MLB

Best knuckleball pitchers in baseball history

The knuckleball is baseball’s most magical pitch. These pitchers are the best to throw it.

Thrown with no spin, a knuckleball can move in any and all directions once it leaves the pitcher’s hand. It dances on its way to the plate. It’s unpredictable and beautiful. No one knows where it’s going, the hitter least of all. A knuckleball has a mind of its own, and only a select few pitchers have ever been able to master it.

Here are the top 10 knuckleballers in MLB history.

1) Phil Niekro (1964-87)
318-274; 3.35 ERA; 3,342 K; 5,404 IP

The most famous knuckleballer of all, Niekro is a Hall of Famer and the only knuckleball pitcher who’s a member of baseball’s historic 300-win and 3,000-strikeout clubs. Nicknamed “Knucksie,” Niekro pitched 24 seasons and over 5,000 innings in the Major Leagues, mostly for the Braves, winning 318 games (16th all-time) and collecting 3,342 strikeouts (11th all-time) with a 3.35 ERA. He was a five-time All-Star, led his league in wins twice and won one ERA title and strikeout crown. Niekro’s knuckleball let him pitch until he was 48 years old.

2) Hoyt Wilhelm (1952-72)
143-122; 228 SV; 2.52 ERA; 1,610 K; 2,254 1/3 IP

Wilhelm is another Hall of Fame knuckleballer. After serving in World War II and earning a Purple Heart, Wilhelm didn’t make his Major League debut until he was 29 years old. But he pitched until he was nearly 50, becoming one of baseball’s first great relievers. Wilhelm was the first player to pitch 1,000 games, and the first to reach 200 career saves. He was the all-time leader in both categories when he retired, and he’s still the all-time leader in wins by a reliever, with 124. Wilhelm was an eight-time All-Star, won two ERA titles, won the 1954 World Series with the Giants and pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees in 1958. He finished his career with 143 wins, 228 saves and a 2.52 ERA.

3) Tim Wakefield (1992-2011)
200-180; 4.41 ERA; 2,156 K; 3,226 1/3 IP

The best-known knuckleballer in recent baseball history, Wakefield enjoyed a long career with the Red Sox, winning 200 games and recording 2,156 strikeouts over 19 seasons (17 spent in Boston). Drafted as a first baseman by the Pirates, Wakefield’s struggles as a hitter in the Minors prompted a complete career 180 — he learned his signature knuckleball, worked with Niekro to refine it and turned himself into a successful big league pitcher. Wakefield was an All-Star for the Red Sox in 2009 at age 42, won two World Series rings in ’04 and ’07 and was a Cy Young finalist in 1995, his first year in Boston, when he went 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA. He’s a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

4) Charlie Hough (1970-94)
216-216; 3.75 ERA; 2,362 K; 3,801 1/3 IP

Hough was a complete-game machine, throwing 107 of them in his career, including 10 or more in a season six times in seven years from 1982-88 and a Major League-leading 17 in ’84. He pitched 25 seasons in the big leagues, including 11 each for the Dodgers and Rangers, and was the first starting pitcher in Marlins franchise history, taking the mound on Opening Day 1993, at age 45, and beating Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers. Hough won 216 games in his career with a 3.75 ERA and 2,362 strikeouts and was an All-Star for Texas in 1986. He’s a member of the Rangers Hall of Fame.

5) R.A. Dickey (2001-17)
120-118; 4.04 ERA; 1,477 K; 2,073 2/3 IP

Dickey is the only knuckleball pitcher to win a Cy Young Award. That was the crowning achievement of a career that saw Dickey transform from a struggling journeyman into an All-Star. Dickey bounced around the league as a traditional pitcher early in his career with the Rangers, and even after he developed his knuckleball in 2005, he had trouble sticking in the Majors. But when the Mets signed him in 2010, Dickey put it all together. He posted a 2.84 ERA in his first season in New York, and two years later he turned in the magical Cy Young season. That year, 2012, a 37-year-old Dickey went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and a league-leading 230 strikeouts, 233 2/3 innings pitched, five complete games and three shutouts. He’s one of the most recent active knuckleballers, as almost no pitchers throw knuckleballs in the Majors today.

6) Eddie Cicotte (1905-20)
209-148; 2.38 ERA; 1,374 K; 3,226 IP

Cicotte was the first great knuckleballer in modern baseball. He won 209 games with 1,374 strikeouts and a 2.38 ERA over a 14-season career with the Tigers, Red Sox and White Sox before he was banned from baseball for his role in the “Black Sox” scandal in the 1919 World Series. Nicknamed “Knuckles,” Cicotte led the American League in wins twice, won an ERA title and threw a no-hitter in 1917.

7) Wilbur Wood (1961-78)
164-156; 57 SV; 3.24 ERA; 1,411 K; 2,684 IP

A rare lefty knuckleballer, Wood mastered the pitch after being traded to the White Sox in 1966, helped by his teammate Wilhelm. Wood used his knuckleball to pitch with unrivaled frequency. As a reliever in his early years in Chicago, he led his league in appearances three straight seasons from 1968-70 — including an MLB-high 88 in ’68, when he was the Sporting News’ Fireman of the Year. After becoming a starter in 1971, Wood won 20-plus games four straight seasons from 1971-74 (leading the AL in back-to-back years from ’72-73), and he led the Majors in games started four straight seasons from ’72-75. During that run, Wood was a three-time All-Star and three-time top-five finisher in Cy Young Award voting. In 1972, he started an incredible 49 games, tied for second most in a season in the Modern Era — and he started 48 games the next year.

8) Dutch Leonard (1933-53)
191-181; 3.25 ERA; 1,170 K; 3,218 1/3 IP

The best seasons of Leonard’s career came with the Senators in the early 1940s — Leonard was a four-time All-Star with Washington (in addition to a fifth All-Star year with the Cubs). In 1944, he was part of a Senators rotation that remarkably featured four knuckleballers: him, Roger Wolff, Johnny Niggeling and Mickey Haefner. Over 20 big league seasons, Leonard won 191 games with a 3.25 ERA and 1,170 strikeouts. Jackie Robinson once said of his knuckleball: “It comes up, makes a face at you, then runs away.”

9) Joe Niekro (1967-88)
221-204; 3.59 ERA; 1,747 K; 3,584 1/3 IP

The younger Niekro was a successful knuckleballer in his own right. Joe won 221 games over a 22-year career, giving the Niekro brothers 539 wins between them. He was at his best with the Astros in the ’70s and ’80s, including back-to-back top-five Cy Young finishes from 1979-80. In the first of those seasons, Niekro led the league with 21 wins and five shutouts and was an All-Star for the only time in his career. He won a World Series ring in 1987 with the Twins at age 42.

10) Tom Candiotti (1983-99)
151-164; 3.73 ERA; 1,735 K; 2,725 IP

Candiotti won 151 games with a 3.73 career ERA over 16 seasons, pitching mainly for Cleveland and the Dodgers. From 1986, his first full season, until 1993, he broke the 200-inning mark eight straight times. Two of his best seasons came in ’86, when he led the AL with 17 complete games and set career highs with 16 wins, 167 strikeouts and 252 1/3 innings pitched, and ’91, when he had a personal-best 2.65 ERA.


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