On Christmas day, 2009, the Mets signed an obscure knuckleballer named R.A. Dickey. The cynical Mets’ fans whispered to each other that the Wilpon family, owners of the franchise, were broke, as a result of the Bernie Madoff scandal, and all they could afford to sign was a mediocre 35 year old career nomad, who had been tried and discarded by four major league franchises. His major claim to baseball immortality up to that point was that he had tied the record for most wild pitches in an inning (4), and had set the Major League record for most home runs in a single game (6). Before 2010, Dickey had but one year where his E.R.A. was under 5.00. Needless to say, he was a blip on the Mets’ radar. After Spring Training, he was assigned to play with the Buffalo Bisons. On April 29th, he gave up a single to the first batter, and then proceeded to retire the next twenty-seven batters in a row. Desmond Jennings, then a prospect honing his considerable five tools in the minors, described Dickey that day as completely unhittable. He was soon brought up by the Mets, whose projected starting rotation was bereft of quality starters. Dickey made an immediate impact on the woe-begone franchise. He became the first pitcher in the history of the Metropolitans to win his first 6 games. He finished the season with a record of 11-9, an ERA of 2.84 – almost 2 runs per game lower than his previous best – and a WHIP of 1.19, easily the best in his career. Last season, he had a slight regression, but still garnered respectable numbers. This year, of course, he is the best fantasy pitcher in ESPN for the first half of the season, and arguably the best starter in baseball. He’s even ranked #1 overall by the Razzball Player Rater!
On June 2 of 2012, a day after Johan Santana had pitched the first no-hitter in Mets history, Dickey began a stretch that was reminiscent of the legendary Bob Gibson. He threw a 7-hit complete game shutout against the Cardinals. On June 7th, Dickey pitched 7 1/3 innings of shutout ball against the Nationals. Then, on June 13th, Dickey gave up but one disputed hit to the Tampa Bay Rays for a 7-1 victory, the one run being unearned. During that game, Dickey set a new Mets record, tallying 32 2/3 innings without giving up a run. On June 18, 2012, Dickey pitched a complete game one-hit shutout against the Orioles to improve his record to 11-1. He became the first pitcher since 1988 to throw two consecutive one-hitters, and the first in the NL to do so since 1944. (Ironically, Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves, who tossed the two consecutive 1-hitters, was also a knuckleball pitcher.) On June 24th, 2012, Dickey’s streak of consecutive scoreless innings without an earned run reached 44 1/3 innings, also a Mets record, ended against the Yankees. However, he wasn’t finished with his supernal streak. In his next start against the Dodgers, Dickey gave up only two hits over 8 shutout innings. For the month of June, he finished 5-0, with an ERA of 0.93. On July 1st, Dickey was named to the National League All-Star team for the first time. Yet, perhaps more amazing is the story behind the story, which belongs in the realm of the Twilight Zone.
Dickey was originally drafted in the first round (18th overall pick) by the Texas Rangers in 1996. He was one of the more highly touted pitching prospects at that time. R.A. was selected to the U.S. Olympic team that year, and helped lead the squad to the Bronze Medal. Dickey was offered a signing bonus of over $800,000. However, before R.A. had a chance to sign on the dotted line, the Ranger trainer Danny Wheat observed the cover of Baseball America’s July 1996 issue, which featured Dickey and several of his teammates on the U.S. Olympic starting rotation. Wheat noticed that Dickey’s arm appeared to be hanging unevenly. The Rangers orthopedic consultant ordered medical tests, which revealed a most peculiar thing –- Dickey was missing his ulna collateral ligament –- not just part of it, all of it. It should have been impossible for him to turn a doorknob without a great deal of pain; how he has managed to pitch remains a mystery to this day.
Dr. James Andrews, sometimes referred to as “Dr. Freeze,” stated that he had never seen or heard of such a case, and speculates that R.A. may have been born without the ligament, or perhaps that he could have torn it and it never regenerated. Dickey will never have rotator cuff surgery, as there is nothing there to operate on.
At any rate, in this bizarre twist of events, Dickey saw his bonus offer reduced to $75,000; as he once stated, it was like winning the millionaire lottery, and then losing the ticket.
After several seasons in the Majors, it became clear that Dickey’s repertoire of pitches was nothing special. His fastball fell to the mid-eighties, due to ongoing back problems. His curve was average at best; he also threw an odd forkball, which he called “The Thing”. In actuality, the forkball was a hard knuckleball, but Dickey at that time did not wish to acknowledge that he was desperate. R.A. knew that he had to re-invent himself. It took him five years and four changes of major league organizations for him to be able to develop the necessary command of the pitch.
Along the way, He received help from Charlie Hough, a former knuckleballer in the Majors, who worked on changing his grip. He also assiduously studied the careers of others who earned their salaries with the baffling pitch, such as Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, the only two pitchers inducted in Cooperstown who relied almost exclusively on the knuckler.
Although there is not a large sample group of knuckleball pitchers for points of comparison, Dickey’s knuckler is unusual in several respects. He has a high ground ball/fly out ratio, and an above-average strike-out rate, which has increased dramatically this season. He varies the speed of the pitch, from 63 to 83 MPH, with most of his pitches in the 70-79 MPH range, which again, is faster than the average for those who dare to throw this unusual pitch. The majority of knuckleball pitchers, including Tim Wakefield, throw the pill in the mid-60 range. Dickey also states that he throws 9 different varieties of the knuckleball, not only with control, but with an approximate direction, something never achieved by any known knuckleball pitcher. The only pitcher who used the knuckleball as his primary pitch and achieved equivalent statistical numbers was Wilhelm. And by all indications, R.A. is continuing to get better at his trade.
It will be interesting to see where Dickey is drafted in the upcoming season. Fantasy mavens have been slow to accept any pitcher throwing the twister as legitimate. However, any objective observer has to grudgingly admit that R.A. is now an elite hurler, and continues to improve his expertise at an incredible pace. The only remaining questions is whether he can maintain this consistency over an extended period of time, and whether, at the age of 37, he is still improving his skills.