’s words, “It just looks weird.”

When the ball breaks early, a professional hitter doesn’t know where to swing. The mind’s eye immediately recognizes the pitch as something different; something unnatural. And it immediately makes the hitter feel uncomfortable. This gives you an advantage before the ball is even half-way to the plate. Victory.

To get the ball to break early, you need a solid lack of rotation and a little bit of velocity; at least in the 60’s. If the ball does spin at all, make sure that spin is pointed forward. Start the ball at the top of the strike zone and “let it eat”. The ball will essentially make a “cone of nasty”, with top-middle of the zone as the apex and the bottom edges of the zone as the base. The ball will do it’s dance and pass through the cone; dropping from the top to the bottom. And it probably won’t be hit. Do this over and over again and you might wind up in the Major Leagues.

Get that ball floating early and often, throw it right into the Lion’s den and let it eat. The results will be seen immediately.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in How-to

RA Dickey’s Bounce-back 2014

RA Dickey delivering a knuckleball as a Toronto Blue Jay

Ra Dickey performed spectacularly in 2012. He dominated or did really well in all of his starts except for one — one rainy night in Atlanta. His dominating performances, consistency and strike outs earned him 20 wins and Cy Young Award despite playing for the hapless Mets. Then the Metts do what they do best: trade or abandon their best players. Dickey is a Blue Jay.

Before we could start salivating about a Harvey and Dickey one-two punch, the Mets pulled the trade. Not many teams trade a reigning Cy Young and I know Dickey had his heart set on a career in New York. But it was onto another team. Playing musical chairs with different organizations has become a part of RA’s life as a baseball player.

The American League East is a completely different beast than the Nation League East. The AL East boasts the most expensive teams in the game with fan bases that demand championships. The high-priced Yankees, the big-bopping Red Sox, the feisty Rays and the young-and-hungry Orioles all populate the Blue Jays’ own division. The new environment brought Dickey a whole new challenge.

There’s also something about the Rogers Center. That place seems to send the ball into the stratosphere. It is a veritable launching pad. This poses another challenge to a knuckleballer because the knuckle ball tends to be a fly ball pitch.

Dickey embraced the challenge, as he always does. But he had some struggles. His struggles in 2013 weren’t all that bad. he threw a string of strong games, but had a few duds. This inflated some his numbers. Overall, the 2013 wasn’t a waist, but fans were disappointed. The Jays traded for the Cy Young, extended a multi-million dollar deal and got a pedestrian AL East pitcher.

But a knuckleballer doesn’t become a knuckleballer without knowing himself. You really need to dissect everything that you do on the mound to understand exactly which movements produce a ball with no spin. You really have to have some intestinal fortitude to stand on the mound throwing butterflies at Major League Hitters. You can’t just throw knuckleballs up there and hope for the best.

RA Dickey’s path of self-discovery, through his own personal life and through baseball, leads me to believe that 2014 will be a big year for the MLB’s only knuckleballer. He’s gone through the struggles, embraces challenges and knows that he has it in him. As a knuckleballer, I know he’s work harder than anyone else in the MLB to refine his game.

And there is one simple reason that I know — a knuckleballer can throw all year and throw more pitches that anyone else.

Expect big things from the young Mr RA Dickey this season.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in Articles

To Drop-&-Drive, or not to Drop-&-Drive

RA Dickey’s effort-face gets glammed up with fan art

Like many of you, I started throwing the knuckleball fairly lightly. I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, where Tim Wakefield spent the better part of two decades honing his knuckle ball. On TV, Tim looked like he kind of just lobbed the ball in there. But that is actually pretty deceiving.

MLB pitchers AVERAGE 91 miles per hour. That is an average velocity. And I don’t know how many of you have actually stood-in on a 91 mile-per-hour fastball, but it is fast. I think the average baseball fan, especially those fans who never really played the game, would be amazed at the sheer power and speed of a 91 mile-per-hour fastball.

But it is these fastballs that skew our perception of fast, because 65 miles per hour is, in fact, fast. I know, it is not relatively fast in the game of professional baseball seeing as guys average 91 miles per hour, but it is ACTUALLY fast. A knuckleball won’t really do what it is supposed to do unless it is hissing out of your hand.

My perception of a knuckleball’s velocity had always been dependent on Tim Wakefield’s televised games. His ball looked slow in comparison to other big league pitchers. So, I thought the knuckleball was supposed to be slow. That is why I was shocked to hear from both Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough that I should drive; throw hard; jump at the hitter.

But it has paid off. A knuckleball with effort actually feels heavier to catch. And a heavy ball is very valuable on that mound. That is why I tell people that it is the grip of the knuckleball that makes the pitch “slow”, not the effort. You want to drive at the target with enough effort to change your facial expression.

Without the effort, the ball feels light. And light pitches get hit hard over fences that are very far away.

Put the pedal to the metal, get in shape, become an athlete, use your whole body to drive at the target and throw a heavy, hard-to-hit baseball. Get after it.

Posted by Chris Nowlin

Knuckle Ball Pitcher Zach Staniewicz’s Success

Zach Staniewicz pitching knuckleballs for the Perth Heat in Australia

Zach Staniewicz came to me a long time ago. I mean, a long time ago. I remember the day he drove up to my alma mater at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He was riding in a mid-sized pickup truck with his mom. We met in a parking lot in the middle of winter; breath and exhaust clouding into the air.; road salt crunchy under foot. I guided him to the indoor batting cages.

There, I started to teach him everything I knew about the knuckleball. I am only a few years older than Zach, so I was still in the middle of figuring it out myself. But the kids was a little bigger than me, which isn’t easy; i stand six foot four inches tall. And he had a great arm. He could hit upper 80’s. So when he called me a little while back to tell me he was throwing 90 in Orioles Spring Training Camp, I wasn’t surprised.

Chris Nowlin & Zach Staniewicz showing knuckleball grips at UMass Amherst in the early 2000’s

Zach Staniewicz signed to play with the Orioles at the age of 27. Before that, he had a short stint playing independent professional baseball as an outfielder. Zach turned himself into a knuckle ball pitcher and the Orioles took notice. Actually, Phil Niekro took notice.

Zach struggled a little bit with the identity. He would call me and I would reassure him that it was OK to make the transition to the knuckleball; that you could walk around confident in a 60 mile-per-hour pitch. After a few of these conversations, he let it sink in — to full effect.

The Orioles sent Zach out to Perth, Western Australia for some winter ball, where he put up and astonishing 0.55 ERA. It’s a little strange because that is where I played winter ball about 4 years ago, but I didn’t put up numbers like that. Now he returns to the states to partake in the adventure that is the 2014 season.

Zach Staniewicz’s success illustrates a few different things

  •  the knuckleball can be taught
  • your age doesn’t matter
  • confidence and the mental game are incredibly important

All of these things are addressed in Knuckleball Nation the Instructional DVD.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in News

Knuckleball Grip Tension

One of the finer nuances of the knuckle ball is the grip tension. In my time working with the greats, I have heard a few different things about grip tension. But the grip tension experts can really be broken up into two different camps — The Charlie Hough side and the Phil Niekro side.

Charlie Hough enjoyed a 24-year Major League career. The man was drafted out of Honolulu as a third baseman and just couldn’t hack it. So, like most knuckleballers, he was taught the butterfly as a last-ditch effort. He caught on immediately.

Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox knuckle ball grip

He started playing in double- and triple-A for the legendary Tommy Lasorda as a reliever; a closer, in fact. His success inspired the Dodgers to sign an aged Hoyt Wilhelm; making him a minor leaguer at 49 years young. Hoyt Wilhelm, in case you don’t know, is a hall of famer and the best knuckleballer that has ever lived. He maintained a WHIP below 1.00 AFTER the age of 40! Well, Hoyt taught everything he knew to Charlie. And at the end of the year, the Dodgers made a run for the pennant. They called up Hoyt, even though Charlie had better numbers. That’s how legend Hoyt was at the time.

So, when Charlie taught me and RA Dickey, he preached what Hoyt preached — a loose grip, like an egg. Hoyt and Charlie held it so light that you could easily grab the ball out of their hands.

Phil Niekro, the second-best knuckleballer ever to live (just a shade behind Hoyt WIlhelm), featured a very tight grip. He wrapped his entire hand around the ball. And one thing thatI notices about Phil when I worked with him is that he has huge hands. The kind of hands that swallow another hand in a handshake. Well, he used those mitts to clamp down on the ball pretty tight. “Just hold it nice and tight, then fire it!” he would say.

Knuckle ball grip tension is completely up to you. You just need to hold on to it just tight enough so that it doesn’t fly out of your hand on the way to the plate. I explain it in Knuckleball Nation the Instructional Video like this — think of it as a scale of one to 10, with one being the lightest. Throw a few at one and then get a shade tighter. Do this until you are gripping it hard, at a 10. Somewhere along the line, you’ll find your knuckleball grip tension.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in How-to

How To Throw a Knuckleball

The cover of RA Dickey’s best-selling knuckeball book “Wherever I Wind Up”

I get a lot of questions regarding how to throw a knuckleball. But it is not a simple question and the answer can take years to understand. Being a professional knuckleball pitcher myself, I know just how difficult the journey can be. There were times I was out on the baseball field practicing, throwing into my strike zone net that I would set up, where I would get incredibly frustrated; angry to the point of spiking my glove into the ground with a terribly sore arm. It was at those moments that I thought I would give up.

Then, through the years, the lessons that Charlie Hough had taught me began to sink in. I finally understood what it meant to be on top of the ball. I finally understood hip-to-shoulder separation. I finally understood what it meant to follow through over the top of the baseball. Sometimes these realizations would happen in the middle of a game. I would think, “Oh, that’s what he meant!.” Something would click and my knuckleball would develop.

It took years to finally craft a professional quality knuckle ball. And after those years I could finally call myself a knuckleball pitcher. It was years of struggle that had me looking bad out there on the mound every once in a while. I gave up a grand slam in the first inning of a professional game, got the hook and got my release on the same day! Of course, I found another pro job quickly that same summer, but that game won’t ever leave me.

So, when someone asks me the question, “How do I throw a knuckleball?” I ask them, “Where do I begin?” Just read RA Dickey or Tim Wakefield’s books. Those guys will tell you just how difficult it was to learn a knuckleball. There is a lot of struggle and stife. But there is something great that comes from it all – self-discovery.

RA Dickey is the king of self-discovery. He went through a lot of it when he was working to become a knuckleballer — $1,600/month non-guaranteed minor league contracts with a family, giving up six homeruns in a game to tie a Major League record, and age; he was rapidly getting older as the game was getting younger. He had to learn how to control himself and become a better man in order to achieve success with a knuckleball.

I have experienced a lot of the same things. I am eight years younger than Dickey (two years away from his knuckleball MLB debut age) and I can say that the knuckleball has been a journey. It has taken me to Australia, Southeast Asia, Canada, Mexico and every state but Alaska. I make a minor leaguer’s pay check while friends succeed with stable careers. It’s hard to handle relationships with the stress of travel. But I wouldn’t trade it in for the world. When you commit to a passion, you learn a lot about yourself. Self-discovery is one of the best things about the pursuit of the knuckleball. It’s as much about the journey as the destination.

So, when someone asks me that simple question, “How do I throw a knuckleball?” What do I do? Should I sit them down and tell them my life story?

The absolute best thing you can do for yourself in discovering YOUR knuckleball is to find a mentor. I lucked out and found Charlie Hough. We’ve had a relationship through it all, and that’s what you’ll have with the knuckleball – a relationship. You don’t master it, you befriend it. And you relationship changes.

I would like to offer my services as a mentor. Buy Knuckleball Nation, watch it, develop a vocabulary and come to me with any questions at KNUCKLEBALLNATION@GMAIL.com

Go make your story. Good Luck.

Posted by Chris Nowlin in How-to, 0 comments
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