The emergence of R.A. Dickey as an ace-level pitcher made for one of the best stories in baseball. The 37-year-old knuckleballer had started to show promising signs in 2010, but everything finally came together last year. Six seasons after he started tinkering with the pitch, Dickey seemed to finally master the knuckleball. He was rewarded with the Cy Young award, and finished first overall in Zach Sanders’ pitcher rankings. While Dickey’s 2012 performance deserves to be celebrated, he actually comes with some risk.
One of the biggest things that could hold Dickey back next season is his age. Dickey will be 38-years-old next season, an age where most pitchers are on their way out of the league, not coming off award-winning performances. The other is the fact that his best pitch is the knuckleball. So few pitchers have shown the ability to master the pitch, so there has to be at least a bit of uncertainty with Dickey. Can he continue to display the strides he made with the knuckler last year, when he had a career-high strikeout rate and a career-low walk rate?
At the same time, though, his ability to throw the knuckleball should actually offset his old age. Most pitchers who throw the knuckleball typically age very well, pitching well into their 40s. With Dickey, age may not be something to worry about. Most knuckleball pitchers performed quite well during their age-38 seasons.
The chart shows the performance of all knuckleball pitchers who threw at least 150 innings during their age-38 seasons. For the most part, the results are pretty promising. Only Joe Niekro and Tom Candiotti finished with ERAs higher than league-average. Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield were just under league-average, and the top three guys were far below the league-average. They all held up relative well past their age-38 seasons, too. All eight of these pitchers still managed to eclipse 150 innings during their age-40 seasons. Knuckleball pitchers do seem to age at a much slower rate than normal pitchers.
The biggest question facing Dickey is whether he can continue to display the gains he saw on his knuckleball last year. Outside of his age, there was nothing that really screamed “fluke” about his performance. Dickey had a 25.1 pitch value on the knuckleball, easily the best figure of his career. Players made less contact against him, and whiffed much more frequently. Expecting him to win another Cy Young would be asking a lot, but it does seem like he made strides last year.
For Dickey, that likely means that age really shouldn’t play a huge factor in how he will perform going forward. Normal aging patterns do not apply for knuckleball pitchers. Based on the performances of other knuckleballers, Dickey should remain effective next year. Dickey will likely be one of the top pitchers drafted in fantasy leagues. Don’t let the advanced age, and late breakout scare you, Dickey should continue to defy expectations.