R.A. Dickey’s Velocity

Esteemed colleagues Dave Cameron and Carson Cistulli are correct — it’s about location and movement when it comes to R.A. Dickey‘s excellent work so far this year. Certainly, a knuckleball pitcher isn’t blowing it by the batters he faces.

That doesn’t mean that velocity doesn’t have a lot to do with why Dickey’s been good this year — and why he might be able to keep it up.

There have been many knuckleball pitchers before, but none has ever finished higher than third in the Cy Young voting before. Dickey could break that glass ceiling this year — and it might be because of something he does differently from all the knuckleballers that came before him. R.A. Dickey throws his knuckleball fast. He throws some his knuckleballs (79+ mph) faster than Tim Wakefield threw his fastball (74.1 mph career average).

It’s a little strange that the hardest-throwing knuckleball pitcher of this era has found the most success, though. As our favorite physics professor Alan Nathan found, more velocity means less movement for the knuckleball:

Whereas Wakefield throws at a very consistent 66-67 mph, Dickey throw at two speeds: one in the 73-75 mph range, the other in the 75-80 mph range. The plot shows that the movement on the knuckleball is as random in magnitude as it is in direction. Moreover, the maximum movement appears to decrease with increasing speed.

Whet Moser at ChicagoMag.com re-published the following plot in which Nathan showed the phenomenon graphically.

What might be most amazing about R.A. Dickey is that he has as many as three distinct knuckleballs, though. Look at this plot of his knuckleball velocities from 2010, and you start to see some clusters.

There’s at least two distinct groupings — one around 73-74 mph, and one around 77-78 mph — but there might even be a third. Look at how many knuckleballs he throws above 80 mph. That’s pretty different from 77 mph. And, as Dickey has evolved, those velocity clusters have changed. Check out 2011:

Now the three clusters are more defined. Slow-mo at 74 mph, regular speed at 77 mph, and a fast knuckler around 79 mph. Of course, he still threw the odd super-slow-mo knucklers, but you can see where he settled in most days. You might notice something about the general graph in 2011, though. Try looking at this year’s graph, and the difference should come into focus.

It really looks like R.A Dickey is throwing his knuckleball faster this year. Or, to say it more correctly, it looks like R.A. Dickey is favoring his fast knuckler more this year. His PITCHf/x page tells us his average knuckler has gone up to 77 mph this year from 76 mph, but the graphs tell the story of how he got there better. He still throws his two or three knucklers, but he’s throwing the fast one more this year. And compare how often he throws a 74 mph knuckleball this year to how often he did so in 2010. There’s an evolution here.

Some of it might have to do with the situations involved. From the beginning of his stretch of dominance, there’s been evidence that he uses different knuckleballs in different counts. And even in his last game, you could see that he was using the harder, straighter knuckleball when he needed strikes. But these velocity graphs don’t know counts. They show that regardless of count, Dickey is focusing on the faster knuckleball.

Somehow, Dickey is using less movement and more velocity to make his knuckleball more effective. He’s also throwing his fastball less than ever (13.6% this year, 22.4% in 2011 and 16.2% in 2010). It’s a strange mix of less fastball gas and more gas on the knuckler, but it’s working. His swinging strike rate this year (12.7%) is far and away better than his career number (8.4%), and obviously the rest of his numbers are looking pretty positive.

It’s not your traditional approach — nothing about this knuckleball pitcher is — but it’s clear that gas somehow powers this machine. Next time you see Dickey pitch, watch the radar gun. The numbers won’t look impressive, but they might tell you an interesting story.

Per reader request and with Chad Young‘s help, I’ve combined all three graphs into one and used a percent of the total instead of a pure count. I think you’ll clearly see the biggest difference is in the 72-74 mph range:

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

46 Responses to “R.A. Dickey’s Velocity”

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  1. Mark says:

    “There have been many knuckleball pitchers before, but none has ever finished higher than third in the Cy Young voting before. Dickey looks like he will break that glass ceiling this year ”

    Really, you are already giving Dickey a top 2 finish in the Cy Young this year. Dude it’s June.

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    • Brian says:

      Agreed that it’s way too early to talk about Cy Young. But he’s got a good shot of being the starter of the all-star game, which is pretty cool.

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    • Craig Glaser says:

      Well, Vegas currently has Dickey as the favorite to be the NL Cy Young winner. I don’t agree (he’s far too difficult to project to name him the favorite) but I don’t think it’s a huge crime to say that he could finish in the top 2.

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    • BlackOps says:

      Really, are you ignoring facts. Dude he leads the league in wins, ERA, 2nd in strikeouts and innings pitched, 3rd in BAA, 5th in K/BB.

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      • Mark says:

        I have no issues with saying he “could” finish in the top 2 but that’s a big difference from saying he will. I would think if they voted now he would win it.

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    • Jeremy says:

      “Dickey could break that glass ceiling this year.”

      ‘Could,’ not ‘will.’ Very big difference.

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  2. Nathan says:

    I wonder if even though there is less movement the higher the velocity of the pitch, iif it doesn’t present some sort of visual difficulty for the batter to gauge the velocity since there isn’t any rotation.

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    • mcbrown says:

      Along the same lines, I wonder if the difficulty in hitting a knuckleball comes less from the magnitude of movement than the unpredictability of the direction of movement. If the latter, higher velocity could possibly make it harder to hit even with reduced movement, simply because it gives the batter less time to recognize how the ball is moving as it nears the plate.

      I guess the truth is that despite the explosion in pitch-level data we still just don’t know enough about the knuckleball to draw any meaningful conclusions.

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  3. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    His 13K performance featured a strike 3 on a knuckler that didn’t even top 60. It’s the complete unpredictability of location, movement, AND velocity which makes Dickey truly impressive this year. He’s playing confuse-a-batter out there every time using every available trick, and he’s winning big.

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  4. Adam says:

    This article would have been a lot easier to read if the three graphs all had the same X-axis scale. Otherwise I can’t really compare the difference without remapping them in my head. Otherwise, very very interesting. Thanks.

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    • fresheee says:

      Concur! I’ll add that a consistent Y-axis would help as well.

      Still, solid read. The next time I see Dickey pitch will be the next time he pitches. His last three starts have been very fun to see. I’m thinking about getting mlb tv just to follow his season (my team’s in market, so I haven’t been able to justify it yet).

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      ask and you receive. I think that last one, with the blue line lowest in a percentage look, shows this effect the best. Thanks for pointing this out, still trying to get better at Excel and visualizations.

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  5. Matt says:

    Thank you sharing this. But, the effects would be more clear if the dimension of the X and Y axis on the “Knuckler Velocity” graphs were even….and if you overlaid the 2011 and 2012 distributions!

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    • rz says:

      If the axis were the same on all three graphs, the graphs would actually look pretty similar. The author’s distortion of the images supports his argument.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        rz I obviously disagree. Look at 74 MPH knuckleballs. I probably should have overlaid, but I’m not the whizziest whiz at excel. But the count determined the axis, and you can see that not only are there no super-slow-mo knucklers so far this year, but he’s used the 74 MPH knuckleballs less.

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      • steex says:

        You can manually select the range of the axis in Excel, though, so the count didn’t have to determine the axis. It would be helpful to have the same scale on all three graphs even if that meant chopping off some outlying data that is insignificant to the point under discussion.

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  6. JKB says:

    Eno, nice work, I was at the Rays/Mets game last week and Dickey’s knuckler was completely mystifying the Rays, who I remember had a good track record against Wakefield in his last few years.

    You make a great case for Dickey’s increased Velocity over the past three years, but you don’t present evidence for “less Movement” over the past three year, in Dickey’s case at least.

    With the information presented above, I could just as easily argue that one of the reasons that Dickey is doing so well this year is that he has been able to increase his velocity without significantly impacting the movement on his knuckleball.

    Is there any way to test that hypothesis? Or is the data Dickey’s knuckleball movement not available from prior years?

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Follow the links. Those guys did that work, so I tried to focus on the velocity.

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      • JKB says:

        The links that mention movement pretty much focus on Dickey’s movement on pitches this year, in particular the recent game against Baltimore.

        I haven’t seen any evidence yet that his movement is going down any with the uptick in speed. The reason that his average speed is up this year is that he is throwing fewer pitches in the 72-74 MPH range.

        Unless Dickey’s 72-74 MPH pitches were the pitches with the most movement historically, I don’t see any reason to expect his average pitch movement to decrease significantly this year.

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  7. Alan Nathan says:

    I have been spending lots of time recently looking at RA’s pitches from the 2010-2012 seasons, courtesy of Harry Pavlidis who supplied the PITCHf/x data for me. I have tried to quantify, among other things, the dependence of movement on speed. I am finding that the mean movement is pretty flat at around 10″ in the 70-75 mph range, then gradually decreases to about 8.5″ over the range 75-83 mph. For the PITCHf/x experts, the total movement is sqrt(pfx_x^2+pfx_z^2).

    My own view is that Dickey effectiveness is due not only to the random direction of the movement but to his ability to mix in different speeds. So, even with less movement at the higher speed, the fact that the speed is different makes the batter’s life difficult in and of itself.

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    • JKB says:

      I wish I would have read your post before replying above. Is there an ideal speed for Dickey’s pitch movement (like 72 MPH) or is it pretty consistent in the 70-75 MPH range?

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  8. Chris says:

    I think Dickey’s season this year is a perfect illustrative example of overkill with the numbers (credit to Keith Hernandez who makes this point all the time) – anyone who has watched Dickey the last three years can notice four major changes beginning after his start in Atlanta earlier this year:
    1) He is getting WAY more borderline called strikes – that’s the biggest difference by far.
    2) He is throwing his fastball less and his “hard” knuckler more often, and has become a master at changing speeds on the pitch – he is also “jamming” LH batters with the knuckler, especially on two-strike counts. But throwing the fastball less is more a product of consistently getting ahead and staying ahead in the count.
    3) Batters are having a much more difficult time recognizing which knucklers are in or out of the strike zone (see # 1) – kinda reminds me of Glavine in his prime when RH batters would consistently swing at pitches 9 inches off the outside corner ’cause they knew it would be a called strike.
    4) He is throwing a different “rising” type of knuckler that appears to have upward movement that batters are really struggling with – Dickey has acknowledged this new pitch in interviews.

    He is no doubt benefitting from his evolving reputation as a pitcher who throws strikes, and just like Maddux and Glavine is taking full advantage of it. Congrats to R.A. on a dominating season to this point!

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  9. Choo says:

    Joe Niekro threw a hard knuckle. Reportedly 77-83 mph, and sometimes mid-80’s. While looking for the exact velo, I came across:

    Joe Niekro’s Top 10 Excuses – August 6, 1987 – David Letterman Show

    10. The emory board is a new super-grip popsicle stick.
    9. I only used it to apply Vaseline to the ball.
    8. I needed it to scrape dried wads of chewing tobacco off the bullpen telephone.
    7. Delicate double-knit uniforms easily snagged on rough nails.
    6. I was using it to make a statue of commissioner Ueberroth.
    5. I used it as a bookmark for my dugout copy of Shirley MacLaine’s autobiography.
    4. Rules of fair play are for saps and squares.
    3. I’ve been hypnotized by evil dogs.
    2. It was all William Casey’s idea.
    1. I like to give pedicures to ballboys.

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  10. wily mo says:

    you guys only have one dickey article today? not getting it done

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  11. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    Although I am not a Mets fan, I love to watch knucklers pitch, so I am a Dickey fan. I feel, it is far and away the coolest pitch in baseball!!! 100 mph fastballs are fun to watch but a guy swinging way early or nowhere near close on a knuckler is even more fun to see for me!

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  12. Jon L. says:

    There’s all this talk in the article of three clusters, but the graphs I see above suggest that Dickey’s throwing lots of pitches at all the varying speeds between those “clusters” as well. If you just claimed that Dickey generally varies speeds between 73 and 80 mph – sometimes throwing a bit harder, sometimes a lot softer – it would match my interpretation of the data better than the claim than there are three clusters.

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    • Simon Orr says:

      My PhD was all about fitting gaussians to noisy graphs, if I tried to claim the above could clearly be fit to three Gaussians my supervisor would have asked me to kindly return to my analysis package (or words to that effect).

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Perhaps I saw what I wanted to see. Past research has suggested (and I linked to it) that once you add in movement to the velocity, he has two knucklers and a superslowmo, which he used rarely in 2010 and 2011 and hasn’t used much this year.

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  13. Fatbot says:

    The reaching to give any legitimacy to Dickey’s nice little run is hilarious. The knuckle is a gimmick with properties and statistical outcome completely known by now. There are three reasons why Dickey is making it seem like he’s different:

    1. As pointed out above, some generous umpire love;
    2. As pointed out by me elsewhere, 2012 the highest strikeout rate in MLB history — batters are taking awful approaches to hitting him; and
    3. An infinite amount of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually type William Shakesphere’s works in correct order.

    Just sit back and enjoy it for what it is — a fun, amazing, lucky ride for a nice guy who deserves it. But he will finish with an ERA of around 3.90. Of course then I’m sure fangraphs will post how it’s not his fault because his xFIP or something.

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  14. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Most MLB hitters can time a great fastball. A great knuckleball is different, even if you know it’s coming you still can’t hit it.

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  15. Samuel says:

    What I think Dickey’s success has revealed is how vulnerable even major league hitters are to unpredictability. The hitters simply don’t know what to expect in terms of location, movement or velocity when Dickey delivers. And if the hard knuckler allows Dickey to throw more strikes and relatively less time to adjust the ‘knuckling’ of the ball, that puts the hitters backs against the wall even more.

    What will be interesting to see is if Dickey does indeed have patterns in velocity and location, if not movement, particularly on certain counts, whether any hitters are able to make an adjustment and feel more confident in anticipating where and how soon to swing.

    Because for the moment most of them look totally clueless. Merely reacting without being able to anticipate.

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  16. Eddie says:

    His velocity and prowess on the mound can not be questioned this year yet his honesty in this book can. I personally think that he is just using the subject of mokestation which i think isnt true to make some cash and to get his wife’s forgiveness and i wrote why that is right here http://baseballpitboss.com/2012/06/is-r-a-dickey-dick-n-ing-baseball-fans-around-with-his-new-tell-all-book/

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    • vivalajeter says:

      You’ll do anything for website hits, huh? What a douche.

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    • Dandy Salderson says:

      Seriously, can the mods delete – at least – the link?

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    • SRT120 says:

      “First of all Dickey has been in the league for 10 years now and up until this season he has been terrible”

      WRONG. He’s actually been quality since 2010. I thought this site was for the eggheads who know enough to look past wins and losses

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  17. Ryan says:

    While, there is less overall movement on Dickey’s harder thrown knuckleballs, it looks like most of the movement comes right as the knuckleball goes over the plate. So, overall it’s easier for Dickey to locate the 79+ knucklers since it comes out of his hand more straight versus his low seventies knuckler which sometimes starts to flutter the second it leaves his hand.

    The game plan versus most knuckleball throwers was simply to make him throw strikes. Then, if it’s low let it go, if it’s high let it fly. Dickey has turned that theory on it’s head due to his ability to throw strikes and his harder thrown knuckleballs having a late elevating movement.

    I would give RA Dickey a better chance than almost anyone else at finishing in the top 3 for Cy Young votes for three reasons. Number one, he plays in a very, very pitcher friendly park. Number two, Dickey never gets worn out. So, he never has to turn the game over to the Mets horrible pen and while a lot of the other Cy Young candidates begin to wear down this season he will be floating along. This is Lynn’s first year as a starter so I imagine there is some sort of innings limit on him. McDonald threw 170 last year which was way more than his previous career high of 64IP. I’m not sure if there will be an innings limit on him or not. Then, Strasburg definitely has an innings cap. Plus, with Beachey being done for the year I would have to place Cain, Dickey, Kershaw, and Greinke as the top four contenders. Finally, number three is that Dickey’s knuckleball is only going to get more nasty as it gets more hot and humid.

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  18. musclemenace says:

    he’s cy young material. i don’t see the harm in making that projection this early. it’s a projection. whether this early or not, either case can prove wrong. but i think it’s a fair prediction. he’s playing lights out. if he keeps it up… why not?

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  19. Jack Strawb says:

    “But these velocity graphs don’t know counts. They show that regardless of count, Dickey is focusing on the faster knuckleball.”

    Know they don’t. Dickey could simply be involved in more counts where he (or his catcher) feels the need to throw strikes.

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  20. Matt says:

    Listen to Eno he is right

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  21. Spit Ball says:

    Phil Neikro finished second in NL Cy Young voting in 1969.

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  22. Paul Jannis says:

    MY nephew is a professional pitcher who throws a knuckleball 84 mph and can not get anyone to even look at him.

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