Jammers' Reliever Knuckles Down
There have been 26 knuckleball pitchers in the major leagues and there is only one still active - R.A. Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Three very successful knuckleballers were Bob Purkey, Wilbur Wood and Tim Wakefield. What's unusual about that trio is that they were at one time members of the Pittsburgh Pirates and they peaked after being traded away.
Jamestown Jammers relief pitcher Kurt Yacko would like to become the Pirates' fourth knuckleballer and hopefully stay with the team.
Yacko was a shortstop and closer in high school in California and that's when he began fooling around with the knuckleball. When he went to NCAA Division III Chapman College his coach told him to throw the pitch in games.
''I gained a lot of confidence in it throwing it the way that I knew how to throw it, which was hard,'' Yacko said. "I always threw a hard knuckleball, it's called a power knuckleball. I threw it probably 83 to 85 (mph), which is pretty hard. It was more of a strikeout pitch that I used in addition to my slider and the other three pitches that I had."
In 2007 Yacko played for the Green Bay Bullfrogs in the collegiate Northwoods League and he said, "I threw it there too and had a lot of success.''
Yacko was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in 2008 and was sent to the Pioneer League where he also threw the knuckleball.
"When I threw it that hard, it was really hard for the catchers at that time to catch it,'' he said. ''I had a lot of dropped strike threes and guys would get on base."
So he was told to stop throwing the knuckleball until he went to the Instructional League in the fall.
"It was kind of a bummer, but I didn't really need it,'' Yacko said. ''It wasn't like it was the only pitch I had."
In 2009 in Class A, Yacko didn't throw the knuckleball at all while working on other pitches. With the knuckleball pretty much on the shelf, he spent six years in the Colorado organization, mostly in Class A with one game at Class AA, and compiled a 16-19 record with a 3.30 ERA. He was released on the last day of spring training this year and was at home for a week when he got a call from the Pirates. One of their scouts had seen him throw the knuckleball and Yacko was told, "We want you to be a knuckleballer.''
Suddenly, the right-hander had new life as a pitcher.
''I'm old as far as where I'm at right now, but for a knuckleballer I'm young,'' he said about being 25 and still in Class A baseball. "I had to re-evaluate what I was going to do because I hadn't really developed the pitch. Now I have to develop it not as my secondary pitch, but as my primary pitch."
After spring training with the Pirates, Yacko was sent to Bradenton of the Class A Florida State League. He walked a lot of batters and was sent back to extended spring training. It was there that Yacko was told he would be sent to Jamestown where he could develop the pitch with no pressure.
''I think that's all I needed to hear, to know they had confidence in me and let this thing develop over the course of the season," he said. "Right now I'm throwing it about 50 percent. I have to build it up to where I'm throwing it 80, 90 percent of the time."
He added, ''Every single day I'm still learning the ins and outs of it.''
And so is Jammers pitching coach Mike Steele. Knuckleballers are a rarity in the minor leagues and it's difficult to give pointers about throwing a pitch you know nothing about unless you've thrown if yourself.
''I just started doing some research and watching YouTube and seeing what those guys (who throw a knuckleball) do and what they looked like,'' Steele said.
So far he's enjoyed what Yacko has looked like. In nine relief appearances, he has a 2-0 record with a 3.24 ERA and he has walked only three in 16 innings while striking out 14.
''When he's going good, it's pretty good,'' Steele said about Yacko's knuckleball.
Not only is it an unusual pitch for the batters, but also the umpires.
''It's a pitch that umpires haven't even seen,'' Yacko said. ''I have a lot of calls (made) before the ball has even been caught. They're already deciding it's a ball and that kind of messes me up because I need every strike I can get with the knuckleball.''
Steele pointed out it's nice to bring in a knuckleballer in from the bullpen. And he added another positive.
''In the minor leagues, because we're strapped with pitch counts, it's nice to know you have a guy that you can throw a lot,'' Steele said. ''You don't have to worry about the arm breaking down.''
That's why Yacko said, ''Hopefully, the rest of this season and in the offseason I will be throwing it all the time because it doesn't strain my arm.''
Unfortunately, the only strain Yacko has had is to his ankle and he has been placed on the disabled list. He hopes to be back in action again soon and continuing his second career.
''Looking back now I probably should have kept it and should have continued making it better and better,'' Yacko said about his knuckleball. ''If you have an extra pitch, why not?''
With the extra pitch, Yacko hopes to keep making extra steps through the minor leagues.
''Now with this opportunity that the Pirates have given me, it's a chance to revamp everything,'' he said. ''It's a 20-year potential career if I can get it down.'