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Understanding The Knuckleball With Fangraphs Game Charts

Despite few MLB pitchers actually throwing the pitch, the knuckleball is probably the most interesting pitch in baseball. You’ve probably heard of a few guys who throw the knuckleball, most recognizable are R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield. Neither of these pitchers achieved great success, but nonetheless had solid MLB careers. While most people know the basic premise of a knuckleball: it’s a pitch that is gripped by the knuckles, causing the baseball to barely spin and move erratically in the air, Fangraphs game charts illuminates the pitch greatly.

True story, DFW writer Nick Juskewycz used the throw a knuckleball when he played baseball. Nick stopped playing at 16 to pursue golf more fully, but he is still by far the most experienced baseball player on DFW (Max and I have never played competitive baseball, although Max prides himself in beating out grounders in intramural softball). Nick has very large hands, which gave him the unique ability to actually grip a knuckleball at a young age.

“As a pitcher, you feel like you’re throwing a secret weapon at someone. It’s incredibly unique in several ways – how much the pitch moves, how many different directions you can make the pitch move, how slowly it travels and the fact there is so little spin.” Nick explains. “As a hitter, it appears like the easiest pitch to hit, but if you go against someone who can throw it effectively, it’s incredibly frustrating because you whiff constantly.”

If you have never visited Fangraphs’ game charts page, let me give you a short introduction using Clayton Kershaw as an example. There are 6 charts on the page, the movement of every pitch thrown for each pitch classification, the release point of each pitch, two more charts with a more granular look at velocity and movement, and pitch location of every pitch vs lefties and righties.

Note the top left chart. The easiest way to explain this chart is it shows vertical and horizontal movement of each pitch. In reality, Pitch f/x movement data captures the amount of movement caused by the spin of the ball, in inches. This is not the same as horizontal and vertical movement, but is easier to understand as such.

For Kershaw and nearly every other pitcher, each pitch has a generally tight area of movement. Kershaw’s fastball has a fair amount of rise (Almost all fastballs have rise based on the spin, but the trajectory of the arm leads to a downward plane) and almost no horizontal movement, while his curveball dips considerably. While other pitchers have different movements and different pitches, they still have a general movement on each pitch that does not deviate much from pitches in the same class.

Now prepare to look at Steven Wright’s game chart. Look at the top left chart. Notice anything weird?

 

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The green dots are knuckleballs. The amazing thing about this chart is the wideness the movement area. The knuckleball can have sharp downward movement, it can rise, it can move in or away from hitters. There’s no telling where the pitch is going for hitters, so it seems almost impossible for to hit. Of course, when the pitch doesn’t move much, you have a 70-75 mph pitch that hitters can crush out of the park. But when the knuckleball is moving wildly, hitters have no chance.

Can pitcher’s control how the knuckleball is moving? My guess looking at these game charts would be no, the distribution of outcomes seems close to normally distributed around no movement at all, which suggests randon outcomes. But Nick informs me otherwise. “The amazing thing about MLB Knuckleballer’s is they can make the pitch move in so many different ways.” Knuckleballers probably do have a lot of pitch outcome randomness, but I trust Nick that the good ones do have some control over the movement.

Does this article have any relevance to daily fantasy? Not really. But being good at daily fantasy is about understanding the game you are playing. The more you can understand the game, the better you will be. I hope you found this dive into the knuckleball interesting and inspires you to try to understand the game of baseball better.

View all posts by Daniel Steinberg
Daniel Steinberg

About the Author

Daniel Steinberg Daniel Steinberg is a former bond trader at a multi-billion dollar proprietary trading firm in Chicago. He uses his knowledge of statistics and his creativity from his career as a poker professional to create the most advanced Daily Fantasy statistical analysis that you will find anywhere. Follow him on twitter @DanielSingerS

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