R.A. Dickey and the Knuckleball

R.A. Dickey would be a great story even if you stripped some of the elements that make him a great story. He is baseball’s leader in several categories, the likely Cy Young Award winner if the season ended today. His journey—on and off the field—is interesting and unique and full of turmoil, the kind of life that makes for a very captivating autobiography (which was published just before the start of the season). On top of all that, Dickey is the only pitcher in major league baseball who throws a knuckleball, a quirky, unpredictable pitch that, so far this season, has made the best hitters in the world look hopeless.

We’ll start with the numbers because without those the rest wouldn’t be getting much attention. Entering today, Dickey has the most wins in baseball (11), the best earned run average (2.00), and the fourth-most strikeouts (103 in his 14 starts). He has not given up an earned run in his last five starts and enters tonight’s start against the Yankees having thrown consecutive one-hitters. His starts have become an event, a la Gooden or Pedro or Johan, and tonight’s is no different, as he faces C.C. Sabathia in a two-letter showdown on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball.

Dickey’s ascension to dominant MLB pitcher is atypical to say the least. He was a power pitcher throughout his youth, starring at the University of Tennessee. After his junior year he was drafted by the Texas Rangers with the 18th overall pick and offered a signing bonus of close to a million dollars. That offer was revoked, however, when a physical revealed that Dickey did not have an ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Doctors were baffled, Dickey writes in his book, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball. He is told it is remarkable that even shaking hands doesn’t cause him pain and the fact he can throw a baseball 90 miles per hour with pinpoint accuracy is a miracle.

In 2005, nine years after he was drafted, he is called into a meeting with Rangers manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser. Dickey has spent most of his time in the minor leagues up to this point and has had poor results in the majors—just 15 wins in 72 games with a 5.48 ERA. The coaches want him to become a full-time knuckleball pitcher in the hopes of salvaging his career. Now, seven years later, Dickey is in the midst of a run reminiscent of Hershiser’s 59-inning scoreless streak in 1988. In his most recent start, on Monday, Dickey threw a one-hitter against Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles.

When the Mets brought up Dickey in May of 2010, I was skeptical. I looked at his numbers and saw a “4A” pitcher—someone capable of success in the minors but not in the big leagues. (After reading Dickey’s book, I learned he felt the same way about himself at one point.) I found out he threw a knuckleball and I thought that was cool, and with each start I learned more about his baseball journey. Then he won his first six decisions with the Mets and I was a believer.

The 37-year-old Dickey looks like an English professor with his long hair and beard, and talks like one, too—his interview answers are not just thoughtful and verbose for an athlete, but for anyone. Sure enough, Dickey considered becoming an English professor as he contemplated quitting the game he is now dominating.

And make no mistake about it, Dickey is dominating. It seems as if batters have made a pact to just give up when they face him—that’s how lost they look at the plate. Remarkably, Dickey has not thrown a wild pitch yet this season, which suggests he has complete command over a pitch that is not supposed to be controllable. He has only walked 21 batters in 99 innings this year. In other words, it appears he has succeeded in his “quest for the perfect knuckleball.”

Since everything about Dickey seems to buck the trend, he is not even a conventional knuckleballer. His knuckler often hits 80 mph, about 10 miles per hour faster than Tim Wakefield typically threw his, and can dart sharply.

With the success he has had this season, maybe Robert Allen Dickey needs to update his book with an epilogue. After all, his off-field life remains interesting—he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro this past offseason to raise awareness and money for human trafficking. His story is the best in baseball, and given the long careers of knuckleball pitchers, it may be a long way from over.

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