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Looking R.A. Dickey Up on FanGraphs

R.A. Dickey leads the Majors in strikeouts. He has more than Stephen Strasburg, more than Justin Verlander, more than Gio Gonzalez. Nobody in baseball has generated as many strike threes as R.A. Dickey. Since he has never done anything like this before — his next strikeout will actually match his 2010 total — people are asking him what he’s doing differently. After his second straight one hitter last night, Dickey was asked this again. His response:

“The strikeouts, you can look at FanGraphs or PITCHF/x or whatever you do to figure it out.”

Who are we to turn R.A. Dickey away? So, by order of the guy actually doing it on the field, let’s do just what he asked.

Let’s start off the with obvious – Dickey is seeing a huge uptick in his strikeout rate because he’s getting a lot more swinging strikes. This isn’t a Vance Worley or Bartolo Colon situation. Dickey is throwing pitches, batters are swinging, and they’re not making contact.

Swinging Strike Rate, by season as a full time knuckleballer:

2008: 6.3%
2009: 6.5%
2010: 8.4%
2011: 7.8%
2012: 12.7%

That 12.7% swinging strike rate is the highest in baseball among starting pitchers. In fact, if he’s able to keep this up all year, it would be the highest swinging strike rate any qualified starter has put up over a full season since CC Sabathia in 2008. Dickey’s ability to generate swinging strikes has gone from about league average to best in the league, and the results have followed.

But, that doesn’t really answer the question of why he’s getting so many more swinging strikes. So, let’s break it down a little further. Here are Dickey’s PITCHF/x plate discipline stats, again since 2008.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
2008 21% 61% 43% 75% 89% 86% 54%
2009 23% 58% 42% 76% 88% 85% 54%
2010 28% 63% 48% 73% 85% 82% 55%
2011 28% 63% 48% 74% 87% 84% 56%
2012 35% 63% 50% 67% 78% 74% 55%

The first column in represents the amount of pitches out of the strike zone that hitters are swinging at. League average is about 28%, so Dickey had been right around average up until this year. Now, though, hitters are chasing 35% of his pitches out of the strike zone, and for a pitcher, the more pitches you can get a batter to chase, the better off you’ll be. Interestingly, hitters aren’t swinging at more strikes than usual, so the uptick in swing rate against Dickey is entirely due to opposing hitters chasing pitches out of the zone.

However, that doesn’t mean he’s only been more effective in getting batters to chase. Look at the Z-Contact%, which is rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone — 78% is astonishingly low, 10 percentage points below the league average. In fact, of the 542 qualified starting pitcher seasons since 2007, only Johan Santana‘s 2007 season generated a lower contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. Dickey’s getting more batters to swing at pitches out of the zone, but even when they recognize a strike and swing at it, they can’t hit it. That’s a pretty fantastic combination, as you might imagine.

Dickey’s also benefiting from the exponential effects of throwing strikes. While his rate of pitches in the strike zone isn’t much different, the fact that he’s getting batters to chase pitches out of the zone and swing through pitches in the zone means that he’s now pitching far more often in favorable counts. Last year, 26% of the batters he faced ended up in an 0-2 count before the at-bat ended, but this year, that’s all the way up to 32%, nine percentage points higher than the league average. The only NL pitcher getting into 0-2 counts more often is Cliff Lee. Major League hitters this year are batting .167/.195/.251 after they get into an 0-2 count. Nearly one-third of the batters Dickey has faced have ended up in that situation.

Breaking down the effectiveness of the movement of a knuckleball is challenging, even with PITCHF/x data, since the success of the pitch is predicated on its unpredictability. What we can say for certain about his knuckleball this year is that he’s throwing it for strikes and fooling hitters into thinking that pitches out of the zone are worth swinging at. And, through that deception, Dickey is pitching like the best pitcher in baseball.

For most pitchers, velocity is a key factor in their success. For Dickey, it’s all about movement and location, and this year, he’s showing what a pitcher can do with dominating movement and consistently great location.