"He's not that big, so he needed to find a niche," said Jeff White of his oldest son, Johnny.
At 5-foot-8 and 135 pounds, 15-year-old Junior American Legion Baseball pitcher Johnny White has played a big part in Warren Post 135's recent run to the Youth Legion Baseball State Championships beginning Saturday near Reading.
Post 135 coach Jon Vincent watched a team from Murrysville (20 minutes east of Pittsburgh) take batting practice, and thought he might have to throw something a little different at 'em.
Johnny White and his knuckler (inset)
Johnny White's knuckleball is a little different.
Rather than the hard stuff, which he thought they would hit, Vincent and Post 135 decided to go softer in the Youth Legion Western Regional tournament- and it worked. White threw six-plus innings, and Post 135 held off Murrysville, 4-3, for White's second win of the day.
It's not that White thinks his knuckleball is the greatest thing since sliced bread. He only started throwing it a couple years ago when his Little League coach at the time, Jim Vile, showed him a thing or two. Or five.
"Regardless of how the pitch is gripped, the purpose of the knuckleball is to avoid the rotational spin normally created by the act of throwing a ball. In the absence of this rotation, the ball's trajectory is significantly affected by variations in airflow caused by differences between the smooth surface of the ball and the stitching of its seams. The asymmetric drag that results will tend to deflect the trajectory toward the side with the stitches.
"Over the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate, the effect of these forces is that the knuckleball can 'flutter,' 'dance,' 'jiggle,' or actually curve in two opposite directions over its flight. A pitch thrown completely without spin is actually less desirable, however, than one with only a very slight spin (so that the ball completes perhaps between one-quarter and one-half a rotation on its way from the pitcher to the batter). This will cause the position of the stitches to change somewhat as the ball travels, and therefore the drag that gives the ball its motion, thus making its flight even more erratic. Even a ball thrown without rotation will 'flutter' somewhat, due to the 'apparent wind' it feels as its trajectory changes throughout its flight path.
"When originally developed, the knuckleball was used by a number of pitchers as simply one pitch in their repertoire, usually as part of changing speeds from their fastball. It is almost never used in a mixed repertoire today, however, and some believe that to throw the knuckleball effectively with some semblance of control over the pitch, one must throw it more or less exclusively. At the same time, pitchers rarely focus on the knuckleball if they have reasonable skill with more standard pitches, so knuckleball pitchers have become quite rare.
"However, the knuckleball does provide some advantages to its practitioners. It does not need to be thrown hard (in fact, throwing too hard may diminish its effectiveness), and is therefore less taxing on the arm. This means knuckleball pitchers can throw more innings than orthodox pitchers, and are able to pitch more frequently because they require less time to recover after having pitched."
White said Vile showed him five different ways to throw a knuckleball, and he started to play around with just one of those ways.
The first time White threw it in a game, he was just 12 years old and at a baseball tournament in Buffalo, N.Y. It was one of those things in which nothing else was working, so now is the time.
"He threw a couple knuckleballs and it worked, and he fooled them," said Jeff White.
Derek Reagle - Warren Post 135's catcher - said he knows the knuckleball is working a little bit when he starts to hear the other team's players chirp. "Move up in the box," "This kid can't pitch," "What's the matter? Why can't you hit this guy?"
Frustration sets in.
White's knuckleball doesn't dance like he hopes it will someday. He thinks his fastball is probably only 70 miles per hour or so, and the knuckleball 15 or more miles per hour slower than that. He mixes a curveball and a change up in there.
"I just pitch," he said.
He might start a stud hitter off with a 70-mile-per-hour fastball on the outside corner, mix in a curve for strike two, and then a knuckleball for a fly out to left field.
It's been good enough to keep hitters off balance.
On Thursday, a day before White and Post 135 leave for Shillington, Pa., he threw a few pitches to Reagle at Old Legion Field in North Warren.
In the background, you could hear the loud crack of a wood bat as recent Warren Area High School graduate Hank Morrison was taking batting practice with his father. He was nailing line drive after line drive.
This is the kind of hitter White will have to figure out how to get out someday soon. After all, he aspires to be a high school pitcher.
"When I'm not playing basketball, I'd work (on my knuckleball) all year if I thought it would help (me get there)," he said.
There are others in the area that throw a knuckleball... Casey Vincent, Jason Stanton, Tanner Teconchuk, but White has had to rely more and more on "the junk" to get people out.
He could take a lesson from Warren Area High School grad Tyler Leichtenberger, who pitches for the Rochester Institute of Technology. After graduating high school, Leichtenberger dropped down sidearm Kent Tekulve-like to become the R.I.T. closer.
Leichtenberger recently told White he ought to scrap all his other pitches and just further develop the knuckleball.
It's not just anybody who can throw a 97 mile per hour fastball. It's not just anybody who can throw a sick knuckleball.
White's likely never going to throw very hard.
"It's a lot more fun to fool people," he said.
His little brother, Chris, thinks it's tough to catch him in the street in front of the house; a knuckleball gets away and it's down the street he goes chasing it. But Chris isn't following in his brother's footsteps - his thing is the curveball, he said.
And Johnny didn't get the knuckleball from his father, because Jeff said he can't throw it.
So, where does Johnny go from here? Well, he's been looking up information online on 37-year-old pitcher R.A. Dickey, whose 80-mile per hour knuckleball has become all the rage.
After limited success in the majors as a conventional starting pitcher, Dickey became a knuckleball pitcher later on and has been one of the most dominant in the game this season. In his first start as a knuckleballer years ago, however, Dickey gave up six home runs. This "thing" takes a while.
White will work hard to make the knuckleball his primary pitch and, for that matter, to become a primary pitcher.
In the meantime, he and Post 135 will travel to Shillington to take on the best Junior Legion teams in the state.
If Vincent decides to go "softer," he might just call on Johnny White.