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Strike! Knuckleball research shows why batters crumble.

Why does the knuckleball move so erratically? Mike Morrissey, Grad ’09, used his engineering prowess to find out.

Guided by Dr. John Borg, associate professor of mechanical engineering, Morrissey studied the aerodynamics of baseball’s most-puzzling pitch for his master’s thesis.

To throw a knuckleball, pitchers dig in their fingernails behind the seam and throw. The knuckleball travels 20  30 mph slower than the average fastball, which clocks in at 90  100 mph. The reduced speed makes the knuckleball harder to hit. Zigging and zagging, its unpredictable movement leaves even the best hitters and catchers perplexed. Milwaukee Brewers funnyman announcer and former catcher Bob Uecker once joked, “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until the ball stops rolling and then pick it up.”

For catchers who want better odds, Morrissey went on the hunt for a scientific explanation.

“When I got to Marquette, Dr. Borg was talking baseball and he asked me if I would be interested in researching the knuckleball,” says Morrissey. “I was like: ‘Are you kidding me? That would be great!’”

Morrissey and Borg experimented with Rawlings baseballs, helium bubbles and a state-of-the-art wind tunnel.

“Using the conditions of 70 mph wind velocity, 50 rotations per minute and a two-seam orientation, we were able to measure the forces acting on the ball,” explains Morrissey. With assistance from a high-speed camera, they could see the ball rotate in slower revolutions. These advanced resources made all the difference.

“This is where you see what actually happens to the baseball as it’s traveling through wind,” Morrissey says.

As part of his research, Morrissey snagged an interview with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who was pitching in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system at the time. In 2012, Dickey won the National League Cy Young Award as a member of the New York Mets. Curiosity about Dickey’s pitching mechanics propelled Morrissey’s groundbreaking knuckleball research into the national spotlight. 60 Minutes Sports, the Discovery Channel and Popular Mechanics magazine traveled to Marquette to see firsthand what Morrissey and Borg learned.

“The knuckleball was a dead art, but when Dickey won the Cy Young, it got the ball rolling and people were interested again,” says Morrissey.

Is the mystery of the knuckleball solved? Not completely. Next up is testing a faster pitch in a more humid climate with different orientations and rotation rates. Morrissey leaves that for another adventurous researcher to study. JB

See the 60 Minutes segment with Leslie Stahl at go.mu.edu/knuckleball-60minutes, and watch the Discovery Channel piece at go.mu.edu/knuckleball-discoverychannel.


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