One of the most unique pitches a player can throw in the game of baseball is the knuckleball. While it may seem like a harmless pitch on television, standing in the batter’s box and facing one can be more daunting than seeing a 100-mile-per-hour fastball. But, the following steps show there are a few things batters can do to get the upper hand on a knuckleball pitcher.
If you do not want to get embarrassed by a knuckleball pitcher the next time you’re up to bat, the below five steps are a great way to stay ahead of the pitcher and make a play for your team. While there are not that many knuckleball pitchers in leagues, the following can be a useful guide just in case you end up facing one.
Understand How a Knuckleball Works
Before you can attempt to hit a knuckleball, you need to learn how they work.
The first thing to remember about knuckleballs: the pitcher has zero control over where the ball will go once it leaves their hand. Knuckleballs are unique in the fact that that there is no specific direction the ball is supposed to go because it usually lacks spin. Once it’s released from the pitcher, the ball will take flight and go wherever it chooses.
This also means that you, as the batter, will have no idea which way the ball is going to go, either—at least, not until the ball is right in front of you.
How Fast is a Knuckleball?
A knuckleball is not a fast pitch, which makes it even trickier to try and hit. On average, they can travel between 50 to 70 mph, which is significantly lower compared to the average major league fastball at 85+ mph.
With such a slow speed, batters can see the ball the entire way to the plate, which makes it tempting to try and swing at. But, because the knuckleball tends to dip and dive in random directions, the batter can look foolish trying to hit it.
Hold the Baseball Bat Correctly to Hit the Knuckleball
For batting, the most important tool—and the only tool you have—is the baseball bat.
For beginners, holding the bat may seem as simple as grabbing it with two hands and swinging away. And while that may be true, there are some specifics on how to hold the bat properly.
As you pick up the bat, you should determine which side of the plate you will be swinging from: the left side or the right side. How you position your hands will depend on this.
If you are a left-handed hitter, your left hand should be the top hand on the bat. The opposite is true if you are a right-handed hitter.
Once you determine the order of your hands, they should be placed towards the bottom of the bat, away from the thicker end (called the barrel). Most bats have some sort of grip enhancement or tape to indicate which part of the bat to grip.
When you have your hands in the correct order and the right place, you’ll need to position your feet and legs.
Note: When it comes to swinging the baseball bat, it should just be a natural movement toward the direction you plan to make contact with the ball, which should be toward the pitcher where the ball is coming from.
Position Your Feet and Legs Correctly When Batting
Most people stand with their legs and feet shoulder-length apart or closer, but just leave enough space between them so you can slightly bend down in the knees comfortably.
You should also stand perpendicular to the plate; depending on which side you plan on swinging the bat from, you’ll either be pointing the side of your left or right shoulder toward the pitcher.
Note: When beginning to swing the bat, most players will take a step forward with their front leg: left leg forward for right-handed hitters and right leg forwards for left-handed hitters.
The front leg should always point right back at the pitcher if possible; if the batter opens their front leg from their back too much, they might pull the baseball and hit a foul. If the batter does not extend leg enough, they might not have enough room with their hands on the bat to swing effectively.
Keep Track of Where the Knuckleball is Going
Although likely to differ between pitchers, there are a few general rules, according to physics, that knuckleballs tend to follow that are worth remembering. These general rules will help to figure out where you should position your bat when you move to meet it mid-swing—but that’s if you should swing at all.
There is a saying when it comes to trying to hit a knuckleball: “If it is low, let it go. If it is high, let it fly.”
In other words, if the pitch coming towards the plate is a low ball, let it go; when knuckleballs are lower in the zone, the ball tends to dip and dive away from the batter—nothing worth swinging and getting an out for.
In contrast, if the pitch is higher in the strike zone then swing away. Generally speaking, when a knuckleball is thrown and continues to rise the knuckleball is not as effective. This is because when a knuckleball goes up, it loses its ability to knuckle and float around to confuse the batter.
Note: You want the barrel of the bat to make the most contact with the ball out in front of the home-plate; this, more often than not, will result in base hits. If timed correctly, your bat’s barrel should make contact just beyond the beginning of home-plate.
Practice Timing Your Swing for the Knuckleball
For most players, timing the baseball bat’s swing is the hardest part of baseball. At the major league level, pitchers are throwing so hard and with such speed, often, batters have less time than it takes a person to blink their eyes before they must decide to swing.
Timing your swing with a knuckleball, however, can be even more a guessing game than usual. Because the knuckleball tends to dip and dive in random directions, it can be challenging to determine when is the best time to swing.
To get the timing down, it might take a few practice pitches to accomplish. Naturally, you will want to immediately start your swing and direct your bat towards where you believe the ball will end up, but with knuckleballs you’ll want to remember that if it’s low-let it go.
Overall, the best way to try and hit a knuckleball at the right time is to get as much practice as you can in facing a knuckleball pitcher.* The more times you can see the ball released and follow it to the plate, the more times you can recognize the best times to swing at the pitch.
*Fun Fact: As of 2020, there are no professional knuckleball pitchers in the major leagues. The last true knuckleballer, a pitcher who threw this type of pitch with any regularity, in the MLB, was R.A. Dickey.
Hitting a knuckleball is a guessing game that can make even the best hitters look foolish. But keeping the above steps in mind will help you determine at a split-second whether it’s worth making the swing—and making it correctly—or letting the ball go.
The knuckleball is a unique pitch that not even the pitcher can really control; they can only throw it properly with good speed and hope that it dips away from batters enough to get them out.
A final tip: knowing how to throw the knuckleball can go a long way in determining when and if to swing at the pitch. Just remember when trying to hit a knuckleball: “If it is low, let it go. If it is high, let it fly.”