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Feierabend’s knuckleball may be winner

His control helps him consistently deliver pitches over the plate

Apr 20,2017
Ryan Feierabend [JOONGANG PHOTO]
The Nexen Heroes, led by manager Jang Jeong-seok, will play three games against the KT Wiz from May 19 to 21. If Ryan Feierabend, knuckleball pitcher for the Wiz, pitches during the game, it’ll be a new perspective for Jang. When Jang was a former KBO player, he dreamed of becoming a knuckleball pitcher. When the two teams met last weekend, Feierabend didn’t pitch in any of the games.

Since Jang’s amateur career, he has practiced throwing knuckleballs, and at one point during his professional career, he tried to become a knuckleball pitcher. Despite Jang’s continuous effort to throw knuckleballs, he has struggled with the control.

For knuckleball pitchers, control is always a challenge, as it minimizes the spin of the ball in flight, which also makes it difficult for batters to hit. Phil Niekro, former Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher, produced the most number of career victories, 318, as a knuckleball pitcher, but he is also ranked third among the MLB pitchers who have allowed the most walks of all time.

From this perspective, Feierabend certainly is a different type of knuckleball pitcher. In the three games he has pitched in so far this season, he has not yet allowed a walk, throwing a total of 25 innings. Knuckleball pitchers can avoid allowing a walk by not throwing a knuckleball when the count is at three balls, but Feierabend doesn’t care much about ball count.

“Although he was at a disadvantage in ball count, Feierabend continued to throw his knuckleballs,” Yang Sang-moon, manager of the LG Twins, said after the game on Saturday.

In the game against the Twins, Feierabend was the winning pitcher, throwing nine scoreless innings and allowing seven hits.

According to statiz.co.kr, a baseball statistics website, Feierabend has pitched 283 balls in three games this season. Of those, he threw 82 knuckleballs, 21.9 percent of his total pitches.

From this, he can’t quite yet be called a knuckleball pitcher, but in the KBO, there were no other pitchers who threw as many knuckleballs.

Ma Il-young of the former Hanwha Eagles threw five to six knuckleballs at most per game. Kim Kyung-tae of the former Hanwha Eagles also tried to throw knuckleballs, but in the regular season games last year, he didn’t throw any.

Looking at foreign pitchers in the KBO, Mickey Callaway and Chris Oxspring pitched knuckleballs but Callaway’s were more like split-finger fastballs. For Oxspring, in his last KBO season in 2015, his knuckleball percentage was only 5.8 percent.

The very special thing about Feierabend’s pitches is that he produces a lot of strikeouts. Of the 283 balls he pitched this season, he produced 213 strikes, or 75.3 percent. Of the 62 knuckleballs he pitched this season, he had 62 strikes.

Just by looking at the number of strikes and pitch percentage, it’s hard to make an accurate judgment on the control of his pitch, as a knuckleball tempts batters to swing even when the ball is not within the strike zone.

But Feierabend’s strikes are under his control, with 61.8 percent in the strike zone. There isn’t much difference in his knuckleballs, throwing 59.7 percent in the strike zone.

When his knuckleball is compared to the traditional characteristics of the pitch, there are a few things he does differently.

Feierabend still has the characteristic of low spin, but the movement of the ball is more like a vertical slider. The inconsistency of it, however, is like a two-seam fastball. The speed of his knuckleball is fast, averaging 121 kilometers (75 miles) per hour, similar to R.A. Dickey’s of the Atlanta Braves, who was able to survive in the major league with his fast knuckleball pitches.

“Aside from a knuckleball, I’ve tried to strengthen other types of pitches this season,” Feierabend said. “But there isn’t much difference in the speed of my pitches. The biggest difference in my pitching this year is the pattern.”

Until last season, Feierabend was a type of pitcher who relied heavily on fastballs, sliders and change-ups. But this year, he minimized the usage of fastballs and has more than 50 percent of his pitches as either the change-up or the knuckleball.

As a result, Feierabend’s success in the beginning of the season is by throwing two different types of change-ups, which the two are very likely to end up in the strike zone. It is not a very smart solution for the batters to expect a walk from Feierabend.

BY CHOI MIN-KYOO [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]


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