June 29, 2012
Dickey's Fine Malt Knuckler
The baseball life of a knuckleball pitcher is truly unique. Survival is predicated upon the success of a single pitch type, one that is rooted in randomness and whose effectiveness is sensitive to everything from mechanics to grips and even weather conditions. A knuckler's approach is based on the notion that batters know what pitch is coming, but not where it's going. The knuckleball was a recurring theme in my inaugural chat with BP, with many suggesting that washed up minor leaguers should adopt the pitch to re-forge a career in the bigs, though it is easy to underestimate the difficulty of harnessing a knuckler to the degree necessary to succeed at the highest level. Mercurial performance patterns have become par for the course of knuckleball pitchers, but R.A. Dickey's recent run of dominance is changing the way that we perceive this rare and exotic breed.
Notable Knuckleball Pitcher Ratios
Knuckleball pitchers of the past have blazed a trail of free passes and mishandled pitches that find the backstop, combined with modest strikeout totals. The goal of the knuckler is to induce weak contact more so than whiffs, and R.A. Dickey was following right along for the first 10 years of his professional career. But Dickey is challenging the status quo with his performance this season. The right-hander has fanned 9.4 hitters per nine innings in 2012, with a microscopic walk rate of 1.9 walks per nine, fueling a powerful strikeout-to-walk ratio that is virtually unprecedented for a knucklehead. He enjoyed a fine season in 2011, but the peripheral stats gave no indication that a breakout was coming for the 37-year old veteran.
Entering Sunday's game against the cross-town Yankees, Dickey was riding a 42 2/3-inning streak across a half-dozen starts without allowing an earned run. His previous six games had produced a line of 63 strikeouts against five walks, and Dickey was coming off consecutive one-hit complete games that featured 25 strikeouts versus a pair of free passes. With Dickey chasing Orel Hershiser's major-league record of 59 consecutive scoreless innings, the braintrust at ESPN put Hershiser in the booth for the interleague match-up.
Having Hershiser on the mic has advantages that go far beyond an in-depth recounting of his 1988 streak, as Hershiser was Dickey's pitching coach in Texas for three years of the knuckler's early career, providing a strategic vantage point in addition to Orel's usual doses of pitching enlightenment. Hersh informed us that the catcher was calling for a knuckleball whenever he dropped the index finger for pitch sign number one, while the fastball was actually the number-three pitch on the catcher's crib sheet.
The first inning of Sunday's contest was much like the 40-odd innings that preceded it, with Dickey riding his hard knuckleball as he breezed through the top of the Yankee batting order in just nine pitches. A very quick worker, he is an efficient time-killing machine when the knuckler is finding leather. The only hiccup was a mistimed delivery that nearly resulted in a beaning of Alex Rodriguez, though baseball's wealthiest player shrugged off the 78-mph head-hunting projectile with some theatrics and a smile.
Dickey ran into some trouble in the second, when an error put him in the stretch and the resulting timing issues led to a walk that increased the threat level, though the Mets would escape the inning unscathed. Dickey threw 28 pitches through the first two innings, 25 of which were of the knuckle variety, with a trio of fastballs that were distinguished more by a lack of movement than any jump in velocity, with low-80s radar-gun readings that nearly matched the velo of his hardest knucklers.
Trouble continued to brew in the third. After retiring Derek Jeter with his second strikeout of the game, Dickey issued a four-pitch walk to Curtis Granderson when the fluttering knuckler failed to find a home within the confines of the strike zone. Dickey's control appeared to be off-track, though it was virtually impossible to evaluate his pitch command due to the receiving strategy of Josh Thole. The catcher squats in a side-saddle position with his hips turned toward first base when preparing for the knuckleball, and he sets up with a limp wrist that hangs below the zone on every pitch with Dickey on the mound. Thole does not open the glove or move the wrist until the pitch is on its way to the plate, indicating that there is no specific target location for the incoming pitch, but rather a general target zone.
Alex Rodriguez beat out a weak chopper when David Wright failed to execute a tough play, followed by a five-pitch walk to Robinson Cano that loaded the bases with one out in the third. It was Dickey's third walk of the day, after having walked just five hitters over the previous six starts combined, marking just the third game of the season in which Dickey issued more than two bases on balls. The streak was hanging by a thread when Mark Teixeira's deep fly to right field allowed Granderson to tag up from third, breaking through the impenetrable wall of R.A. Dickey for the first time in over a month. The wall came crumbling down when the next batter, Nick Swisher, deposited a high knuckler into the right-center field seats for a 4-0 Yankee lead.
Dickey plunked Curtis Granderson on the wrist with a 78-mph knuckleball to lead off the fifth and then allowed Granderson to move into scoring position when the right-hander unleashed his first wild pitch of the season on another errant knuckler. Granderson would end up scoring thanks to a pair of productive outs by his teammates, stacking a five in the ER column for the Met hurler. Dickey mixed in more fastballs in the fifth and sixth innings, going to the heater eight times out of his last 28 pitches.
Dickey's final line was disappointing, though he was doomed to fall short of the hype surrounding this game in the first place, and his performance was much better than the box score suggests. There were very few hard-hit baseballs, and his control deserted him only for short bursts. The trademark knuckler had moments of devastation, though the floater to Swisher was the fatal flaw in a game with little margin for error. Dickey may not have had the exceptional control that buoyed his scoreless streak, but I walked away impressed with his ability to manipulate the game's most fickle pitch like a puppet master.
Dickey throws a very hard knuckleball that hit as high as 81 mph on Sunday. The knuckler sat in the upper 70s, but he showed the ability to subtract from the pitch at will, taking the volume down to 61 mph on a slow knuckleball that he served up to Jeter in the fourth inning. The pitch had curveball break with knuckleball spin (hence the Gameday confusion), and Dickey would flip a couple more before the game was over. Hershiser remarked that Dickey threw a more traditional knuckler back in his Ranger days, but he adapted the pitch in the minors, and today he mixes up his arsenal to give batters different looks throughout the game.
Dickey knuckled up on 89 percent of his offerings through the first four innings of the game, and he introduced different variations on the pitch as the game progressed, featuring exceptional velocity spreads in the range of 20 miles per hour. Hershiser observed that Dickey's knuckleball was rotating more than in previous starts, noting that the pitch should ideally make half of a full rotation on the way to the plate, providing a potential explanation for some of the right-hander's Sunday struggles.
Mechanics Report Card
The typical knuckleball pitcher has a low-energy delivery, with weak momentum, modest torque, and generally low rotational velocities. Knuckleballers often look like they are just playing catch, avoiding velocity-generating tactics and instead choosing to focus all of their physical energy toward the singular goal of finding a consistent release point. Dickey adheres to the knuckleball torque trend, with extremely small angles of hip-shoulder separation due to an excessive delay of hip rotation, with hips and shoulders that fire almost in unison and result in a bottom-feeding grade on his report card. Strong balance and stable posture are staples of the knuckleball delivery, and Dickey is no exception in this department.
Where he stands out is with momentum, as a league-average charge is considered plus-plus within the knuckleballing community. Dickey exhibits quick movements with respect to leg lift and late hip rotation, though he fails to generate the types of linear and rotational velocities that form the framework of traditional, hard-throwing mechanics. He also has a hitch in the delivery where the momentum suddenly increases just before foot strike, with a very late burst that extends his stride and provides a kinetic energy boost prior to firing the shoulders.
Dickey uses a slide step from the stretch, scrapping the high leg lift and crippling his stride in the process. On the upside, Hershiser noted that Dickey has been timed at 1.1 seconds from first movement to pitch release in the stretch, an incredibly quick timing pattern that contributes to his base-stealing stinginess. Only two players have even attempted a steal against Dickey this season, and none has been successful. Dickey also has an extraordinary pick-off move, with quick feet and minimal wasted movement, which combines with the slide step to stack the deck against opposing base runners.
There is a stark contrast in the timing and positioning of Dickey's delivery from the windup versus the stretch, yet he is surprisingly adept at repeating the disparate timing patterns. The major drawback relates to his distance at release point, which is above average from the windup but falls far short when he goes to the slide step from the stretch. Normally, such a strategy would precipitate a rant about the under-appreciated value of release-point extension, but a knuckler relies less on release distance than other pitchers because batters already know what is coming, therefore minimizing the dependence on pitch recognition. With relatively consistent timing patterns from both stretch and windup, in conjunction with the unique conditions surrounding the knuckleball, Dickey is the rare pitcher for whom I would dismiss the usual slide step caveats and encourage his continued use of the otherwise inefficient strategy.