R.A. Dickey, who makes his debut tonight for the Toronto Blue Jays in the “crazy good” knuckleballing climate underneath the closed Rogers Centre roof, is so good that it’s got the Globe and Mail dabbling in Pitch F/X.
Think about that for a second.
Canada’s paper of record. A web-focused, iPad optimized, animation-heavy and, frankly, pretty cool foray into Sabermetric data. R.A. Dickey is that good.
And apparently he feels that good in his new digs, too– the controlled environment of which, in case you’ve forgotten, was supposedly a big reason that the Jays identified the NL Cy Young winner as a key trade target this winter. “Sunday afternoon, in a deserted stadium, Dickey threw a side session on the bump where he will pitch against the Cleveland Indians Tuesday night,” wrote Ken Fidlin of the Toronto Sun in the article foreshadowed by the tweet above. “He came away from the experience with barely concealed excitement.”
“There were whispers around the Blue Jays’ clubhouse Monday afternoon that Dickey’s knuckler was dancing and diving in extraordinary ways during his Sunday test drive,” he adds.
“It was almost like an out-of-body experience,” said Dickey on Monday afternoon. “Now, the reason I’m here is imminent. To get to stand on the mound and get comfortable with my surroundings, it’s a real treat. You don’t often get to go pitch off the game mound before you get on it for real. That was necessary for me to get comfortable. It was special. It left me anticipating a very fun night.
“Going off the knuckleballs I threw off the game mound, I was very encouraged. That’s all I’ll say. No predictions. It felt good coming out of my hand and that’s a good sign.”
Of course, we were given a hint that Dickey’s knuckler works especially well indoors last season, when he one-hit the Rays in Tampa– aka the time he did this:
Allen M. Nathan, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Illinois, in a fascinating post at his must-read site, The Physics Of Baseball, this week made use of this slow-motion GIF, plus data from wind tunnel experiments and from the “Trackman Doppler radar” system setup at Tropicana Field, to try and unravel why knuckleball movement is so breathtakingly erratic.
From the GIF, he writes, “we can track the flight of the MLB logo, which is clearly visible on the ball, to determine that the ball makes one complete revolution in 63 frames, so that the rotation speed is approximately 150 rpm. That is a very low rotation rate compared to the 1000-2000 rpm that is typical of normal pitches. But besides the low rate, the rotation axis is also unusual in that is appears to be a spiral, much like a bullet or forward pass in football. In other words, this pitch looks like a low-spin gyroball, making a total of about 1.5 revolutions.”
“The knuckleball may very well be a manifestion of what physicists would call Chaotic Dynamics,” he later submits, “whereby small changes in the initial conditions of the system (in our case, the spin rate) give rise to large changes in the outcome (in our case, the location at home plate).”
Professor Nathan knows this because, using the wind tunnel data, he plots the trajectory of The Will Rhymes Pitch against the expected movement of a pitch with just 1.0 revolutions– which crosses the plate just over the outside black, about eight inches from where it did with 1.5 rotations. “Perhaps we have stumbled onto something of very practical value,” he writes, “namely, the effectiveness of the gyro-rotation in producing multiple breaks in the trajectory. Did Dickey do this on purpose? Does he know something that we are only starting to discover?”
I’m gonna go with… uh… probably? Maybe?
OK, so maybe I have no idea– the article is terrific, nonetheless. And over at FanGraphs last week, Jeff Sullivan gave us something less physics-y, but no less terrific about tonight’s starting pitcher: the fact that he’s not as likely to miss getting to face weak-hitting pitchers in his move from the National to the American League as you might think.
Dickey is a knuckleballer, and the league’s only knuckleballer worth a damn. He became a regular with the Mets in 2010, and as a Met, he threw more than 600 innings. Over that span, Dickey faced 2,344 non-pitchers, and he struck out 19% of them, or at least 19% of the guys who didn’t sac bunt. Over the same span, Dickey faced 172 pitchers, and he struck out 17% of them, or at least 17% of the guys who didn’t sac bunt. In other words: with the Mets, R.A. Dickey struck out a lower rate of pitchers than position players.
That’s weird. National League starting pitchers average about 18% strikeouts. However, at the plate, they average about 38% strikeouts, so basically pitchers strike out twice as often as position players. Dickey has demonstrated some strikeout ability, and he’s not by any means a conventional pitcher, what with the knuckler and all. Intuitively, you’d think pitchers would have more trouble hitting Dickey, not less. At least, you wouldn’t expect the strikeout rates we observe.
It could simply come down to sample size, or perhaps the fact that– as we heard after he struggled in the World Baseball Classic against Mexico– that guys with slower bats have less trouble adjusting to the speed of his bread and butter pitch, but Sullivan looks into the Pitch F/X data and notices that “it seems like Dickey has been more aggressive coming after opposing pitchers.”
Between 2010-2012, when facing non-pitchers, Dickey threw 17% fastballs and 83% knuckleballs, according to PITCHf/x. However, between 2010-2012, when facing pitchers, Dickey threw 45% fastballs and 55% knuckleballs, according to PITCHf/x. That is…that is substantial.
I came upon an old post by Jeremy Greenhouse at the Baseball Analysts. Greenhouse was analyzing pitchers pitching to pitchers in September 2010, and what he found was that less than 5% of pitchers throw more fastballs to pitchers than to non-pitchers. Most pitchers feed other pitchers offspeed stuff, in an effort to confuse them since pitchers suck. Dickey is an exception, to an exceptional degree. He doesn’t just throw more fastballs to pitchers — he throws way more fastballs to pitchers.
And since Dickey won’t be facing pitchers this year… that might be slightly awesome.
He also won’t be facing his Jays teammates, which I’m sure is just fine with Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind, who we see stepping in to face him in an early spring live BP session filmed from a GoPro camera atop J.P. Arencibia’s helmet, thanks to Global News.
Global’s Rob Leth also spoke to Dickey, specifically about the knuckleball, and, as always, he makes for fascinating subject matter.
Oh mercy! DickeyTheBest.