19 Jan

Niekro Clinic A Success! Begins “Legends Series” of Knuckle Clinics

Last weekend, I had the privelage of flying from my home in Los Angeles to Atlanta to work with 10 knuckleballers. They flew in from as far away as New York, North Carolina, Alabama and Texas. And they were all converging for a very special reason — Phil Niekro.

The 77-year-old Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher tossed the butterfly for 24 years in the Major Leagues for the Atlanta Braves, Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians, and New York Yankees. I am proud to count the 300 game winner as a mentor and friend. So, I called him up to ask a favor — would he appear at Knuckleball Nation’s Atlanta clinic? He said yes and the rest is history.

Saturday Success

My clinics follow a similar structure — Saturday and Sunday for two hours per day. I discuss critical components of the knuckleball delivery, step by step, and then everyone has a chance to throw some pitches off the mound to try the adjustment. We got things started off hot on Saturday by discussing how to put some mustard on the knuckleball. After all, the knuckleball is slow because of the grip and the lack of leverage, not because of the effort. We talked about how to separate those hips and shoulders to get that butterfly into the upper 60’s. That’s where you’ll have to live if you want to break into professional baseball.

The tips I shared on Saturday saw immediate benefits, especially for the big guy from Alabama. The 17-year-old saw his velocity jump 5 miles-per-hour in one day. His father remarked that it was the first time someone was able to tell him how to “stay back” effectively. “Bama” said he finally understood just how to use his lower body to drive towards the target.

Phil Niekro Day

Then came the big day — Niekro day. Phil showed up right at 2pm when we were set to start. Everyone gathered around the mound and Phil Niekro spent the next 30 minutes giving a lecture on a variety of topics surrounding the knuckleball. He talked at length about how the knuckleball is the backdoor into professional baseball, that the knuckleball is elusive and will give everyone fits, and that you have to commit; eat, sleep and drink the knuckleball. Do that, he said, and you have a chance. Every. Single. One of them.

He also spent some time praising me, my knowledge and my skill with the knuckleball. It was satisfying and flattering.

Niekro was then nice enough to watch every kid throw about 10 pitches, giving everyone who attended some encouragement and a few personal tips. After signing autographs and standing for a few pictures, the Hall of Famer left the building. We had an hour to get back to work before the clinic was over.

The Legend Clinic Series Continues With Charlie Hough Feb 11th

I hope to continue these “Legend Series” knuckleball clinics. The next one takes place in Los Angeles on February 11th and 12th with Charlie Hough. If the success of these events continues, I may be able to schedule clinics with RA Dickey and Steven Wright in the future. I hope to see you at one of these events soon.

25 Aug

Do You Have What It Takes? Do You Have The Stuff?

recovery

Want to be a pro knuckleballer? Buckle in for pain.

The question I am most asked is, “How do you release the knuckleball?” I tell them the usual answer — the knuckleball has less to do with the release and more to do with mechanics than you think. I could tell you how to release a knuckleball, but it won’t do you any good until your body moves in an incredibly consistent manner. Asking how to release the knuckleball is the same as asking for a weeks-long seminar on knuckleball-specific pitching mechanics.

But it is the question that I am asked second-most that shocks me — Do I have what it takes to be a pro knuckleballer? Now, it is true that some people will never “get it”, and that inability to be able to pitch a pro-quality knuckleball is evident from the start. But I don’t see a lot of those people. Pitchers who come to me overwhelmingly already know how to pitch a little bit.

If you can throw a baseball for a strike at 72 miles per hour, then you can make it into professional baseball as a knuckleball pitcher. That’s all you need. It’s all Wakefield needed at the end of his career, it’s all Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm needed, it’s all 7-year Big leaguer Dennis Springer needed, and it’s all you’ll need, too. If you can throw harder, great! If you can’t, no problem… you’ll just have to have a fantastic knuckleball.

The knuckleball is extremely difficult. You’ve got to take this 5-ounce hardball and throw it off your fingernails at least 65 mils per hour at a relatively small target 60 feet away without knowing exactly which way it’ll break. It’s absurd. It’s an absolutely insane thing to expect someone to be able to do once, let alone 100 times during a start. It is the apex of human performance. Think about that — it is the absolute edge of human potential.

Yes, throwing a knuckleball requires less athleticism than throwing a Big League fastball, but it is much more difficult to do overall. If you are blessed with an arm, you can throw 95. But the knuckleball is a blend of finite touch on your fingertips, a musician’s rhythm in your delivery, a meditative mental state, the balance of a dancer AND a little bit of athleticism.

And when something is the apex of human performance — as is the knuckleball — you must commit yourself to it like an Olympian commits herself to an event. You’ve got to eat, sleep and breath the knuckleball. You have to understand every little nuance of your delivery. You have to battle the weather, muscle tightness, the direction of the wind, the temperature, the health of your fingernails, your “feel” that day… you have to know yourself so well that you can adjust and overcome any obstacle.

A conventional pitcher can feel bad. He can have a bad day mechanically and miss his spots. But 93 with movement will get outs, even by accident. As a knuckleballer, you have no such luck. You need to be perfect everyday. You have to work harder than them.

So, can you make it? Do you have the stuff? If you can throw 72mph, then, yes, you have the stuff. But that’s just the beginning of a long, difficult journey full of pain at the gym, hardship on the mound, and a sacrificed social life. And all that hard work might earn you a spot in the minor leagues, with poor pay, junky motels and long bus rides.

Can you make it? It’s more like, do you want it bad enough?

30 May

Knuckleball Grip, Part 3: Depth of the Baseball

Deep Knuckleball Grip

A deep, on-the-palm knuckleball grip with longer fingernails

As I stated in the previous post about grips, there is one overriding rule to a great knuckleball grip — remove as many variable as possible to put yourself into position to have a chance of killing the spin entirely. That means using two fingertips to throw the ball instead of three and staying away from the seams. The textured seams catch on skin and fingernails to send the ball spinning. Stay away from them.

Once you’ve reduced any variables and put yourself into position to give yourself chance, it’s up to you to feel the ball out of your hand with no spin at the proper moment. This is when the knuckleball becomes a “feel” pitch rather than a mechanical one. And as Charlie Hough used to tell me, “I can teach you how to get your body and arm into the proper position, but the release is up to you to feel out of your hand.” 

Feel is a very personal thing. This feel determines differences in the knuckleball grip that can be easily seen from one knuckleball pitcher to another. And I will touch on two of these personal difference below — Depth and Tension.

Depth

How deep does the ball sit in your hand with your grip? Do you wedge the ball up against your palm like Phil Niekro, RA Dickey and Tim Wakefield, or do you cradle the ball with your fingers, cause the ball to hover above your palm like Hoyt Wilhelm and Charlie Hough? The depth of the ball in your hand is completely up to you. And, as you can see, there have been very successful pitchers that have used varying levels of depth. But the depth of your grip might be cause by the length of your fingernails.

Hoy Wilhelm's notoriously relaxed, light knuckleball grip with shorter fingernails

Hoy Wilhelm’s notoriously relaxed, light, shallow knuckleball grip with shorter fingernails

Shorter fingernails will allow you to have a lighter grip on the ball and may cause the ball to hover above your palm like Hoyt Wilhelm. You don’t have to curl your fingers very far in order to dig those stubby and strong nails into the rawhide of the ball. This allows for a light, dangly  grip that some may find uncomfortable, especially when trying to throw the ball hard, because you’ll be forced to throw the ball almost exclusively off your fingernails without the aid of your fingertip.

Longer fingernails will cause the ball to sit deeper into your palm. This is because you’ll be forced to curl your fingers more to get your fingertips on the ball, which will sink the ball deeper in your palm. Longer nails cause you to sit both your fingernail and a portion of the tip of your finger flush onto the ball. Long fingernail knuckle ball pitchers tend to have more surface area for leverage and may be able to throw the knuckleball harder. But velocity isn’t always the name of the game with the knuckleball.

Play around with different nail lengths. Start longer, use both your nail and your fingertip and then slowly work your nails shorter, using less of your fingertip. See how it affects the depth of your grip and determine what feels best for you. Then start thinking about grip tension, which will be covered in the next article in this never-ending series of articles about the knuckle ball grip.

29 May

Steven Wright’s Hot Streak and The Importance of Mobility

wrightSteven Wright of the Red Sox has been on an absolute tear this season, emerging at the Sox most consistent pitcher. And that’s saying a lot considering the team’s payroll and superstar pitchers like David Price, Clay Buccholz and Rick Porcello. Wright’s dominant streak this season echoes the early seasons of Tim Wakefield, who began his Red Sox tenure with a mind boggling 16-1 record back in the 90’s. Wakefield cooled off a bit late that season but it didn’t stop him from coming in third in the Cy Young vote that year. It will be interesting to see what Wright can accomplish this year. His mid-2’s ERA should put him into consideration for the All Star Game. And remember — Managers pick the pitchers in the All Star Game, not fans, so Wright’s relative anonymity won’t hurt him. He still doesn’t have that big name.

But watching Wright reminds me of something very important in the knuckleball delivery — mobility. A second round draft pick, Wright shows his conventional pitcher’s body when he delivers that knuck. He has tremendous flexibility throughout his thoracic spine and his shoulders which allows him to hold onto the knuckleball for a long period of time throughout his delivery. This gives him great control over the baseball and has allowed him to fill the zone with baseball’s most unpredictable pitch.

Studies show that 80% of your velocity comes from hip-to-shoulder separation and the degree of separation is dictated, in large part, to you mobility. The more mobile you are through the ankles, hips, thoracic spine and shoulders, the harder you can throw. Velocity is not that important to a knuckleball pitcher, but understanding this kinetic chain can allow you to control your delivery that much easier. You could look smooth, like Wright.

Mobility drills should be a big part of your workout routine as a knuckleball pitcher. Make sure to get more mobile in the hips and spine especially. Mobility is flexibility plus the strength to move through a wide range of motion. Lifting done alongside mobility drills and Yoga all help you become a smoother pitcher which makes delivering the knuckleball much easier. Just take a look at Wright.

Knuckleball Nation created by Chris Nowlin in 2008