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.