It's an exclusive club: Pitchers who rely on the knuckleball, and win, in Major League Baseball. It's one of the most difficult and unpredictable pitches in the game. Only about 80 players have ever used the knuckleball consistently in the major leagues. Even fewer have been successful.
New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is one of the few active starting pitchers in professional baseball who use this slower, methodical pitch. He's chasing 20 wins, and a possible Cy Young Award, in the 2012 season.
Typically, pitchers try to throw the ball as hard as they can and put as much spin on the ball as possible. With a knuckleball, the pitcher uses a special grip to take the spin off the ball and slow it down. The pitch then takes a long time to reach the plate, but it's hard to hit because the batter doesn't know which way the ball will break — and neither does the pitcher.
Dickey tells NPR's Neal Conan that one common misconception about the pitch is that it's thrown with the knuckles. But actually, he says, "they call it a knuckleball because you see the knuckles sticking straight up in the air when your grip is coming forward to the hitter. But at the same time, it's your fingernails that are dug into the surface area of the leather of the baseball that enable you to stabilize it in a way where you can release it without spin."
Along with famed Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, Dickey is one of the subjects of a new documentary, Knuckleball! He's also recently written a memoir, Wherever I Wind Up.
On how he learned to throw the knuckleball
"My grandfather showed me the first grip of a knuckleball when I was probably around 8 or 9 years old, and I just kind of played with it ever since. I think what I became enamored with right off the bat was he showed me a ... yellowed newspaper clipping of him striking out 17 or 18 hitters throwing nothing but knuckleballs. And from then on I was hooked."
On why the knuckleball is generally a pitcher's Plan B
"I really didn't have a need for a knuckleball because I threw the ball pretty hard and was going to be a first-round draft pick because I had the ability to throw the ball 94, 95 miles an hour, which usually puts you in as a top-round pick. And so I really didn't have a need for it. I could get guys out with the weapons that I already had. ...
"[Then, after] I had been a conventional pitcher for some time professionally and, you know, I had to come to terms with my own mediocrity. And that's a hard thing to do for an athlete. And thankfully I had shown the knuckleball enough in my practice sessions and occasionally when I threw it in a game where Orel Hershiser, the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, said I think you can do this the full time, because what you're doing now as a conventional pitcher just wasn't going to cut it anymore. And so I had to take that next step and I did that in 2005."
On why it's so hard to throw a good knuckleball
"I think a lot of people think it's an easy thing, because they see a ball coming up at 75 or 65 miles an hour and they think, 'Oh, I can throw that hard.' Well, to be able to take spin off of a baseball is very difficult. ...
"And also, you know, it takes a great deal of hand-eye coordination to be able to be comfortable with the feel of a good knuckleball. And what I mean by that is when I release the ball from the rubber or the mound, by the time it gets to the home plate and the catcher's mitt, I want it to have rotated about a quarter of a revolution.
"And so to be able to feel a quarter of a revolution come out, it takes a lot of repetition. And hopefully over the course of many, many years, you're able to build that repetition in where it becomes muscle memory and you don't have to think about it. It can become just an organic experience, if you will. And for me, that's what it took. It took about four years for me to really get comfortable in my own skin."