June 19, 2012
BASEBALL: The Knuckle Master
Kilimanjaro was a front. In fact, R.A. Dickey went to the Dagobah system in the offseason. It's the only possible explanation.
Dickey right now is locked into one of the greatest pitching stretches in baseball history - he's just the tenth man to throw back-to-back 1-hit shutouts, and the first since 1900 to strike out 10+ batters in both. He's the first pitcher in major league history to notch 5 straight starts of 0 earned runs and 8+ Ks. Over his last six starts, he's 6-0 with an 0.18 ERA, averaging over 8 innings per start (48.2 IP) and a 63/5 K/BB ratio (11.65 K/9 and 0.92 BB/9), no homers, and just 21 hits allowed (3.88 per 9). He's now 11-1 with a 2.00 ERA (ERA+ of 188), leading the NL in Wins, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP, shutouts, and complete games. And his last fourt starts have been against the Cardinals (who entered that series leading the NL in scoring), the first-place Nationals, the then-first-place Rays, and the Orioles, who entered the game 39-27.
Dickey's mastery has come on as a sudden step up from what was already a successful record - his first two years with the Mets, he posted a 3.08 ERA and struck out 5.6 batters per 9 innings; through May 12 of this season, he was striking out 6.5 batters per 9. Jeff Sullivan at Baseball Nation has a great breakdown of how the performance of Dickey's knuckler has improved, including a staggering 69% of his knucklers this season being thrown for strikes. Other knuckleball pitchers have had great seasons, and like them, Dickey has done it wth excellent control - Wilbur Wood in 1971 had a 1.91 ERA (189 ERA+) in 334 innings (walking 1.7 men per 9) and was the second-best pitcher in baseball; Hoyt Wilhelm from age 41-45 had a 1.74 ERA over 539 innings in relief (ERA+ of 185), walking 2.3 men per 9. But even those walk numbers don't really capture the level of Dickey's ability to command a normally un-commandable pitch, to say nothing of the fact that unlike Wilhelm, Wood and Phil Niekro for most of their careers, he actually has a fastball (not the 90+ heater he had in his 20s, but enough to freeze batters looking for a knuckler that has been clocked as slow as 54 mph).
Really, you could not get two better stories at the front of your rotation than Santana and Dickey, assuming Santana can shake off his post-no-hitter doldrums.
UPDATE: Dickey since May 20, 2011: 18-9, 2.42 ERA, 209/57 K/BB ratio & 20 HR in 256.1 IP, one of just six MLB pitchers with an ERA below 2.50 in 200+ innings in that stretch.
Dickey could be the third knuckleballer to start the All-Star Game, after Dutch Leonard (not the 0.96 ERA one, the Senators pitcher from the 40s) and Bob Purkey, and is on track for the best strikeout rate ever by a knuckler.
Hope this doesn't turn out like that season in the late 90s when Bobby Jones raced out to something like a 10-1 start by June, and then fizzled the rest of the year. For some reason - even though this is a major step up in production from anything Dickey's ever done before - it doesn't seem as fluke-y as that Jones start to the season. In any event, I think he's under contract for next year, but could we please start to talk about extending the guy's contract now?
We'll have to see how Santana pitches today, but if it doesn't go well, I think you have to consider DLing him to give him a rest. I attended the Rays game down in Tampa and you could tell the command and velocity were both gone.
I have watched the Dickey show with a level of fascination. I watched Tim Wakefield toil away for 17 years for the Red Sox. Most of the time he was an effective guy with spots of excellence and spots where the ball hung. Sort of the routine for most knucklers.
In 1995 the Sox picked him off the scrap pile (Wakefield had not pitched in the majors in over a year) in response to a series of injuries to the starting rotation in April and May. In his first 17 starts he went 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA with a .200 BA. He struck out and walked guys though at a non-Dickey level of 5.4 k/9 and 2.5 BB/9. In his first 4 starts he went 4-0 (including 2 CGs one that went 10 innings) with a 0.54 ERA and allowed a line of .138/.200/.155.
I was always convinced those 2 stretches were going to be the last great run a knuckleballer ever had. Dickey is a different animal I think. As you note his fastball is passable (Wakefield never got it over 82-83 even in his youth) and he seems to have another breaking pitch in his arsenal as well. Clearly the extraordinnary command he has of the knuckleball is what is making him so unearthly effective right now.
As a person who rode the roller coaster of the knuckler experience my suggestion is "make sure you see these games while he is on this roll." You don't know when it will peter out. The knuckleball is a pitch of such touch and that feel can be fleeting. Wakefield went 2-7 the rest of the year in '95 and clearly lost the unusual command he had earlier in the year. The Dickey story is quite amazing and it's fun to watch so make sure you catch him while he's in one of the rare zones of all time.
Regarding R.A. Dickey's amazing season, Chris Wheeler* made a comment about the NL's starting catcher. It went something along the lines of:
Here's the good news, you're the starting catcher for the All-Star Game. The bad news? You have to catch R.A. Dickey.
*I think it was Wheels, but it might have been another Phils announcer.
Great read, thanks for the info!
I'm just enjoying the ride creating by someone who really does seem to be a truly nice guy. Good for him.
He must be channelling Sidd Finch!
Dickey is a great story and an even better person. My wife is involved in a charity that helps abused children [http://www.childhelp.org/] and Dickey generously devoted items for the fundraising auction and his time to help the organization.