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R.A. Dickey and the Knuckleball: How Long Before the Rollercoaster Skids off the Tracks?

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There were a lot of story lines heading into this weekend’s Subway Series, and by the time the Yankees pulled out a 5-1 victory on the season series, the plot had quickly thickened.

Let’s forget that the Yankees’ home run-centric offense managed to long ball their way to two victories, completely avoiding the mortality of their paltry .217 RISP batting average.

Let’s forget the fact that the Mets’ shaky closer Frank Francisco (4.97 ERA, 1.59 WHIP) went out of his way to call the Yankees’ “a bunch of chickens” before ending the weekend on the disabled list with a strained oblique.

And let’s try not to think about how the Mets’ unexpected oasis of two-out runs (156, tops in the majors) may just be a mirage that dries up when the youngsters come back down to earth.

Let’s set that all aside for the moment, and focus on the one story that really mattered this weekend: RA Dickey. After floundering around in mediocrity from 2001-2009, the right-hander joined the Metropolitans in 2010 and completed his transformation from a “conventional” pitcher into a knuckleballer. Throwing the pitch 83.8% and 75.3% of the time in 2010 and 2011, he posted a 19-22 record with an above-average 3.08 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 2.48 K:BB ratio.

However, Dickey’s 2012 performance has been unprecedented. In 15 starts, he’s put together an 11-1 record, an excellent 2.31 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, and an eye-popping 106 strikeouts in 105 innings pitched. To add some icing to the cake, Dickey recently threw consecutive complete-game one-hitters, and entered Sunday’s start with 41.2 straight innings without allowing an unearned run. He has anchored a Mets’ staff, roused an exhausted fan base, and exploded on to the nation’s radar with the help of a nationally televised matchup against Yankees’ CC Sabathia on prime time ESPN.

Dickey attributes his success to a new found understanding of the knuckleball and its movement. In an interview aired before the game, he told his ex-pitching coach Orel Hershiser that he can now harness the vertical and horizontal movement of his trademark pitch for prime results. The knuckleball was previously a 65-mph meatball that pitchers would inaccurately lob around the strike zone, but Dickey has become the first guy who can truly harness it…

…or so he says. The media has heralded Dickey for his success, but how can one truly master and rely on an erratic pitch? In other words, Dickey may be able to harness the knuckleball, but how long will before it rears back and bites him? In Sunday’s first inning, he nearly beaned Alex Rodriguez with a loose pitch near the head, and later uncorked another that got past his catcher and set up the Yankees for a potentially huge inning.

Luckily, the Bombers are inept with the bases loaded this season, allowing Dickey to escape from trouble. Regardless, how long can he maintain his performance? A friend told me that there’s really no way to scout the knuckleball, because it’s completely random.

While I trust his objective opinion, I think something’s going to give. Yes, the knuckleball has a life of its own, but if Dickey has found effective ways to control it, hitters might begin to pick up on his pitch patterns and do damage. Maybe his start against the Yankees  (6.0 IP, 5 ER, 3 BB, 3 K) is a omen of things to come.

More importantly, his secondary statistics are equally erratic as a knuckleball. His .243 BABIP is nearly 50 points below his .290 career average, and his 2.31 ERA is well below his 2.92 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). Additionally, his strikeout rate has soared to 9.09 whiffs per nine, well above his lifetime 5.78 K/9 mark. If hitters start to catch on and recognize its features, Dickey’s hard knuckleball might not be as deceptive as it was to start the season.

Lucky or not, Mets fans should be happy with what they’re currently getting from Dickey. He’s on a great run, and I hope that he keeps it up for their sake. However, his success is based on a historically unreliable pitch, and it’s hard to argue against the seemingly imminent inflation.

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