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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.