There is nothing in sport like a knuckleball pitcher.
I mean, the fat goalie theory doesn't work in hockey. You don't see 6-foot-10 forwards in the World Cup who stand near the goal to head in corner kicks. Three-point specialists in the NBA still have to defend and dribble. I suppose you can argue that kickers and punters in football are unique, but that's still a specialized and routine part of the game; every team has kickers and punters.
Knuckleball pitchers? As my colleague Christina Kahrl points out, throwing a knuckleball is a signature skill. You see a guy throwing a knuckler, and you know it, and you viscerally know this pitcher is different from everybody else. Who else is like that? Rick Barry shot his free throws "granny" style and maybe the last straight-on kicker in the NFL was a bit of novelty and certainly fat old George Foreman was a curiosity at first until he actually won ...
But R.A. Dickey? The man is a true iconoclast, the only knuckleball pitcher remaining in the major leagues, maybe the last one we'll see for a long time. But he's not just a novelty act, no longer a fringe pitcher fighting for a spot on some team's roster. He's been an underrated starter the past two season, and, right now, he's as good as any pitcher in baseball.
On Wednesday, he absolutely dominated the Tampa Bay Rays in the New York Mets' 9-1 victory. He ran his scoreless streak to 32.2 innings until an error and two passed balls led to an unearned run in the bottom of the ninth. He allowed just one hit, an infield trickler that David Wright failed to come up with. He struck out 12. The Rays flailed away and hit only a couple balls hard. Dickey -- and not Tom Seaver or Dwight Gooden or Jerry Koosman or Johan Santana -- holds the Mets' record for most consecutive scoreless innings in franchise history.
Dickey throws his knuckleball harder than Tim Wakefield or Phil Niekro, pumping it up to 80-81 mph. And when you're throwing it with precision like Dickey has recently -- he has 58 strikeouts and just four walks over his past six starts -- it's like trying to guard Kevin Durant with Spud Webb.
In his postgame interview on the Mets' TV broadcast, Dickey explained his philosophy in going up against David Price. "First and foremost, you knew it was going to be a dogfight. ... You don't feel like you're going to be able to make many mistakes," he said. "What I try to do is take it one swing at a time. If they take a poor swing, I try to repeat that pitch, which is difficult to do with a knuckleball."
As Bobby Ojeda pointed out on the Mets' postgame show, what has made Dickey so effective of late is that hard, high knuckler. It doesn't move as much as a more traditional, fluttering knuckleball, but it moves late, usually away from a batter, making it difficult to lock in on. Importantly, he throws it for strikes. With 90 strikeouts and 19 walks, he has a SO/BB ratio of 4.63. Wakefield's career-best ratio was 2.63. Charlie Hough's was 2.23. Niekro's was 3.39, with a career rate of 1.85.
Dickey is 10-1 with a 2.20 ERA. He's third in the majors in ERA, tied for third in innings pitched, fourth in WHIP. He has been let go by the Rangers, Brewers, Twins, Mariners and Twins (again). Now he's the ace of the surprising Mets, a possible All-Star starter and, who knows, maybe a Cy Young contender.
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There used to be more knuckleball pitchers in the major leagues. The 1944-45 Washington Senators actually had four knuckleballers in their rotation. Hoyt Wilhelm became a Hall of Fame reliever throwing the knuckleball and many pitchers in the '50s and '60s continued to use the pitch as a secondary offering.
But the pitch slowly died out. Baseball people, of course, don't fully trust the knuckleball. For a time, there seemed to be bias against knuckleball starters, as guys such as Wilbur Wood and Hough pitched in relief before becoming successful starters. However, maybe the main reason for the demise of the pitch (besides the fact that it's hard to throw, of course) is that baseball, like society, has become more homogenized.
If you've seen movies or clips of pitches from the '30s and '40s and even into the '70s, you'll see all different sorts of deliveries and styles, from guys using madcap windmill windups to Juan Marichal's leg kick above his head to Bob Gibson flailing wildly off the mound to Mark Fidrych talking to the baseball and crazily running around after a victory shaking hands with teammates, umpires and policemen.
Now? Conformity is the rule. Teach the same delivery. Say the right things. Don't show a bit of personality outside the norm or you'll be torn apart by the media. Show emotion? Don't get beyond a smile and a high-five or home-plate dance (but only on a game-winning home run). I just picked up a book the other day, the paperback version of Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Ride," about baseball in the '70s. I'm not saying baseball itself was better then (I believe the quality of play is superior now), but in some ways it was more interesting. Or, at least, maybe a little more mysterious and fun.
Could you imagine Mark Fidrych today? Would he be celebrated for his quirkiness or ridiculed? More likely, he'd get it beaten out of him in Class A.
R.A. Dickey, however, is our resident dissident of 2012, I guess. A singular man. Keep knuckling, R.A., keep on.
PHOTO OF THE DAY