Saturday, August 14, 2010
Mets' Dickey keeps long streak alive
As good as R.A. Dickey has been this season, he's not been good enough to save the Mets.
But his one-hitter Friday night does suggest, in sharp relief, that Dickey has single-handedly saved a streak that stretches back to (at least) the 1930s.
In 1938, 29-year-old knuckleballer Dutch Leonard joined the Washington Senators and went 12-15 with a 3.43 ERA, fourth best in the American League. Leonard would eventually win 191 games, pitching (as the best knuckleballers do) into his middle 40s.*
* Some of you might wonder why I'm beginning with Dutch Leonard in the 1930s, rather than with Hall of Famer Jesse Haines or near-Hall of Famer Freddie Fitzsimmons in the 1920s. Both pitchers were excellent, and both were widely known as knuckleball pitchers. I'm not starting with them because both seem to have thrown pitches that we would describe as knuckle-curveballs rather than true knuckleballs.
Why do I bring Leonard up? Because the same night Dickey threw a one-hitter, fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield also gave up just one hit ... but he faced just one hitter, and the one hit was a walkoff home run. On the evening of August 13, 2010, the torch was passed (however unwillingly).
Which torch? For some years, Wakefield was the only effective knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues. Dutch Leonard began a long streak -- a streak of seasons in which at least one good knuckleball pitcher was working in the major leagues -- and Wakefield has, for some years, kept it going all by himself.
Here's the (short) list of knuckleballers who have kept the streak alive:
1938-1952: Dutch Leonard
1952-1970: Hoyt Wilhelm
1967-1986: Phil Niekro
1986-1998: Tom Candiotti
1995-2009: Tim Wakefield
2010-201?: R.A. Dickey
The key figures here are Wilhelm and Wakefield.
If Phil Niekro hadn't come along and put together his Hall of Fame career, his years would still have been covered by the likes of Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough, and Phil's little brother. Similarly, Hough's career overlapped with Wakefield's.
But without Wilhelm and Kid '66, there would be significant gaps in the 1950s and the 2000s. Between Dutch Leonard in 1952 and Hal "Skinny" Brown (1956-1964), the only effective non-Wilhelm knuckleballer was Marion Fricano ... and Fricano was effective in just one season (1953). Between Candiotti in 1998 and R.A. Dickey in 2010, the only effective non-Wakefield knuckleballer was Steve Sparks ... and his last good season was 2001 (when he led the majors with eight complete games!).
We knew Wakefield couldn't pitch forever. Not so long ago, I had high hopes for the latest knuckleballing Charlies, Zink and Haeger. But while both are still young by knuckleballer standards, both also have seemed completely lost, unable to throw their mysterious pitches with any sort of precision at all.
Maybe Wakefield will come back strong next year. And maybe Dickey will regress next year. But I think there's a pretty good chance that we've got a sixth name for our list.