Could R.A. Dickey become the greatest knuckleball pitcher ever?
It is easy to get lost in the story of R.A. Dickey—storyteller, survivor, unlikely star pitcher—and miss the fact that he is doing more than just pitching well. He's doing things that no knuckleball pitcher ever has.
Dickey pitched another 7 2/3 scoreless innings on Thursday afternoon in the Mets' 3-1 victory over the Washington Nationals. He's pitched to a 2.44 E.R.A. so far in 2012, and now has a 9-1 record.
The astounding thing about Dickey, who throws his knuckleball roughly three out of every four pitches, is how well he commands the pitch and how often he gets batters to swing and miss. He's doing the former as well as any practitioner of the knuckler has in decades, and he's accomplishing the latter better than any knuckleball pitcher ever.
Dickey's walk rate in 2012 is 2.2 per nine innings. That is exceptional for any pitcher, but for one who throws a pitch without a particular destination, it is extremely good. It isn't, however, particularly impressive by Dickey's own standards. His walk rate was 2.3 per nine in 2011, 2.2 per nine in 2011. So this is about normal for Dickey, though over his past five starts, he's checking in at 0.8 walks per nine innings, which is astonishing for even a conventional pitcher.
Compared to other knuckleball pitchers, Dickey is enjoying the best three-year stretch of knuckleball command the game has seen in a long, long time. Tim Wakefield's best three-year walk rate was three batters per nine innings. Charlie Hough's best stretch for walks, from 1983-1985, was 3.2 per nine.
Only Phil Niekro, who walked 1.9 batters per nine from 1967-1969, Eddie Cicotte, who walked 1.6 per nine from 1917-1919, and Wilbur Wood, who walked two batters per nine innings for four years, 1971-1974, have bested Dickey's three-year control with the pitch.
It is worth noting here that these three pitchers enjoyed significant success by walking so few while throwing a knuckleball. Phil Niekro led the National League in E.R.A. at 1.87 in 1967, and finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1969 to Tom Seaver. Eddie Cicotte, who is credited for inventing the pitch, led M.L.B. in victories in both 1917 and 1919, finishing atop the league in E.R.A. in 1967 with a 1.53 mark. And Wilbur Wood made three All Star teams, earning three top-five Cy Young Award finishes, in that 1971-1974 stretch.
So there is precedent for pitchers who command a knuckleball this well utterly dominating the competition. It makes sense. Knuckleball pitchers have proven to induce worse contact from hitters, so combine that with keeping hitters off base, and the scoreless innings naturally follow. Still, lesser contact can still lead to hits and runs. Strikeouts, however, eliminate the possibility altogether. They are simply harder to come by when throwing that such slow pitches—Dickey's pitches vary in speed, but average about 77 miles per hour, and sometimes get down around 60.
So what Dickey is doing that no one has while throwing the knuckleball is striking out hitters at an elite rate.
Take those same periods from Niekro, Ciccotte and Wood. Their strikeout rates: 5.6 per nine, 3.6 per nine and 5.0 per nine, respectively. Dickey, since 2010, is striking out 6.1 per nine. That, by itself, is breaking new ground.
But it is in 2012 when he's really setting himself apart from his historical peers. His strikeout rate in 2012 is 8.7 per nine, which is among the league leaders. Over his past five starts, while he's been walking 0.8 batters per nine innings, his strikeout rate is 11.3 per nine.
Of the great knuckleballers, no one has approached this rate of striking hitters out. Wakefield's best season was 7.9 per nine. Charlie Hough's best was 7.0 per nine. Niekro's best was 7.1 per nine.
It's hard to believe Dickey can sustain those results. But if he comes close, he'll post the greatest single season of any knuckleball pitcher ever.