By Eric Kolenich
Throughout the past five years, Jonah Wilkes has learned the many intricacies of the knuckleball, including the importance of keeping his fingernails longer and properly shaped.
“Nail trimming, I’ve found, is essential to throwing a good knuckeball,” Wilkes said.
The rising junior pitcher for the Bradley Eagles Academic Prep took the mound Wednesday in the bottom of the fifth inning of the Pathway USBC Underclass Championships in Virginia. Wilkes threw one knuckleball, which emerged from his right hand with no spin, headed toward the upper left quadrant of the strike zone and dived to the bottom right. The batter swung, hit a lazy fly ball to centerfield, and the inning was over.
Wilkes returned in the sixth, allowed a base runner on an error and then retired the next three batters.
He was 10 or 11 years old when he started learning about the pitch, which is rarely seen in baseball today. His arm velocity wasn’t particularly strong, so if he was ever going to make it as a pitcher, he needed to find another way to fool batters. He began transforming himself into a junkball pitcher.
To learn the pitch, he turned to YouTube. He watched video after video, learning about release point, arm length in his delivery and yes, fingernail grooming.
“There are so many videos on YouTube,” he said.
Mastering the pitch, he learned, would be no easy task. It took three years of practice before he could consistently throw it without it spinning. At that point, he realized he could take the mound in a game and use it.
"Such a long learning curve is normal", he said. "Professional pitchers who throw knuckeballs often need years of apprenticeship before they are prepared to throw it against a live hitter. You can’t just throw a knuckleball, you have to be a student of the pitch."
Wilkes said he’s aware of only two major-league knuckleballers, Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox and Ryan Feierabend of the Toronto Blue Jays. R.A. Dickey famously won a Cy Young Award throwing it. At its best, a knuckleball can curve both right and then left and be so deceptive even the catcher struggles to receive it.
Before Wilkes entered the game Wednesday, he warmed up with one catcher who had a sore knee. When the catcher told his coach his knee was in pain, the coach made Wilkes warm up again with another catcher so the new catcher could get acclimated.
Bradley’s coach, Chad Carroll, has never coached a knuckleballer before. Wilkes was added to his team right before the Pathway USBC tournament, and Carroll didn’t know what exactly to expect before Wilkes took the mound in the fifth.
“That was the first time I had seen it, too,” Carroll said. “It was pretty fun to watch.”
Carroll said he wasn’t nervous to insert a crafty specialist with stuff sight-unseen. Once Wilkes looked him in the eye and told him he could get the job done, Carroll put his faith in the pitcher.
Wilkes hopes to play college baseball, but his most likely avenue to do so is as a catcher, he believes. He batted cleanup in Bradley’s 9-4 win over FTB, was walked three times and scored three runs. The knuckeball is his college backup plan. Carroll says if the pitch gets good enough, and the right college team sees it, there might be an opportunity for him to throw it at the next level.
“If the kid is athletic enough, and/or the knuckleball is nasty enough or has enough movement, I think a college coach who has enough creativity would jump on that,” Carroll said.
And maybe the knuckleball could be the antidote to baseball’s home run surge. Since the pitch is so much slower – Carroll guessed Wilkes’ pitch was thrown somewhere around 58 mph – it’s harder to hit over the fence. You have to be a pretty strong hitter to knock a knuckler out of the park, the coach said.
Still, there’s a reason why so few pitchers throw knuckleballs at a high level. It’s a difficult pitch to throw effectively against strong hitters. Many pitchers turn to it as their last resort, their last hope for playing professionally when their career is sputtering to an end.
For Wilkes, it’s an experiment that, so far, has produced some good results. And maybe more than anything, it’s been fun.
“Who doesn’t want to throw a knuckleball?” he said.