Dickey Has Mets Fans’ Hearts Aflutter

R.A. Dickey is a 35-year-old, ligament-challenged right-hander who hasn’t cracked 90 MPH on the radar gun since he pitched for the University of Tennessee. His nomadic existence has taken him through five different organizations over the past five years. Up until two months ago, Dickey took his starting assignments in front of several thousand people in places like Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Pawtucket. But now the knuckleballer is pitching as well as anyone in the Mets’ rotation.

Like the fluttering pitch that has given him new life, Dickey’s career has been an exercise in unpredictability. Once a touted prospect who pitched for the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that won a bronze medal in Atlanta, Dickey was selected by the Texas Rangers with the 18th overall pick in the amateur draft that year. The Rangers offered the Volunteers’ ace $850,000 to sign on the dotted line. But that was before a team doctor glanced at the cover of Baseball America’s Olympic Preview issue and noticed Dickey’s arm hanging in a peculiar position. The doctor soon discovered that Dickey didn’t have a Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his elbow. The club’s bonus offer plummeted to $75,000, with Texas’ expectations for Dickey going from future rotation stabilizer to big league long shot.

Dickey did eventually reach the majors with the Rangers, logging 266 innings over the 2001-2006 seasons. His stuff was dime-a-dozen, though: a high-80’s fastball, an occasional fringy breaking ball, and a forkball he dubbed “The Thing.” He started toying with a knuckleball in 2005, and Texas gave him the chance to try it out as a starter at the beginning of the 2006 campaign. Six home runs later, Dickey had tossed his last major league frame with the team.

Since then, Dickey has drifted. In 2007 he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers and posted a nondescript 4.36 FIP at Triple-A Nashville. That winter, he latched on with the Minnesota Twins. But, as a guy not on the 40-man roster with the requisite time in pro ball, Dickey was eligible for the Rule V Draft and was snagged by the Seattle Mariners. The M’s eventually worked out a trade to keep his rights while being able to send him to the minors. Dickey ended up tossing 112 frames as a swing man for Seattle, with a 5.20 xFIP that was exactly replacement-level. He signed with the Twins again last season, posting a 4.90 xFIP and -0.1 WAR in 64.1 innings. Save for one start, all of that work came in relief.

When the Mets signed Dickey to a minor league deal this past December, he wasn’t counted on to do anything but help the Buffalo Bisons compete for International League glory. But with the flutter ball flummoxing Triple-A hitters (60.2 IP, 5.5 K/9, 1.2 BB/9, and a 3.16 FIP) and Oliver Perez spontaneously combusting, Dickey got the call in mid-May. And, in 79 innings pitched, Robert Alan Dickey has a 3.78 xFIP that bests the likes of Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey. Who knew?

Dickey has struck out 6.15 batters per nine innings and walked 2.51 per nine, displaying strong ground ball tendencies to boot (54.3 GB%). According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, Dickey’s throwing the knuckler for a strike about 65% of the time, while getting a whiff nearly 11 percent of the time that he throws the pitch, which helps explain how he has managed an 8.6% swinging strike rate- slightly higher than the 8.4% MLB average.

R.A.’s knuckleball is odd in a couple of ways. For one, he’s burning worms with the pitch. Per Pitch F/X data on Joe Lefkowitz’s site, Dickey’s ground ball rate with the knuckler is 53.5%. There obviously aren’t many other pitchers to whom we can compare that number, but Harry Pavlidis showed that the average ground ball rate with the pitch is about 37 percent. Dickey’s knuckleball is also strange because of its speed — Dickey has thrown the pitch anywhere from 63 MPH to 83 MPH:

For comparison, Tim Wakefield has a 16 MPH range in his knuckleball velocity (58 to 74 MPH). The vast majority of his knucklers sit in the mid-60’s.

Dickey’s mid-80’s fastball, which would be a BP pitch without the knuckleball, hasn’t been hit hard. Nobody’s whiffing at the offering (just 2.4%, while the MLB average is 5-6%), and opposing batters are slugging .469 when making contact with the pitch (.567 MLB average).

In just two months, Dickey has racked up 1.6 Wins Above Replacement for the Amazin’s. Not bad for a guy who shouldn’t be able to turn a door knob without pain, much less fool major league hitters.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

20 Responses to “Dickey Has Mets Fans’ Hearts Aflutter”

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  1. Eric Feczko says:

    Not sure who has looked into this, but I think the knuckler can be thrown using (primarily) two different grips. Wakefield throws his knuckleball by gripping the ball with his fingernails and “pushes” the ball towards the plate. Dickey throws this version, but I think he also throws a version where the knuckles on his index and middle finger grip the ball. At the time of release, the fingers extend, preventing the ball from having any spin or movement, but also enables the pitcher to “throw” instead of “push” the ball. I wonder if Dickey’s 80 mph knuckler is thrown with this grip.

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    • Jared says:

      There is a two-seam and four-seam version of a knuckleball, with the four-seam being a little bit faster.

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      • Eric Feczko says:

        Right, but the orientation of the seams is a separate distinction from the grip. Unless you were using two-seam and four-seam to refer to the grip.

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    • Chris says:

      There are many different ways to pitch the knuckleball, and i would not say there aren’t any that are primarily used. One of the only universal things in pitching it is that it is not pushed towards your target. Dickey and wakefield both through it the same way and use the same grip every time. they grip it by placing their index and middle finger just below the horseshoe, the thumb running along the side of the other horseshoe, the ring finger is straight and on the other side of the ball to help stabilize it, and the pink finger is off the ball.

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  2. Steve says:

    Minaya to offer 3 year $36M extension….

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  3. Matt K says:

    I love Dickey. They need to make a dickey corner at citifield. hang up Dickies shirts with a big K on the back for each strikeout.

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  4. Ed Nelson says:

    I’ve watched him pitch about 6 or 7 times and what get’s lost in translation is that his FB has a nice, late dive to it and he throws his 85mph FB at the same angle as his 71mph knuckler. With that great of a change in velocity it’s really hard for opposing batters to get under the ball. I can only imagine that to a batter that the knuckler looks like the high FB coming out of his hand but then dives down and away when it hits the zone. He’s a lot of fun to watch.

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    • joser says:

      Well presumably some (most?) hitters can see the stitches moving, or not, as the ball approaches. But the wide range of speeds on his knuckler may make it work as a kind of change-up relative to his fastball and having the same effect in terms of messing with hitters’ timing.

      Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. (Most of the time, anyway — as with any such pitcher, sometimes the knuckleball doesn’t knuckle.) Which is great — baseball is a lot more fun when there’s a knuckleballer working somewhere in it.

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  5. Tim says:

    No mention of Dickey’s knuckler frequency? This year he’s throwing it 81.7% of the time against a 43.9% career average.

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    • Choo says:

      Dickey’s knuckleball frequency since becoming a knuckleballer is about 75.5%, and that number mostly encompasses a period of experimentation. For example, as a Mariner, Dickey tried reinvent the knuckleball by throwing it about as hard as he could. Dickey’s idol, Joe Niekro, threw a hard knuckleball (relatively speaking) and Dickey was trying to out-Joe Niekro Joe Niekro. Tim Wakefield eventually talked him off that ledge.

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  6. caseyB says:

    What I love about Dickey is his consistency. Ten of his 12 starts have been quality starts — a higher percentage than what Santana, Halladay, Lincecum, and Carpenter have produced this year. It’s questionable whether Dickey can continue at this pace, but right now, he’s the second most reliable starter on the Mets staff after Santana, who has lately rediscovered his old effectiveness and consistency.

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  7. maqman says:

    It’s great to see him finally find success in The Show. I’ve enjoyed him since he was a Mariner and wish he had stuck with them but the Mets deserve a break and it’s nice to see him provide it.

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  8. nmigliore says:

    As a Mets fan, there hasn’t been a more pleasant site (okay, except Angel Pagan) than watching Dickey.

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    • Brian says:

      If only the Mets front office could re-sign Delgado now, convince Pedro to pitch again this year, steal El Duque from the Nationals, revive him and his high-leg kick, call back Tom Glavine as well as revive Maine’s career and we could be talking about something here.

      I’m only kidding but I sure miss the days of 2006 even if the roster had flaws with relying on older starters at the front of the rotation(El Duque, Pedro, Glavine). 2006 didn’t end well but it would be nice if the Mets FO could learn to build off of that.

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      • caseyB says:

        Huh? Are you suggesting that old rotation was good for the 2006 Mets and subsequent rosters should have followed that model?

        In case you forgot, both El Duque and Pedro were hurt during the 2006 season, went on the DL, and were non-factors in the post-season. Thankfully Maine and Perez pitched well in the playoffs that year, but now they are both problems for this year’s team.

        The Mets need more pitchers like Santana, Niese, Dickey and Pelfrey. Not that old rotation from 2006.

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  9. Lets Go... says:

    He said Dickey…

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  10. Mike Fast says:

    Wakefield doesn’t really have that big of a speed range on his knuckleball. His main knuckleball is 65-68 mph, and he has a slow knuckleball at 59-62 mph that he uses on occasion. His fastball is 71-75 mph and his curveball is 58-62 mph.

    Dickey, on the other hand, uses a wide variety of speeds on his knuckleball, all across the range 70-82 mph, and occasionally slower. His fastball is 81-87 mph.

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  11. SeaverFan says:

    I was at the Mets game on Sunday in San Francisco. I took my 10 year old son for his birthday. Before the game, Dickey spent an unusual amount of time signing autographs and taking pictures with Mets fans. My son got both an autograph from and a picture with Dickey. Needless to say, my son was thrilled. I am very grateful to Dickey for helping to make my son’s birthday so special.

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  12. As a Mets’ fan and regular watcher, what’s impressed me about Dickey is his ability to adjust. He seems to have a feel for when his knuckle (or when 1 of the 2 types if there’s 2) is working and when’s it not, and adjust either by throwing it slower/faster (as appropriate) or by mixing in more fastballs. I suspect his Game-by-Game stats would show these tendencies…

    That, and he seems to have a ridiculously good strand/get-out-of trouble rate — something the GB% certainly helps with!

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