The Dominant R.A. Dickey

R.A. Dickey has been incredible for the New York Mets. Armed with a knuckleball that dances like Fred Astaire, Dickey made the Baltimore Orioles looks absolutely foolish last night, pitching his second straight one-hitter shutout as part of his team’s 5-0 victory. The Dickster struck out a career-high baker’s dozen while walking just two batters and inducing 17 swinging strikes.

Dickey is the first pitcher to throw back-to-back one-hitters since a certain fella with the Toronto Blue Jays named Dave Stieb did it back in 1988. He’s the first National League pitcher to do it since Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves back in 1944.

Dickey’s amazingness extends beyond just his last couple of starts, too. Over his last five starts, he hasn’t allowed a single earned run, while striking out 52 and walking five of the 142 batters he’s faced over 41 2/3 innings. Unsurprisingly, R.A. Dickey currently leads the National League in wins, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP, shutouts and complete games.

But that’s not the whole story. He also leads all Major League starters in swinging strikes from opponents, and in the number of swings on his pitches outside of the zone. Considering his use of the knuckleball, that’s hardly surprising, but what is surprising is the velocity, and the control over the velocity that Dickey exerts. When most of us think of knuckleballs, we think of Tim Wakefield’s slow drifter.

However, Wakefield was never able to collect as many swinging strikes or induce as many swings at pitches outside of the strike zone. And that’s because Dickey’s knuckler is not Wakefield’s. It comes at hitters more than ten miles per hour faster at a speed that resembles Jamie Moyer’s best fastball. It moves a little less, but leaves the batter with even less time to have any clue as to what’s going on.

And, as shows us, Dickey controls the velocity, pitching harder knucklers with less movement in two strike situations.

When most of us think of a knuckleball, we tend to imagine that it has a life of its own, and could float anywhere after it leaves the pitcher’s hand. And while there’s some truth to the lack of pinpoint control a knuckleballer has with his pitch, Dickey has shown a tremendous ability to exert control, not only over the velocity of his knuckleball, but also location.

We can see this by comparing location charts for the knuckleball in certain count situations. For example, Dickey often throws those higher velocity knuckle balls up in the zone when he has two strikes and a pitch or two to work with, much like we’d see a pitcher with a high velocity fastball do in a similar situation.

Here’s his knuckleball location with zero balls and two strikes:

And here it is with one ball and two strikes:

Compare this to how he pitches his knuckleball on those rare occasions when Dickey falls behind in the count to a batter. Here he is at one ball and no strikes:

And at two balls and zero strikes:

This suggests to me that Dickey is indeed exerting control over his knuckleball, and may have in fact found something of a sweet spot in terms of movement and velocity that allows him to do things like this:

In baseball, we’re often presented with such an overwhelming amount of data from past events, that unique moments are something of a rarity. However, Dickey’s dominance with a knuckleball is something new to baseball, and it’s incredibly exciting to witness. No pitcher, armed mainly with a knuckleball has been able to do what Dickey has done to date, and it’s not at all unreasonable to think that if he can continue this, he’ll become the first primary knuckleballer to win a Cy Young award.