Almost nothing about the knuckleball makes any sense. You know that has to be true when you hear a knuckleball pitcher say that not even he knows where the ball is going when it leaves his hand. That may be so, but there hasn’t been much doubtlately where R.A. Dickey‘s knucklers are going. They’re just about all ending up as strikes for the New York Mets thrower.
I’m in love with R.A. Dickey. I bow down to R.A. Dickey. I love the guy on principle just because he is the only knuckleball thrower in the majors these days. But then he goes out and throws two straight one-hitters. And he sets career highs for strikeouts in a game twice in a row. Ridiculous. The guy is so hot it’s a wonder his catchers don’t get sunburned standing near him talking about the signs.
Ridiculous is how hitters have looked as they tried to make solid contact with the fluttering, perplexing stuff that Dickey keeps throwing up to the plate. Major League hitters are used to seeing pitches that fly at them at a speed of maybe 95 mph. They are used to the heat. They had adjusted, trained themselves, to hit fastballs that travel the 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound in a split second.
The secret to successful pitching is location and mixing speeds. Well, Dickey represents an entirely different paradigm than most pitchers. The fastball specialist who throws 95 mph might throw a change at 85. No one has ever thrown a high-speed knuckler, but Dickey can throw 80 mph, with a selective dropoff in the low 70s.
In some ways his entire repertoire throws hitters off. If he threw 80 mph with nothing on it, hitters would feast upon his tosses as if they were a bunch of meatballs. But knucklers float, twist, drop, and just when a batter believes he has a bead on it, do some kind of unexpected trick. So they swing and miss and shake their heads in disbelief.
A few years ago I was watching on TV as knuckleballer Tim Wakefield pitched a game for the Boston Red Sox. The radar gun on the screen several times announced that he was throwing 59 mph. 59 mph! C’mon. Junior high kids can throw 59 mph. Most of Wakefield’s other knucklers were measured in the 60s. Not long afterwards I had a chance to catch up with Wakefield in a lockerrom. I asked if the 59 mph reading was possibly true and he said yes it was. How demoralizing was that to some 40-home-run guy going home that night having to admit he fanned on a 59 mph knuckleball? Probably downed a few vodka and tonics before bed.
It is acknowledged that the knuckler is very difficult to master. Most pitchers have made it to the top with swift fastballs complemented by another standard pitch like a curve or slider. Only pitchers who really need it turn to the knuckleball. Dickey is one of those guys who was stalled out and needed emergency pitch relief. Now he is the king of the knuckleball.
Going into his next start for the Mets, Dickey is carrying a streak of 42 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run. In consecutive games he has struck out 12 and 13. He is the first pitcher in 24 years to throw back-to-back one-hitters. And his record is 11-1.
“I don’t feel like it’s a dream,” Dickey said. “But I do feel like it’s fun and enjoyable.”
For every baseball fan. How long can this go on? Who knows? It is a fun ride. But what just about every knuckleball specialist has learned (including Hall of Famers like Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro) is that the knuckleball leads in this dance. The pitcher thinks he knows what he’s doing, but sometimes the knuckleball does what it wants.
Right now, however, R.A. Dickey has thrown knucklers so consistently well that he is on pace (dare we say it) to win the National League Cy Young Award.