There aren’t that many knuckleballers floating around. I mean, there is R.A. Dickey, this “generation’s” Cy-Young-holding, hard-knuckling pitch-face king, but the number of active knuckleballers in professional baseball could possibly be counted on the fingers of both hands. This is most likely because young pitchers don’t wake up and decide that one of the sport’s most difficult pitches is their “thing,” and the relative lack of arm-speed needed to throw it makes the knuckleball a last resort.
One of those few is Rangers’ pitcher Kevin Pucetas, who spent most of last season with the Frisco RoughRiders as a conventional pitcher before spending August with Myrtle Beach, developing his knuckleball. In Frisco, Pucetas started 19 games and saw relief time in an additional three, pitching 117.2 innings to the total of a 4.67 ERA. 2013 was Pucetas’ first year in the Rangers’ organization, after being drafted in 2006 by the San Francisco Giants, and spending time in both the Royals and Nationals systems. The 29-year-old has pitched at every level except the majors in his professional career, and until late 2013, used mostly an upper-80s fastball, a low-80s changeup, a curveball, and a slider-not an uncommon mixture of pitches for a long-term minor league pitcher.
As with most knuckleballers, Pucetas picked his up later in his career, not really starting to throw it until midway through 2013. After the trade deadline, Pucetas flipped roster spots with Luke Jackson and Nick Martinez, moving down to Myrtle Beach to hone the pitch in the more pitcher-friendly air of the Pelicans’ park. One of the biggest aspects of throwing a knuckleball is command, and as with any pitcher and a new pitch, Pucetas’ command came and went. Though he only allowed three homers in his six games, he threw five wild pitches, hit nine batters, and walked another 29, though five of the nine HBP happened in one game. As a conventional pitcher, Pucetas threw strikes, only walking 21 batters in 104.2 innings in 2012 with the Nationals’ double- and triple-A team, 36 batters out of 117.2 innings with the RoughRiders in 2013. These encouraging historical trends may put him in a better position to refine his command of the knuckleball than wilder pitchers.
Pucetas has fairly standard knuckleball mechanics, though he uses his lower half to provide more power than Tim Wakefield did, a style more resemblant of R.A. Dickey. As when he was a conventional pitcher, his fastball tends to be fairly straight, though its average of 86 MPH sits higher than other knuckleball pitchers. As data from Wakefield and Dickey shows, even a fastball at that velocity can throw off a hitter’s timing, if it’s paired with an effective knuckleball. The knuckleball comes in at anywhere between 65 and 75 MPH, with varying amounts of movement. Of course, the varying movement and velocity are the whole reason a knuckleball works, and if Pucetas can control the pitch enough and create different looks, he could force hitters to regularly take awkward swings.
A knuckleballer’s future is perhaps the foggiest of any prospect, though at best predicting baseball resembles seeing through wavy glass. If Pucetas can tame the pitch and find good results, he could have a way to extend his career beyond this season, and if other knuckleballers are any indication, he could pitch professionally past age 40. All top-10 lists and potential major league value aside, Pucetas is definitely a member of the Rangers’ farm system worth keeping tabs on.
Kate Morrison is a recent Baylor graduate currently working as a freelance writer. She likes minor league ballparks, music and the nickname 'Roogie.' That last one will be explained in due time. You can follow her on Twitter at @unlikelyfanatic.