Beyond the Game: Studying the knuckleball at MU

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) — Back in the day, a Major League manager made the bulk of his decisions on the basis of feel. He relied on his experience and trusted his gut. Nowadays, sabermetrics and extensive statistical analysis drive his choices.

John Borg is a professor in the Engineering Department at Marquette University. A few years ago, he encouraged one of his graduate students to find a baseball example to study.

“He came back a couple of weeks later and he said ‘I noticed the new generation of knuckleball players Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey are throwing two seam pitches, two seam balls. Whereas the previous generation, the Phil Niekro generation was throwing a two seam knuckleball as opposed to a four seam knuckleball.’ When he came up with that idea, I thought ‘that’s a good idea. There’s some legs there. Let’s look at it,'” Borg said.

Borg and his students constructed a wind tunnel and measure just about every possible aspect of the knuckleball’s flight. Borg also spoke at length with Dickey about the pitch, prior to him becoming the National League Cy Young Award winner in 2012.

“He spoke like a baseball player, so he would say things like ‘there’s a lot of heavy air. On days with heavy air, I get a lot more motion on the ball, or if there’s counter rotation on the ball, I see I see no motion at all — as far as the knuckleball doesn’t dance.’ It was really fun to take those cues and apply them in the wind tunnel and say ‘hey, he’s completely right. If we lighten this air up, take all the moisture out of it, you don’t get enough force.’ Or if we rotate the ball backwards, the force is pretty much flat, so it was real fun to see this empirical observation come to life in the wind tunnel,” Borg said.

Dickey has strong observations on the pitch, and Borg has reached some conclusions too.

“We were looking at putting balls in different orientations — either in the four-season orientation or in the two seam orientation, and what we found is what dominates, what makes a knuckleball dense is where these seams are in relation to the direction of the flow. What we found was that the two seam ball actually creates six changes in force over one rotation, which is really counter-intuitive. We didn’t expect that. A four seam ball is four changes in force, so that means that the ball should theoretically move four directions for one rotation. We thought if the four seam is doing four directions, the two seam should have two, but what we found was the two actually has six, so therein lies a great advantage to a knuckleball pitcher to get more changes in force and more, basically, dance out of the ball for just a simple change in rotation,” Borg said.

Borg says that while he cannot throw a knuckleball, he can certainly still appreciate a knuckleball — and all of this research and analysis hasn’t diminished his love of baseball.

“We want to know why, so there’s always that next question,” Borg said.

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