R.A. Dickey and Facing the Enemy

Not all that long ago, I wrote about Gio Gonzalez striking out a ton of opposing pitchers. Though Gonzalez set a modern-day record, the achievement itself was not entirely surprising: Gonzalez is a durable pitcher who gets a lot of strikeouts, and pitchers strike out a lot as batters. This is because pitchers are by and large terrible batters, dragging down the offensive numbers of the National League. What was more surprising, to me, was something I noticed about R.A. Dickey, which I included in the post as a note.

Dickey is a knuckleballer, and the league’s only knuckleballer worth a damn. He became a regular with the Mets in 2010, and as a Met, he threw more than 600 innings. Over that span, Dickey faced 2,344 non-pitchers, and he struck out 19% of them, or at least 19% of the guys who didn’t sac bunt. Over the same span, Dickey faced 172 pitchers, and he struck out 17% of them, or at least 17% of the guys who didn’t sac bunt. In other words: with the Mets, R.A. Dickey struck out a lower rate of pitchers than position players.

That’s weird. National League starting pitchers average about 18% strikeouts. However, at the plate, they average about 38% strikeouts, so basically pitchers strike out twice as often as position players. Dickey has demonstrated some strikeout ability, and he’s not by any means a conventional pitcher, what with the knuckler and all. Intuitively, you’d think pitchers would have more trouble hitting Dickey, not less. At least, you wouldn’t expect the strikeout rates we observe. It’s curious that pitchers have made contact against R.A. Dickey, and I thought it worth an examination.

We’ll begin with the images I find to be the least helpful. Here’s the location of all of Dickey’s pitches to non-pitchers between 2010-2012:

dickeynp1

And here are Dickey’s pitches to pitchers between 2010-2012:

dickeyp1

It’s hard to make sense of those images by eye-balling them. Thankfully there’s more substance in some information to follow. Let’s look now at Dickey’s first pitches to non-pitchers between 2010-2012:

dickeynp2

And, Dickey’s first pitches to pitchers between 2010-2012:

dickeyp2

Here, it seems like there’s some clustering in and around the zone. It seems like Dickey has been more aggressive coming after opposing pitchers, and further data bears that out.

The most obvious thing to look at is Dickey’s pitch mix. Dickey essentially throws a fastball and a knuckleball. He actually throws a few different knuckleballs, which is awesome, but for our purposes we’re sticking with the binary classification. There’s no need to break things down further. Between 2010-2012, when facing non-pitchers, Dickey threw 17% fastballs and 83% knuckleballs, according to PITCHf/x. However, between 2010-2012, when facing pitchers, Dickey threw 45% fastballs and 55% knuckleballs, according to PITCHf/x. That is…that is substantial.

I came upon an old post by Jeremy Greenhouse at the Baseball Analysts. Greenhouse was analyzing pitchers pitching to pitchers in September 2010, and what he found was that less than 5% of pitchers throw more fastballs to pitchers than to non-pitchers. Most pitchers feed other pitchers offspeed stuff, in an effort to confuse them since pitchers suck. Dickey is an exception, to an exceptional degree. He doesn’t just throw more fastballs to pitchers — he throws way more fastballs to pitchers.

The difference is even more stark if we look at the first pitches of plate appearances. Against non-pitchers, Dickey began plate appearances with 19% fastballs and 81% knuckleballs. Against pitchers, Dickey began plate appearances with 70% fastballs and 30% knuckleballs. Dickey was relatively aggressive with the enemy, coming right after him and throwing a lot of heaters. Even though Dickey had a world-beating knuckleball in his back pocket, he didn’t use it so much to try to embarrass the other arm.

It’s time now to look at some pitch results in tables. These should be fairly self-explanatory:

Against non-pitchers

Fastballs Ball 26%
Called Strike 36%
Foul 14%
Swinging Strike 3%
In Play 21%
Swing 38%
Contact 91%
Knucklers Ball 34%
Called Strike 15%
Foul 20%
Swinging Strike 11%
In Play 20%
Swing 51%
Contact 78%
Overall Ball 33%
Called Strike 18%
Foul 19%
Swinging Strike 10%
In Play 20%
Swing 49%
Contact 80%

Against pitchers

Fastballs Ball 20%
Called Strike 34%
Foul 18%
Swinging Strike 4%
In Play 24%
Swing 46%
Contact 92%
Knucklers Ball 27%
Called Strike 12%
Foul 15%
Swinging Strike 16%
In Play 30%
Swing 61%
Contact 74%
Overall Ball 24%
Called Strike 22%
Foul 16%
Swinging Strike 11%
In Play 27%
Swing 54%
Contact 80%

I know there’s a lot of information in there. Not all of it is important. Against position players, Dickey threw 67% strikes, whereas against pitchers, Dickey threw 76% strikes. This indicates that Dickey was a lot more aggressive within the zone. Pitchers swung more often against both Dickey’s fastball and Dickey’s knuckler, and though they made less frequent contact against the knuckler, it wasn’t less frequent by much. Pitchers were still able to put the bat on the ball, maybe because their timing already sucks. And Dickey’s fastball, which he threw a lot more often to pitchers, is just not a swing-and-miss pitch. It’s a fastball in the 80s.

What’s been the end result of all this? Some more numbers for you:

  • NL non-pitchers, 2010-2012: .261/.328/.410
  • NL pitchers, 2010-2012: .138/.172/.176

And:

  • Non-pitchers vs. Dickey, 2010-2012: .246/.299/.378
  • Pitchers vs. Dickey, 2010-2012: .204/.219/.238

Against R.A. Dickey, pitchers haven’t hit well. But they’ve hit better than they have against other pitchers, even though Dickey has been an above-average pitcher. Over the last three years, Dickey has allowed 30 hits to pitchers. Plug in the league-average numbers and he would’ve allowed 20 hits to pitchers. It’s a small difference that might be entirely due to the limited sample size, but, there you go. Dickey has taken it somewhat easy on opposing pitchers, and opposing pitchers have hit better against Dickey than they have against non-Dickey. They’ve put the ball in play more often, and they’ve reached base more often.

In the past, Dickey has expressed a desire to have more success against opposing pitchers. He might’ve been able to do this by just throwing more knuckleballs, but now it won’t matter anymore, since Dickey’s moved on to the American League. In that regard, this post doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s strictly a look back at a curious phenomenon. But if there are people out there who think Dickey is due for a rough adjustment to the AL since he won’t get to feast on pitchers, well, about that. It should be less of a factor than you might think.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


24 Responses to “R.A. Dickey and Facing the Enemy”

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  1. Sparkles Peterson says:

    The old canard was that the best lineup against a knuckleballer was 9 pitchers. Kind of funny that this article finds a tiny granule of truth to that, but not for the reason people always assumed.

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    • Mike Green says:

      Pitchers hit a .156/.178/.205 off Phil Niekro over his career. I would venture a guess that he didn’t start many off with first pitch fastballs. Dickey is one-of-a-kind in many ways.

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  2. Hurtlockertwo says:

    The really terrible pitcher hitters, like Barry Zito, seem to just want to make contact. Zito only struck out 23% last year and he really, really sucks at hitting.

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  3. Danny says:

    My favorite thing about this article is that R.A. is in the American League now and won’t face too many opposing pitchers in the short term.

    But I love it. The more you know.

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    • Vrev says:

      I don’t know. The way things are going the Yankees may well soon be running out their pitchers to hit. Admittedly CC is 0 for 3 against Dickey but clear case of SSS.

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  4. attgig says:

    how about putting those later 2 tables, and combining them into one? one column for non-pitcher numbers and another column for pitcher numbers? They have the same exact labels for every number.

    it’s awfully hard to compare the two when you list them out in separate tables.

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  5. Jeff Gilham says:

    It is interesting that he seems to be aware that he is weak on opposing pitchers, that it is pretty obviously a question of approach (too many first pitch fastballs) and that he hasn’t “fixed” it. It would seem like a no-brainer to try going after the pitchers with the same approach he uses against position players.

    Is the coaching staff doing their job if they’re not correcting this? Wouldn’t you expect the value of those 10 extra hits to be about 3 – 4 runs?

    I’m a little sorry he switched leagues it would have been fun to watch this prospectively this season, but since I live in an American league town I’ll look forward to seeing him. I really enjoy watching players who are effective in unconventional ways.

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  6. Eric says:

    I’d like to see how many pitches/at-bat (hitting) pitchers had against Dickey, then compare it with (hitting) pitchers against other NL pitchers.

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  7. Ken Arneson says:

    How does the distribution break down when the pitcher would be expected to bunt vs. non-bunting situations?

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  8. Dave G. says:

    I think a lot of it is pure velocity based. Pitchers can’t catch up to major league fastballs much and they know it. They see Dickey out there and know it’s coming a little slower and have more confidence facing him.

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    • joser says:

      Which has zero to do with the fact that Dickey was choosing to throw way more fastballs to pitchers than he was to non-pitchers.

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  9. BurleighGrimes says:

    In 2011, R.A. Dickey threw his first of three one-hitters as a Met against the Phillies. The lone hit came off the bat of the hated Cole Hamels. For Mets fans, still starved for their first no-hitter at that point, it was nothing less than a sign that the universe was against the Mets.

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  10. rusty says:

    Could this literally just be “pitching to contact”, allowing him to throw fewer pitches per pitcher PA?

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    • rusty says:

      my bad, @eric, I posted my comment without reloading the page… although I guess we’re looking to compare pitches per pitcher PA vs Dickey against different numbers.

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  11. Jaker says:

    Great read. Send this to AA (though it won’t matter as much now)!

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  12. Chris says:

    Looks to me like a case of Dickey wanting to dispose of the hitting pitcher as quickly as possible, recognizing that most pitchers who are hitting won’t do too much damage to his fastball anyway; keeping his pitch count down (~ 91% of his fastballs are put in play) versus the risk of hard contact.

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  13. Radivel says:

    He was simply preparing for his inevitable transfer to the AL.

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  14. Erix says:

    Could one postulate that he wouldn’t be as impacted by a move to the AL as your standard pitcher based on this?

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  15. Mr Punch says:

    Perhaps Dickey’s thinking: “Pitchers can’t hit fastballs, but have a better shot against slow stuff – so I’ll go with my fastball.” Though the knuckler does move unpredictably, a big part of its effectiveness has to do with timing, as real hitters have to adjust when they face it.

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  16. Doug M says:

    If you have confidence in your stuff, and believe that you can mow-down the next batter anyway, there is little chance of giving up a home run, let the pitchers put the ball in play and get them out with fewest number of pitches.

    The counter to that would be that the pither should always minimize the number of potential base runners.

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  17. CB says:

    No one has suggested yet what I would think is an obvious explanation: knuckleballs are harder to catch and more often result in wild pitches, which could allow runners to advance regardless of the abilities (or inabilities) of the batter. Why risk that with a guy who sucks at hitting? Throw him fastballs and take your chances.

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    • joser says:

      That could be tested by looking at PAs with men on base vs PAs with bases empty, but a pitcher at the plate in that situation is going to be bunting anyway… and it’s probably better to throw a fastball to a player attempting a bunt, no?

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  18. AL East Martyr says:

    As others have mentioned, it would be interesting to note how many pitches he averaged vs. pitchers compared to non-pitchers and how that stacks up against league average.

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  19. Fatbot says:

    Everyone’s looking for the “obvious explanation” but won’t like it because it means admitting there’s a weakness in today’s hitting philosophy. The obvious reason Dickey throws more fastballs to pitchers is because the knuckleball doesn’t work as well against pitchers relative to how well it devastates “normal” hitters, so may as well just chuck fastballs since pitchers won’t do much damage with them.

    There’s a reason today’s batters strike out more than ever in history — the strike out has now been statistically proven to be “just another out”, so batters are taught to put the same swing in play no matter what the circumstances and don’t care if they strike out.

    Pitchers do not have this philosophy drilled into them, they are all about contact (even every practiced sac bunt is about contact). So when facing a knuckleball, their hitting approach is superior. They are still crappy hitters, but the approach negates Dickey’s strength, so fare better relatively.

    This was the case in past eras, which is why the knuckleballers of the past never won a Cy Young even with the list of HOF knuckleballers. They were still always a tick below the best “normal” pitchers because guys used to take striking out seriously and change their approach. But now, as Kevin Long said, “A lot of guys don’t want to change their swings enough to prepare for a knuckleballer.”

    Which makes sense, why risk tweaking your swing just for the one game against a gimmick? As Pete Rose put it, “I work for three weeks to get my swing down pat and Phil (Niekro) messes it up in one night.”

    Don’t get me wrong, Dickey has perfected his versions of it and would still be having good success with it; the only difference is that the weakness in today’s hitting philosophy has pushed Dickey’s success even beyond the greatness of those other HOFers and got him a Cy Young.

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