The Next Great Knuckleballer

What if former MLB knuckleballer Joe Niekro taught a 7-year-old how to throw a knuckleball for strikes? And what if that seven year-old stuck with the game and the knuckleball — threw two perfect games in Little League and got named to five consecutive all-star teams heading into a high school career?

In general, there is no such thing as a knuckleball prospect. The fingernail special is the go-to pitch for normal prospects or pitchers who have to reinvent their careers. That is what makes predicting the next great knuckleballer a near impossibility. Last night, R.A. Dickey became the first knuckleballer in history to earn a Cy Young award, but Dickey himself pitched several seasons with the Rangers before adding his deadly knuckler, and even then, it took years to get to a Cy Young level.

There is a reason Dickey was the first Cy Young knuckleballer, though. The man has in some ways reinvented the knuckleball, throwing two versions of it — fast and slow versions — which allow for a 10-mph range on his flutterball. If youngsters learn Dickey’s Bugs-Bunny-pitching-style, then they could perceivably position themselves as knuckleball prospects, but it still seems unlikely.

Who would willingly throw a knuckleball in high school when scouts are looking for fastballs and curveballs? Well, for a 15-year-old native of Plant City, Florida, knuckleballs have been the key pitch to a young successful repertoire — ever since Joe Niekro taught the fluttering pitch to her.

Chelsea Baker has thrown a knuckler for eight years — that is one year longer than R.A. Dickey — and has earned no little fame in the process, going so far as earning an ESPN E:60 segment in 2010:

She also made rounds to CNN and morning talk shows, and even Japanese shows when met with minor Japanese celebrity Eri Yoshida, a young side-arm knuckleballer who has toured with several Japanese and American independent league teams (with little statistical success). Baker also has Little League jersey in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Concerning Baker and the knuckleball, Dan Duquette said in 2010:

“People will recognize Chelsea Baker, and they’ll promote her based on her skill,” [Duquette] said. “Her gender won’t really matter to anybody if she develops the skills. She’ll find the opportunity.

“I know that there are some physical limitations that will not allow the girls to compete with the boys on higher levels, but if Chelsea Baker can perfect her knuckleball, she has a chance. The knuckleball is a great equalizer, and that would give her an out pitch, where she could get hitters out, irrespective of their sex and irrespective of their level.”

Since her incredible 2010 season — her two-perfect-games season — the fervor around Baker has reduced from unrealistic expectations to under-appreciated talent. Baker, 13 in the E:60 special, is now heading towards her age-16 season, her first high school season, and she is riding a streak of five consecutive all-star selections. She is also mulling a professional contract in Japan. The contract would have her play in the three-team Girls Professional Baseball League (GPBL), where the top sluggers lead the league with 1 homer through 150 PA.

The allure of baseball in Japan must be great for the likes of Baker. She is perhaps the best young female baseball player in the nation. If she does well in high school, she will likely do well in the GPBL, where she already has the beginnings of celebrity status. She could also get paid to play baseball. Few women get that chance. But, she will also lose her collegiate eligibility. If she stays in America, she will have to find a college willing to take a risk on a female pitcher and a knuckleballer all in one go. She will have to break through silent walls of doubt and confirmation bias just to earn playing time.

But will all due deference to the GPBL, which I hope succeeds for many years to come, if Baker wants a chance at the MLB, she should avoid independent leagues this early, especially ones that play in NPB parks (where home run rates are higher than in the US) — with moved-in fences, no less — but still have only five combined league home runs per season. Her path towards a possible MLB career will likely require she move through traditional channels and prove herself twice as much as any male counterpart would need to do. She will need to prove she is not just good enough to beat her peers, but her betters.*

*Yeah, that is kind of a paradox.

That is a rough journey, and I cannot blame her if she chooses instead to try carving a new path entirely and enter the GPBL to play weaker competition.

Will the next great knuckleballer be a female? It is impossible to say. If a female knuckleballer makes it to the MLB, it will be an event we see coming from a great distance. Unlike male knuckleballers, who appear almost overnight when their other pitches fail in Triple-A or the MLB, a female knuckleballer like Baker or Yoshida will have to prove themselves for years before they likely get a shot.

So if we are to place bets on the next great knuckleballer, one could either randomly put $50 chips on the Sean O’Sullivans and Scott Kazmirs of the world, or give in to hoping for the best for Chelsea Baker.



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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.


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sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo
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sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo
3 years 8 months ago

Call Billy Beane. Baseball players with vaginas and knuckleballs are the new market inefficiency.

Matt
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Matt
3 years 8 months ago

“X is the new market inefficiency moneyball beane!!!” is starting to get old.

And I’m an A’s fan.

Simon
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Simon
3 years 8 months ago

In this case, XX is the new market inefficiency.

Zack
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Zack
3 years 8 months ago

Is there any scouting available on her? How fast can she throw the knuckleball and fastball? If she was a guy, would scouts be looking at her for the amateur draft in a few years (assuming they are ever going to look at a knuckleball pitcher)?

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 8 months ago

She has a long fight ahead if she wants to prove her merit in the old-boys-club, and I wish her the best. A woman playing major league baseball would truly bring me happiness.

Rallentando
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Rallentando
3 years 8 months ago

She’d bring happiness to every young man who watches baseball.

Rally
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Rally
3 years 8 months ago

I’d settle for seeing her drafted, and pitching in the affiliated minors. That would be an accomplishment in itself.

Jamie Goldsmith
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Jamie Goldsmith
3 years 2 months ago

There have been several women who have made it to the minors – mostly pitchers at that (Ila Borders, and Jackie Mitchell to name a few…and I’m sure those names aren’t familiar) – so while it would be an accomplishment for Chelsea to only pitch in the minors – as it is for anyone to make it to the minors, male or female – it’s time for a female “Jackie Robinson” to make it to the big leagues.

OtherSideoftheCoin
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OtherSideoftheCoin
3 years 8 months ago

I don’t mean to discredit any statements, but a few of them seem to be phrased in ways that I would immediately question

– Age 16 season and first high school season – I would think most freshmen would be 14 or 15 which implies a number of different possibilities including she didn’t play for the high school team the first year or may not be able to play for the team in her senior year (if age restrictions exist).

– Five consecutive all star teams – Does this just mean she was one of the 10-15 best players in her town of 30-40K people and played summer ball? Or was this aggregated at a county or state level?

For my money, I’d bet on the eventual best of the best knuckleballer to be someone who doesn’t throw it on every pitch. It might not be a true knuckleballer, but it would be even more deadly. Unless Chapman can learn how to throw a 100 mph knuckler each and every time.

neal
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neal
3 years 8 months ago

This was a great and interesting article. I like when from time to time fangraphs does an article that is of the human interest vain; it’s a nice occasional break from the numbers. I wish this girl the best of luck.

lexomatic
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lexomatic
3 years 8 months ago

Thank you ESPN for not making that available in Canada.
Is that video available anywhere else?

Well-Beered Englishman
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Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 8 months ago

Between this girl and that Lincecum chick, it looks like estrogen might be the new testosterone. They could braid eachothers’ hair between innings.

Actual Well-Beered Englishman
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Actual Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 8 months ago

Great. My impostor account is back from the dead. Unless I blacked out for a moment there. Note to impostor: even whilst tipsy I can type with decent accuracy.

Actually Well-Beered Englishman
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Actually Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 8 months ago

There are two imposters!

The Real Well-Beered Englishman
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The Real Well-Beered Englishman
3 years 8 months ago

Where all the white women at?

Average_Casey
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Average_Casey
3 years 8 months ago

I wish her the best of luck. It would be pretty cool to have an actual Knuckle ball prospect. The fact that it is a female would make it even more interesting.

BDR
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BDR
3 years 8 months ago

Good luck to Chelsea Baker!!! Hope she makes it all the way to the MLB.

Jack Strawb
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Jack Strawb
3 years 7 months ago

Yup. The oncerns about her being discriminated are vastly overblown. The publicity value alone will get her the appropriate chances.

Shauncore
Member
Shauncore
3 years 8 months ago

How are girls allowed to play baseball but those boys couldn’t play softball?

Title 9 right? RIGHT?

Shoeless_Mike
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Shoeless_Mike
3 years 8 months ago

@Shauncore

Yeah just like how they wouldn’t let us whites drink from those colored fountains back in the day – what a double standard!!!!!

MG
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MG
3 years 8 months ago

Love watching knuckleballers and it sucks that they pretty much become an extinct species. It was always fun to see Wakefield on a warm, humid night work his mojo at Fenway and baffle the opposing lineup.

Best though when Wakefield was the Sox closer in ’99 for a prolonged stretch after Gordon went down. Just so odd seeing a closer/reliever throw knuckleball after knuckleball.

OK
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OK
3 years 8 months ago

Very interesting and I wish this one luck. It just seems like a less ridiculous idea than might be given credit for because the knuckleball is a pitch based around skill rather than physical prowess, her main disadvantage in this whole thing.

james wilson
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james wilson
3 years 8 months ago

First, I’d need some proof she can throw mid-70’s. That’s a decent high-school fastball. I don’t believe it. A high 60’s fastball would give a low 60’s knuckle ball at best. And when you are humping on every pitch, command and fatigue are an issue. Especially with a girl, and one who appears small. What happens to most pitching arms will happen faster with her. Knuckleballers blow tendons and shoulders too, and this girl will have no reserve. And about the time she takes one off the skull? It’s not going to just clang off her head like Doug Fister, or even Brandon McCarthy.

She could be good enough to strike out the side in a Major League game, that’s the nature of the pitch. But she can’t hang in at higher levels. People don’t even seem to have any appreciation of how competitive the game is at low A. A high-school career would be a great achievement.

Rod Mason
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Rod Mason
3 years 5 months ago

Do you have any idea how many times we have heard comments like yours??? To many to count.. and guess what? She is still playing and still competing… and yes she can throw mid to HIGH 70’s and yes she is 5’4″ 130 lbs. and can pitch lights out… and can pitch 7 innings any day of the week… and NO she doesn’t get fatigued …. and yes she has been hit by a baseball (many times).. and what happens to MOST pitching arms hasn’t happened to her because she trains harder than MOST pitchers.. and she can pitch as hard and as smart from the first inning to the last…. but not ever meeting her or watching her live gulls me that you would make those assumptions… I say all this because I am her father and I have watched her play this game since age 5 and see her work ethic and her character on daily basis… She can do whatever she puts her mind to..

saucypony
Member
saucypony
3 years 8 months ago

By the way – the catcher deserves some props for catching her, too!

MBK
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MBK
3 years 8 months ago

What’s up with the mention of O’Sullivan and Kazmir? I can’t find any info on them trying to reinvent themselves as knuckleballers. Just random names?

CJ
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CJ
3 years 8 months ago

“Unlike male knuckleballers, who appear almost overnight when their other pitches fail in Triple-A or the MLB”

Just two guys who flamed out, that’s all.

mark
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mark
3 years 3 months ago

I’ve been intrigued about her story since it first came out, and yeah, if a female would ever make it in MLB, the most plausible way would be as a knuckleballer. I hope we don’t get cheated out of the opportunity to see what she can do against quality competition at her respective levels. I’m hoping for the best, as I’ve always seen baseball as the one of the four major sports that a female (or females) could possibly break into one day. Maybe she can inspire the end of lame-ass softball too and get females to play real baseball instead, I might actually be interested in watching that. With that said though, the odds are heavily stacked against even 6ft+ males. I just hope she gets a fair opportunity to show what she’s capable of in American baseball.

Papaduck
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Papaduck
3 years 1 month ago

This teenage knuckleballer seems to have the courage to endure all the male pettiness and squandered careers that the “old boys club” has offered. Yes, let her go for it any way she decides, and then at whatever level above high school she suceeds, I say don’t quit till you know it is time. Get over it lads. This 66 year-old flamethrower wishes he had learned to throw the flutter.

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