Q&A: Charlie Haeger on the Knuckleball

Charlie Haeger is a practitioner of an increasingly-rare baseball art form. The 27-year-old right-hander is a knuckleball pitcher, meaning he lives and dies with the game’s most unpredictable — and often maddening — delivery. Few have mastered it, but when a knuckleball is thrown correctly and does its butterfly dance toward home plate, it is a thing of beauty. Haeger, who has made 34 big-league appearances, with four teams, was recently signed by the Red Sox and assigned to Double-A Portland.


David Laurila: What is the key to throwing a knuckleball?

Charlie Haeger: First and foremost is being able to take the spin off the ball. Being able to throw a knuckleball isn’t something that a lot of people are able to do, just because you’re not familiar with it growing up. Basically, you have to make the ball rotate as little as possible.

Ideally, for me, would be half a turn, maybe three quarters of a rotation. With that, I can generate the best movement while still being able to command it. You can get away with ones that spin twice, but with anything over that you’re starting to mess with fire.

DL: How do you throw a baseball with little or no rotation?

CH: There is a particular way that I hold my hand, hold the baseball, and release it. But I don’t think there is one set-in-stone way that it has to be thrown. There is kind of a norm in the industry, although there obviously aren’t too many of us throwing one anymore.

What I try to do is keep my wrist as straight as I can when I let go of the baseball. I try to have my hand behind it, with my palm facing home plate.
My palm is [contacting] the ball, as well as two fingers — my index finger and middle finger. Technically, my nails are into the ball, not my knuckles. I kind of want the ball to pop out. That’s how you get it to leave your hand without spinning.

DL: How loosely, or firmly, are you gripping the baseball?

CH: It depends on the day. There are days where you want to hold it a little firmer, because it feels better to you, and there are days where you want to hold it a little looser. It’s such a feel pitch.

DL: Where are your fingers on the ball?

CH; If you look at a baseball, and where they write “Rawlings,” right underneath the horseshoe — both of my fingertips are pretty much right on the Rawlings. I try not to contact the seams. There are times where it feels better in a particular spot, but for the most part I don’t touch the seams. Any time your finger is touching a seam, you have a chance for the ball to be manipulated, just from catching a snag on a seam, or not letting go of the baseball in the correct way.

DL: Is there an ideal arm slot for a knuckleball?

CH: No, I think it all depends on who is throwing it. There are guys who throw it a little lower, and guys who throw it a little higher. I’ve moved my own arm slot, for feel, in the middle of a game, and even in the middle of an inning or in the middle of a hitter. I’ve played with it, just to see if one is moving better than the other. Normally, I’m pretty much over-the-top to three-quarters, a typical throw.

DL: How important are mechanics from the waist down?

CH: Just as important as they are for a regular pitcher. You’ve got to have your foot down on time. That’s a key for me. I have to have my left foot down on time to throw the baseball the right way consistently. Mechanics are a huge part of being a knuckleball pitcher.

DL: Does your thought process on the mound differ from that of conventional pitchers?

CH; My thought process is the same as any other pitcher. I’m trying to throw strikes and get guys out as quickly as I can. Baseball is hard enough, so I don’t want to make it any harder than it has to be. I think that a lot of guys overanalyze the game and over-think the game, and that’s where you can get into trouble. I try to throw strike one and get hitters out.

DL: Do you try to set hitters up?

CH: I don’t. Occasionally you get a chance to set somebody up with a fastball, or something along those lines. But for me, the beauty of it is that they know what’s coming. There’s no throwing a fastball up and in and then a slider down and away to set up another fastball in. It just doesn’t work that way with a knuckleball.

DL: What about changing speeds and moving the pitch in and out?

CH: I change speeds with it. The last game I was anywhere from 61 to 75, so I vary it. That’s something you have to be able to do to throw it well. You have to kind of use it like a regular pitcher uses his fastball and changeup. I don’t do anything with my grip, it’s just arm speed, and maybe my follow through is longer with the slow one.

[Moving the ball in and out] is something I try to do, but it’s a little harder to do that. Once it leaves your hand, you typically don’t have too much control over it. But there are days when I can make it go right and make it go left.

DL: To what extent can a knuckleball pitcher learn from another knuckleball pitcher?

CH: I think there are definitely keys and some mechanical issues that we go through. Our mechanics have to be pretty spot on to throw a consistent knuckleball. They have to be extremely repeatable. We have such a fine line. There is really no room for error for us. If you’re throwing a 68 mile-per-hour pitch up there and it’s not moving, you’re going to run into some trouble.

I’ve had a chance to work with Charlie Hough — I’ve listened to him a lot — so you can learn from them, but when it comes to the actual feel of letting go with the pitch, you’re completely on your own. Mechanically, there are definitely some things you can learn from other guys, but whatever you feel when you’re letting go of the ball… nobody else can tell you how to feel.

DL: What do you know about the knuckleball that you didn’t when you first started out?

CH: I understand it more. This my seventh or eighth year throwing one and I understand it now. I understand that some days are good with it and some days are bad. That just comes with experience. Early in my career I would get frustrated and would try to change something, and now I‘m more patient. I’m obviously always trying to improve, but I understand that I’m throwing a pitch that sometimes moves a lot, and other times doesn‘t move. I’m kind at the mercy of it.

Being a knuckleball pitcher is different from being a pitcher who throws a knuckleball. There are guys who throw one occasionally, or even half the time, but it’s hard to be a conventional pitcher with a knuckleball. You have to make a commitment to the pitch.

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

14 Responses to “Q&A: Charlie Haeger on the Knuckleball”

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  1. test says:

    I’ve always figured knuckleballers would be almost unprojectable – that is, the best knuckleballers in the world will not dominate the minors the way someone like Verlander would, but they might not get a whole lot worse if they move up either. It’s still stunning that teams don’t at least try to develop knuckleballers more often – the next market inefficiency!

    Of course, I can’t think of a tougher pitch to throw if you are nervous or trying to impress too much during a brief call-up. A bad knuckler is just a baseball thrown at normal human speeds to MLB batters…I hope HAeger figures it all out and gets to replace Wakefield when he retires in 2022.

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    • mcbrown says:

      As a Sox fan I’m glad to see a possible Wakefield heir in the system. A completely indestructible league-average pitcher turns out to be a pretty useful thing to have on hand… we’ve been absolutely spoiled by Wakefield and I’m not looking forward to the day when the Sox no longer have him to turn to in a pinch.

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        Is that just Wakefield, or are Knuckleball pitchers far less injury prone. I do agree with you that indestructible pitchers are worth more than people realize. There is nothing like that game near the end of a hard caught season where you have two guys out and you have some middle reliever or AAA starter that isn’t ready pitching to remind you of this.

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      • DavidB says:

        Wake has been remarkably consistent when healthy, but he has been on the DL in 3 of the last 5 full seasons. He is indestructable in the sense that he is unlikely to decline much next year or the year after if he still wants to pitch and the sox still want to have him, but he isn’t some king of lock to stay healthy enough to give them 30 starts and 180 innings. His abilty to pitch effectively on short rest has come in handy in the playoffs in 2003 and 2004.

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    • Bubba says:

      We have R.A. Dickey to carry the torch for awhile after Wakefield retires.

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  2. ddrezner says:

    I’m a Wakefield/knuckleball fan, but I do wonder if one reason why teams don’t explore this option more often is the strain it puts on catchers. Even good defensive catchers can be tripped up by this pitch. I still remember game 5 of the 2004 ALCS when Jason Varitek had something like three passed balls trying to catch a very-much-in-control Wakefield. I agree that knuckleballers might be a market inefficiency, but you need factor in the cost to your catchers in order to accurately measure the possible gain.

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    • mcbrown says:

      That’s a good point. I seem to recall from back in the day with Varitek and Mirabelli that the consensus was some catchers just have a feel for the pitch and some don’t, it’s basically impossible to teach, and it has next to no correlation with general defensive ability. With reasonable care in choosing a backup catcher you can mitigate this issue to some extent, as the Sox did.

      Of course what you can’t mitigate is the Varitek ALCS scenario where you “must” pitch the knuckleballer in a high-leverage situation and you can’t or don’t want to change the catcher. I was going to say that it’s a pretty uncommon scenario and probably not worth worrying about, but a postseason elimination game is a sample size of 1, so… yeah. As much as I appreciate the hidden value of Tim Wakefield’s 2004 ALCS performance, let’s just hope he never has to repeat it.

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      • test says:

        Maybe it is unfair to Varitek, but I always got the impression that the problem was especially bad for him. I remember other knuckleballers moving around the league, and not causing huge issues on new teams (Candiotti was on 4-5 teams). And now, assumably, the Red Sox will have catchers in their minor leagues learning to catch the knuckler. It might not be completely teachable, but you would get better with practice, up to a certain point.

        Living with the extra passed balls is part of the Knuckler package though, their numbers have those extras bases built in already, unless they had a remarkably skilled catcher at some point. Mirabelli had 10-15 PB a year despite catching essentially just one guy – Hatteburg was similar before him.

        It’s too bad Varitek never got to hit off of Wakefield, I’ve always wondered that if he can’t catch it, could he hit it?

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      • Barkey Walker says:

        A new word, “assumably.” Have you been watching football coverage?

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      • DavidB says:

        Mirabelli lead the league in passes balls twice as the red sox back up catcher. Salty leads the league this year in 76 games. Knucklers are more difficult to catch for any catcher. I don’t think running over to pick up a passed ball around 0.5 times per game Wake starts is especially taxing on a catcher. Passed balls are still rare enough even with a guy like Wake that he can be a roughly league average pitcher for 20 years.

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    • Jason says:

      Do you need a “regular” catcher at all? Would Pedroia with his 2B glove not be able to do an equivalent job of catching Wakefield?

      Just a thought.

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  3. Hurtlocker says:

    There are Knuckleball pitchers in the HOF so I’m guessing that any team would welcome a guy that could control the pitch.

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  4. DavidB says:

    If there were HS and college pitchers throwing the knuckleball effectively teams would draft them. Trouble is it takes a lot of commitment to get consistent results throwing a knuckleball. Few kids try. I remember Dave or Jonah saying in a chat that every minor league washout should try throwing the pitch in a dedicated way on the chance it will be their ticket to the big leagues. Recall that Wakefield was a failed 1B/3B in the Pirates system before he learned the knuckleball and became a pitcher.

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