The most dominant pitches of all time

Updated: June 24, 2012, 3:25 PM ET
By Buster Olney

CC Sabathia loves to hit and gets only a couple of chances to do so every season, and the baseball gods have been unfair to him today. Sabathia will be on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), but does the left-hander get to swing against some mediocre right-hander with a meaty fastball?


He gets to hit against R.A. Dickey, who has been throwing one of the most dominant pitches in baseball history during the past couple of months: a knuckleball that is unlike any knuckler thrown in the past. And Sabathia has a clear strategy for his at-bats. "If it's a knuckleball, I'm not swinging," he said, smiling. "Because I don't want to get hurt, and I don't want to look bad."

If Sabathia does eventually take a hack and looks a little awkward, well, he can take solace in the fact that the best and most experienced hitters have looked that bad against Dickey this year.

The Mets' right-hander explained on Saturday that he has focused on maintaining the elevation of his knuckler this year, which he has a better chance to do than knuckleballers who have preceded him, from Tim Wakefield to Phil Niekro to Charlie Hough to Steve Sparks, because he throws it harder -- about 80 mph or a little faster. The ball stays higher and gives Dickey a better chance at throwing strikes -- and with the dramatic late movement that comes with knuckleballs.

Catcher Josh Thole is convinced that Dickey's unusual knuckleball velocity comes from his legs in the way he drives off the mound. Knuckleballers such as Wakefield have tended to just step toward home plate, but tonight the New York Yankees will see Dickey push off the pitching rubber at them, and when he maintains the proper release point, the ball darts through the strike zone unpredictably.

Dickey's command has gotten so good, Thole said, that he and Dickey have actually focused on location. Typically, catchers working with a knuckleballer set up over the middle of the plate, ready to react like hockey goalies. But Thole and Dickey will talk before the game about whether they want to work inside or outside to a particular hitter, and Thole will slide toward a corner of the plate to set his target. "And I won't change [during the at-bat]," Thole said.

Eric Chavez has had some success against Dickey in the past, but he says that the numbers he generated were against Dickey's old knuckler, not the dominant pitch he's throwing this year. "There really is no approach," Chavez said. "You just swing and you hope you hit it."

The most interesting approach against Dickey this season, Thole believes, was described by Adam LaRoche, who told the catcher he treats his at-bats against Dickey like he's playing slow-pitch softball -- stepping into the swing, Happy Gilmore style.

If he hits it, well, it's probably going to be a home run. But he probably won't hit it. The late movement is so extraordinary that hitters don't usually make contact against Dickey these days.

Earlier this week, I sent an email to some evaluators asking them to note the most dominant pitches of all time -- like Mariano Rivera's cut fastball or Bruce Sutter's splitter, for example. Because right now, Dickey's pitch is a lot like those in their time: almost unhittable. In posing the question, I asked the evaluators to stretch their memories, and some had fun with this purely subjective (but interesting) question. The results: