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R.A. Dickey: Making knuckleball history in New York

By Art Stevens

Folks, I don’t know if you’ve been watching, but there is history being made by a pitcher on the New York Mets. His name is Richard Alan Dickey, better known as R.A. He is a 37-year-old right-handed pitcher who has bounced around for many years at the Major League level, finally winding up at the Met’s AAA Buffalo farm team. It was there that he was persuaded to try using the knuckleball. It was far from an overnight success, but he stuck with it and was finally called up to the parent club in 2010. He had some moderate success in his first year with the Mets, going 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA. In 2011, he went 8-13, with a 3.28 ERA. Actually, he should have had a few more wins that year but got almost no support from the Met offense. So far in 2012, he is 11-1 with an ERA of 2.00.

A knuckleball is usually described as a pitch with an erratic, unpredictable motion. The basic idea is to throw it with no spin whatsoever and let any slight breeze carry it up, down, in or out. Which direction? Don’t ask me. For that matter, don’t ask the pitcher either. He has no idea which way the ball will break — that is, if it DOES break. Above all, don’t ask the poor catcher, whose job it is to catch a ball that is going to break late and in any direction within 360 degrees. They have special gloves made for catchers that TRY to catch a knuckleball. They are much larger than a regular catcher’s mitt (usually called a ‘pancake,’), yet most catchers are usually charged with two or three passed balls per game. The very name would make it seem that the knuckles would be in contact with the ball, but that is not the case. It is actually thrown with the fingernails digging into the ball, followed by a delivery that is similar to a shot-put, which keeps the ball from spinning.

Dickey, this year, has been nothing short of phenomenal. That is not a word I use loosely.

As I write, he has just completed his second consecutive one-hitter; this one against the hot Baltimore Orioles, striking out thirteen and bringing his consecutive innings pitched without allowing an earned run, to 42 2/3, which is only 6 1/3 innings from the Mets record held by Dwight ‘Doc’ Gooden. He is also tied for the lead in strikeouts with 103. Consider this: while throwing a knuckleball, his walks to strikeouts ratio is 20 walks to 103 strikeouts, which is not just good; it’s off-the-wall. And did I mention that R.A. is one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball?

In the past, knuckleballers like Hoyt Wilhelm, Phil Niekro and brother Joe, Tim Wakefield, Wilbur Wood and Charlie Hough, the best of the knuckleballers of past years, threw the pitch from the 60s to the low 70s, and all had their problems with being able to control it.

It is not just the brilliant results that lead me to say that he is revolutionizing the knuckleball; it is HOW he is doing it. He is using the pitch in a way that is completely different than all the previously mentioned knuckleballers, all of whom were great in their own right. There has NEVER been a knuckle ball pitcher that has thrown the pitch anywhere close to eighty miles an hour. This is a FIRST for R.A. Dickey. The great advantage that THAT gives him is that while the ball breaks in the same way, it breaks so much faster, and so much later, that it gives him a greater advantage over the batter. ALL the knucklers before threw from the 60s to low 70s. R.A. routinely throws it at about 80 mph while varying the speeds all the way down to his version of the eefus at about 58 mph. Then, on top of that, and originating from the fact that he WAS a conventional pitcher with conventional stuff (fastball, curve, slider, change-up), he will use his fastball at around 85 mph maybe four or five times per game.

Through the years, many pitchers have tried to utilize the knuckleball at the Major League level. Very few have succeeded. The pitchers mentioned above DID succeed, but they are just a tiny fraction of the hundreds (I should say thousands) of pitchers who have competed at this level. R.A. Dickey is 37 years old. For a conventional pitcher, that is coming at least toward the end of his career. A knuckleball pitcher? Who knows? Hoyt Wilhelm, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985, pitched his last game in the Majors when he was 16 days short of his 50th birthday. Get familiar with the name. It’s R.A. Dickey. He may be around for a while.

In baseball, things can change in a hurry. Change for a team as well as for a player. But for me, judging from what I’ve seen so far this year, I’m hoping to see R.A. Dickey win close to 20 games. I’m looking forward to see him represent the New York Mets in the 2012 All-Star game, possibly as the starter for the National League. And lastly, while it is certainly WAY in the back of my mind, and FAR, far down the road, is that a vision of the initials C.Y. that I see?

All these superlatives and I haven’t even mentioned Dickey’s climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro during this past off-season.