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The Knuckleball

In news more consequential to me than anything in politics…

In the past month a documentary, “Knuckleball [1],” was released. You can find it on iTunes and in some theaters.  I recommend it. Here is the trailer:

The film has many fascinating little scenes. I especially liked how it documents the fraternity of knucklers [2]; how Charlie Hough, Phil Neikro, and the modern flutter-pitchers talk to each other, coach each other, and commiserate.

In the movie’s telling, the knuckleball is a mystery: sometimes it is unhittable, at others it is the easiest pitch to hit. Nobody in the big leagues “trusts” a knuckleballer. Hitters find it “spooky” the way the ball moves through the air without rolling. No pitcher can master it, they must surrender to it. For good and ill.

I feel bad for the filmmakers because they should have waited one more year. Their film’s narrative thread is Tim Wakefield’s chase for 200 wins and his retirement last year. There is a nod to him passing on the torch and tradition to R.A. Dickey. They do very well with this material. But they went to print before the big story broke.

This afternoon Mets knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey will attempt to win his 20th game this year in what has turned into a dismal season for the Mets. With a solid performance today he will likely secure the Cy Young Award.

Currently he has a 2.66 ERA (1st in the NL), he has 209 strikeouts (2nd) and a 1.04 WHIP (tied 1st among starters).

This isn’t the old knuckleball. This is a revelation. No knuckleballer has ever had a year like this. Because the pitch floats and darts, knuckleballers typically have low-strikeout rates and high walk rates. Dickey throws this pitch for strikes, reliably. He can also throw the pitch much harder than most of his predecessors. His 80 mph knuckleball doesn’t flutter, it zips. He says it is more like a wasp than a butterfly.

I’m a Met fan, but I’m a lunatic on Dickey. For those that don’t know, Dickey is a 37-year old who was once a washed up bum of a conventional pitcher. Mysteriously, he has no ulnar collateral ligament. He spent a decade languishing in the minors and was the first person cut when he arrived at Mets training camp a few years ago. Now he is the best pitcher in the National League. Everything except that last bit is wonderfully described in on one of the most excellent books about baseball in years, Wherever I Wind Up [3].

Because there are thousands of games a year and baseball has over a century of history, very often baseball commentators search for absurd novelties. “No batter has ever done this or that on consecutive these while doing this other thing.” The qualifications pile up into meaninglessness. They serve only to emphasize that these things happen all the time.

But Dickey has done something new in baseball. You don’t need qualifications to see it, you don’t need to beat it to death with description. If you watched him pitch this year, you saw something that has never been done before. The knuckleball is still spooky, but now only for the batter. It is beautiful.

UPDATE: R.A. Dickey got his 20th win giving up 3 earned runs, but also collecting 13Ks through 8.2 innings. He will likely make one more start before the end of the season.

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#1 Comment By Tom S On September 27, 2012 @ 11:34 am

Wilbur Wood in 1971: 22-13, 1.91 ERA, 210 strikeouts, WHIP of 1.00.

#2 Comment By Michael Brendan Dougherty On September 27, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

Yes, Tom, that is the most impressive knuckleball season ever before this one.

Very different era though. And those (2-3) extra wins and those 8 extra strikeouts took Wood an extra 114 innings to produce. That seems significant. If you gave Dickey another 114 innings, he’d probably produce more than 8 extra total strikeouts and 1-3 wins. Wood was also pitching on a team that played nearly .500 ball. Dickey is pitching on a much worse team.

Wood’s S/O – 9 was in the mid 5’s. Dickey’s is 8.6.

Dickey’s having a remarkably better season compared to his peers, and a remarkably different season compared to other knuckleballers.

#3 Comment By MattSwartz On September 27, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

My takeaway from the knuckleball phenomena is that institutions don’t like to risk looking foolish. I’m sure there are more than two people in the country who can do this already, or could learn reasonably quickly, but baseball guys don’t like looking foolish, so it’s not a thing.

Low-scoring baseball games are the most entertaining ones, no question about it, because pitcher is the most interesting position in baseball, if not sports in general.

If they are readily available, I would stock my pitching staff with two of these guys, and then spend a bunch more money on a fireballing closer like Ardolis Chapman. Why isn’t this common?

#4 Comment By Michael Brendan Dougherty On September 27, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

You should see the documentary Matt. It basically explains that the psychology of people who become professional athletes is to dominate with their best stuff: hard, fast, etc.

The knuckleball mentality is a complete 180 from that. And most pitchers don’t become knuckleballers until they realize it is their only possible way of staying in baseball. That was true for both Wakefield and Dickey. Niekro too.

#5 Comment By MattSwartz On September 27, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

I’ll have to. I guess that what you’re saying about the counter-intuitiveness of it answers the other question I had, too, which was why more pitchers don’t just add it in as a one-off thing and mix them with the fastballs and curves.

If this isn’t worth a netflix envelope, then almost nothing would be. The fact that Dickey is now tied for winningest pitcher in the Majors adds to the story as well!

#6 Comment By Patrick On September 27, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

Speaking of dumb baseball stats, I might lay down a record number of bunts in a row and see if this 37-year old geezer can field them. Hey; with the bottom of some of these atrocious N.L. batting orders and R.A. Dickey’s .930 fielding percentage…I’ll bet you can steal off of an 80-mph knucklebal from a rightie, too. Man, one or two good bunts could get you to the top of the order and a big inning.

And that is why I’m typing on the Internet instead of managing a baseball team, haha.

#7 Comment By Tom S On September 27, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

Might have a tough time bunting a knuckleball…

#8 Comment By Michael Brendan Dougherty On September 28, 2012 @ 8:15 am

Patrick, that’s the other thing – he is excellent at holding runners. Only 6 times have runners attempted to steal on DIckey this year, and only 3 have made it. Compare that to the other Cy Young candidate in the NL Gio Gonzalez who has seen 11 of the 12 base-stealers succeed against him.