R.A. Dickey will not be remembered for what he did before wearing a
Rangers, Brewers, Mariners, Twins, Met’s uniform. Nor will he ever be remembered for his mediocre fastball or equally mediocre changeup. He likely won’t be remembered for his scrumptious beard. (Actually, I have no proof of that. He *should* be remembered for his facial hair, since all beards are regal and spiffy in nature and form, but I will leave that in the capable hands of history.) No one will remember that he was born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Or that he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for awareness of human trafficking. Or even that he had been sexually abused as a child. While all these things are noteworthy, the truth of the matter is, he will most certainly always be remembered for throwing a very goofy pitch, and throwing it in a very special way. For baseball fans, like myself, who are enamored with such an unconventional baseball skill, this is still quite a special thing to be remembered for. Though we should at least try to remember the beard too.
Now, when I say knuckleball, you say Dickey. Knuckleball! Dickey! Knuckleball! Dickey! But ’twas not always so. Once upon a time, the knuckleball was synonymous with Tim Wakefield. And to a lesser extent, Steve Sparks. Before him, Tom Candiotti. And before him, Phil Niekro with his brother Joe Niekro. Drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round (18th overall) in 1996, Dickey was initially offered a signing bonus of $810,000, which was an amount that an 18th overall pick could expect during that time. The first overall pick in that year, Kris Benson, received a $2,000,000 signing bonus. Before the offer was signed, a Rangers team physician noticed that Dickey’s throwing arm was hanging oddly at his side in a Baseball America Team USA picture. Upon further evaluation, the Rangers discovered that Dickey, in fact, as mentioned above, had no ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow joint. The Rangers immediately reduced their offer to $75,000.
“Doctors look at me and say I shouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob without feeling pain.” – R.A. Dickey
On November 14th, 2012, the same pitcher who shouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob without feeling pain, R.A. Dickey, became the first knuckleballer ever to win the Cy Yound award, beating out Gio Gonzalez and Clayton Kershaw. Proving that the knuckleball pitch is more function over form, more results over process, and the fact that his knuckleball is most likely the fastest knuckleball ever thrown — his pitch has no parallel in major league history. Think about that. Last year, he threw a pitch that no professional batter had ever seen before. That knuckleball, Dickey’s knuckleball, which he started throwing in 2006, but did not garner notable results until thrown for the Mets in 2011, and then perfected in 2012, is now currently being thrown on behalf of the Blue Jays. Suffice to say, batters now have seen it. And they know about it. But what are they going to do about it?
To understand the pitcher, we must, of course, understand the pitch that he throws more than 80% of the time. Yes, he has a two-seam and a four-seam fastball that ranges anywhere from 80-85 MPH. He has a changeup that sits around 76 MPH. And while he has one knuckleball, he throws it in three distinct ways, with three different results. I should note that Dickey himself admits that he only has two different ways, two different speeds that he throws, but for this post, I’d like to separate them into three groups. You got your bags packed? Are you ready for a trip to jaywrong’s GIF-land to examine, in glee, what makes R.A. Dickey a true trailblazer? Good, let’s go!
R.A. Dickey’s ‘Slow’ Knuckleball
The Butterfly Knuckler (54-65 MPH)
As you may or may not be able to see, this pitch most resembles a wily curveball. Because the knuckler is hard to throw… and to hit… and to catch… and to aim, there’s much to be said about one that is only thrown roughly the speed limit of the Pacific Coast Highway. The lack of spin, especially with such a slow pitch, causes additional movement. And having such a pitch that combines the unpredictability of movement with the unpredictability of speed gives good cause to make Jesus Guzman look quite silly.
R.A. Dickey’s ‘Medium’ Knuckleball
The Fast Knuckler (73-76 MPH)
An interesting note, this version of Dickey’s Knuckler is thrown about as hard as Tim Wakefield used to throw his fastball. Keep in mind that the faster you throw the knuckleball, the less movement there is. However, the faster the pitch is, the less movement or, in this case, the less break you need to fool a hitter. Every pitch, besides a knuckler, follows a predictable path. Because of spin, all other types of pitches, whether they be fastballs or changeups or splitters or curveballs or whatever, follow a somewhat predictable path if enough iterations are completed. But a non-spinning knuckleball does not share that trait. They are unpredictable. As you see in the GIF above, there is less downward movement than his slower version, but there is still a distinct break, one which baffles Blake Tekotte.
R.A. Dickey’s ‘Fast’ Knuckleball
The Angry Knuckler (79-83 MPH)
This is the knuckler that separates the boys from the men. Dubbed the ‘Angry’ knuckleball by Phil Niekro, this pitch has single-handedly elevated Dickey from soon-to-be-retired to mediocre to pretty-good to ace. The process of perfecting this pitch, according to Dickey, took four years. Based on anecdotal evidence, he usually tries to get ahead of hitters with his slower knuckler, and then moves to the harder one seen above. As you may notice, there is still plenty of movement (more on that soon) and both the hitter, Will Rhymes, and the catcher, Mike Nickeas, look equally perplexed. In fact, let’s take a look at that in slow motion…
Will Rhymes and Mike Nickeas star in ‘WTF just happened?’
After seeing this, I immediately did this…
And then did it eight more times… (Yes, there was a WOAH before the Matrix. RESPEK.)
For whatever reason, the Mets did not see fit to put faith into R.A. Dickey. More specifically, they did not put faith into R.A. Dickey’s results in terms of past, current, and future value. And while his subsequent trade to Toronto for that reason can and has been disseminated and analyzed from an MLB standpoint, the same can also be done for fantasy baseball.
Can Dickey continue to be an ace, and if he can, for how long? And if not, what will he become?
This topic was one of the most note-worthy tipping point discussions that took place this off-season. No one doubted that the year Dickey just put together was one that you would expect from a staff anchor and ace. But questions remained about having a career season at the age of 38, in which he is nine months older than Alex Rodriguez. The move from a pretty neutral run environment to the heavy hitting AL East, with the addition of the Designated Hitter, and to a homer-happy environment also caused worry. The general consensus of the volatility of a knuckleball pitcher is always present as well. In three starts so far this year, Dickey has done nothing to answer any of these questions. In 17.0 innings pitched, he has gone 1-2, with a middling 6.88 K/9 and worrisome 4.24 BB/9. His HR/9 has ballooned to 1.59 and his FIP now sits at 5.38. At the same time, we must remember, its only been 17.0 innings.
We are still in ‘way too small of a sample size’ territory right now. I refuse to spend any time doing research based on Dickey’s results thus far. There is just not enough data to justify any thought provoking conclusions. However, I will say, anecdotally, I have noticed that Dickey has been a little up in the zone with his knuckler. At a higher plane, there will be less break which will then lead to an easier pitch to hit. There also has been, and of course this is just my opinion, a bit of a squeezing of the strike-zone in his first two starts, which might have flustered him a bit. Getting behind in counts, Dickey has been forced to use his fastball more often, and when you have an 80 MPH fastball, not much success can be expected from its overuse.
Quite simply put, there are two reasons to either trust Dickey or not to trust Dickey. Let’s go over them.
The first is that he’s 38 years old right now, and will be 39 in October. Not only does this affect how you might currently value a pitcher that is 9 months older than Tim Hudson, but it will most definitely affect how you value his future prospects. Tim Wakefield’s best season, according to WAR, was in 2003. He was 37 years old. His third and fourth best season? He was 39 and 41 years old, respectively. Tom Candiotti threw 201 innings in his age 40 season. At the age of 46, Phil Niekro pitched 220 innings, going 16-12 with a 4.09 ERA. Though a small sample in of itself, we can still gather, rationally, that knuckleball pitchers are a different breed. In most cases, the peak comes in the latter part of their careers because of the difficulty in mastering such a pitch. But when mastery is achieved, the pitch is easy on the arm, and does not require exerting high velocity. Even Dickey’s ‘Angry’ knuckler is still slower then the average changeup of most pitchers. So in this aspect, we can surmise that pitching effectively, into at least his age 40 season, would not and should not be warranted as crazy talk. And don’t worry about him ever needing Tommy John Surgery. The prerequisite of having a UCL to tear was solved at birth.
The second, and most easily debunked, is that he is a one year wonder. To that, I have a simple table to show.
Accumulated Stats for 3 years, 2010-2012
As you may have gathered, I like the guy. I root for the guy. In fact, it is safe for you to assume that he is one of my favorite pitchers to watch and cheer for. And while that may give me plenty reason to wax something poetic for 2200+ characters, I want to make it clear that I’m trying also to be objective when determining his current and future value. Frankly, through this discovery process, my opinion remains relatively unchanged from last year. In that, I still believe he is an ace, both in real and fantasy baseball. It is true that he is currently in a worse run environment for pitchers, both in terms of his home venue and the division for which his team resides. Dickey is also not getting younger. In fact, to be honest, he is already quite old in baseball years. Combined with the fact that he is somewhat of an oddity for what he does and how he does it, and has struggled at it so far this year, which may be a sign of things to come.
Then again, R.A. Dickey is something special. And it took the majority of his career to establish that. You may say, with ease, that regression will happen, that we will never see last year’s Dickey again, and I would gingerly nod my head at that statement. But not to the extent that many might expect. While Dickey has a fairly new track record to base a projection on, we know that knuckleballer aging curves look nothing like normal pitcher aging curves. So while he *is* older, he is still part of a group that historically ages very well. And as Dickey has thrown his knuckleball harder (70.6 MPH in 2008 to 77.2 MPH in 2012), the higher his K% has risen, the more stable his BB% has become, and in 2012, he doubled the number of strikeouts produced. His numbers are real. And while 2012 may represent a best-case scenario, that, by no means, disqualifies him for another ace-like season. He can still regress some and be dominant at the same time. To be honest, he can regress by a good measure and still hold down the fort on your fantasy baseball staff. And while he won’t get to strikeout a pitcher multiple times a game, and the park he pitches in gets a little homer happy, he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast that is built to win now, and will be built to win for at least the next few years. And while he’s gotten off to a rocky start, I fully expect Dickey to be fine.
For this year only, I’m expecting 18-9/3.11/1.09/203, with the baseline being somewhere around 15-10/3.35/1.15/175. While the future outlook seems foggy, I’m still willing to bet he remains effective for as long as he wants to pitch. The level of effectiveness will certainly fluctuate, but for the following two seasons, a baseline of 13-10/3.50/1.20/150 seems easily achievable, barring injury of course. If you own him for this year and beyond, enjoy it. Relish it. If you can poach him as buy-low candidate from a finicky owner, do so, and do so now while the cost is still depressed. Yes, I’m a fan. And yes, I believe. And you know what? You should too.
The knuckleball looks like an underhanded softball pitch for about 50 or so feet. And then performs dark wizardry for the last ten.
And R.A. Dickey throws the best one we have ever seen.