A World Series-Winning Knuckleballer On The 3 Pitches Every Guy Should Teach His Kid

Because if you're going to teach Junior the knuckleball, it might as well be the kind that sustains a 19-year MLB career.

by Michael Howard
Originally Published: 

The most iconic knuckleball pitcher of the 21st century retired in 2012 after 19 seasons and 200 wins, and Tim Wakefield will forever be a Red Sox fan favorite for good reasons. An 8-time Roberto Clemente Award nominee, Wakefield won the award given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team” in 2010. He’s such a standup guy, even Yankees fans don’t have much bad to say about him — plus his stuff drove Jeter insane.

When he’s not hosting charity events, Wakefield teaches the ABCs of pitching to his 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter in the backyard — just like a normal dad, except he does it wearing 2 World Series rings.

Pitching Mechanics (Age 7+)

If your kid is a righty, have them stand on the mound with feet shoulder width apart, heals on the rubber, and toes pointed slightly to the right (if they’re a lefty, life gave them a pitching advantage on the mound and disadvantage with instructional articles). Then teach the following foot movements:

1. Rocker Step — Move the left foot out no farther out than the edge of the rubber, just to begin shifting weight.

2. Pivot — Move the right foot against and parallel to the inside edge of the rubber. The right leg should remain slightly bent throughout but never so much that the knee passes over the toes.

3. Leg Raise — Lift the left knee to a comfortable height. Some argue for pausing mid-windup to find a ” balance point” on one leg; others believe this wastes precious momentum. Wakefield’s personal style is a very small leg raise with nonstop movement. “The main goal there is to have good balance in your delivery,” he says. “You never want to get too far back or too far forward.”

4. Follow Through — Use the back leg to push off the mound and drive the front hip forward so that the lower body is doing most of the work for the arm. “Lead with your left foot, put your foot on the ground, and fire towards home plate,” he says. If the next thing you hear is shattering glass, grab the kid and hide.

The 4-Seam Fastball (Age 8+)

The fastest and most controllable pitch in baseball, the 4-seamer is also called the “rising fastball” because its backward spin counteracts descent and stabilizes the ball. This pitch is precise because it has no “tail” or slight curve at the end like the 2-seam fastball. Wakefield uses a 2-finger grip, but some younger kids need to use 3 fingers until their hands get bigger.

Place the index and middle fingers slightly apart across (not along — that’s a 2-seamer) the large curvature of the seam, known as the “horseshoe.” Then, visualize a straight line to the target. “I had an imaginary line from where my arm came behind my head to the outside or inside corner, and I wanted to maintain that line the whole way through my delivery,” he says. If your kid is struggling, tell them to imagine Tim Wakefield imagining lines.

The Knuckleball (Age 8+)

The knuckleball is pitching’s equivalent of a superstition — never fully understood but always feared. Hell, it’s the only pitch to ever earn its own documentary. If executed correctly, it flies with zero spin, which causes the ball to dance erratically and break up to 3 or 4 times in unpredictable directions before reaching a baffled batter. If executed poorly, the slightest spin on the ball will cause a normal flight, serving up the batter a yummy meatball for dinner.

Dig 2 fingernails into the leather, right in front of the seam in the middle of the horseshoe. “The ball wants to spin backwards out of my hands, but right at release point, I point forwards with my index and my middle finger to stop that spin from happening,” Wakefield says. “So basically, as the ball’s coming out of my hand, I force it to rotate forward at the same time it wants to rotate backwards, and it comes out perfectly still.”

Knuckleballs are easy on the pitcher’s joints because they don’t need to be thrown hard, which explains how Wakefield struck out MLB sluggers by lobbing the ball 66 MPH (and why he didn’t retire until age 44). Safety-wise, your kid can learn this pitch as young as you want to teach it. Skill-wise, good luck; the knuckleball is so difficult to control, there are rarely more than a few pros in the whole league with the cajones to pitch it.

The 12-6 Curveball (Age 13+)

There’s a reason this pitch is an analogy for the unexpected: A curveball’s purpose is to surprise the batter with its slow speed and split-second change of direction (down and away from the dominant throwing arm). Then, what looks like a ball slides smoothly into the strike zone.

For a righty, place the index and middle fingers together to grip the right, inner side of the horseshoe so that the seam curves around the fingers. “Lead with the side of your hand and spin it forward, almost like you take your hand and turn it sideways when doing a karate chop,” he says. “You basically want to spin it over your 2 fingers and have forward rotation. It wants to rotate 12 to 6 on a clock.”

According to the New York Times, the jury is still out on whether curveballs wreck your arm when thrown correctly, but conventional wisdom is “no puberty, no curveball.” When thrown incorrectly or with inadequate muscular development, the pitch can wreak havoc on elbow ligaments and lead to Tommy John surgery, so named after a pitcher. Wakefield says better safe than sorry on this one and highly recommends younger kids wait until their teens to learn curveballs.

Beating The Batter (Age 13+)

When it comes to striking out batters, Wakefield has a method to his knuckleball madness:

• Start With A Strike. Batters will soon think they have no choice but to swing. “If you put it in his mind that you are going to throw strikes, then suddenly you’re forcing him to chase bad pitches,” he says.

• Study Foul Balls. “My biggest thing on how to read batters was to learn how to follow foul balls,” says Wakefield. For righty batters, “pushing” the foul right means they’re reacting late, and “pulling” the foul left means they’re swinging too soon but are almost on the money. Vary the speed of the next pitch based on that.

• Change It Up. Wakefield threw his mid-speed knuckleball 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent, he threw an off-speed surprise. His speedier fastball changed the “batter’s eye level” — where they expect pitches to be — and the slower curveball snuck into the strike zone unexpected.

• Pitch To Your Strength, Not The Batter’s Weakness. “You got to know their weaknesses and your strengths, but you always throw to your strengths,” he says. That’s how you win the mental game: If your kid pitches a mean fastball, and the batter specializes in crushing fastballs, tell Junior to pitch it anyway … just maybe not a steady diet down the middle.

Once your kid has these basics down, they should practice on what the pro calls “strike zone command — being able to throw a particular pitch on both sides of the plate.” But despite every trick in the book, Wakefield says the most important pitch in baseball is not a fastball, curveball, or even a knuckleball: “I tell kids the most important pitch in baseball is a strike.” The best knuckleball in the world is useless if it can’t find the invisible box between the batter’s chest and knees. On the other hand, it still makes a killer party trick.

*For a documentary look at Tim Wakefield and the last remaining knuckleballers, check out 2012’s Knuckleball!

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