R.A. Dickey Sets Record While Making Knuckleballer History

Pitcher R.A. Dickey #43 of the New York Mets is congratulated after his one hit complete game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Wednesday night in St. Petersburg, R.A. Dickey set a new Mets record, running his scoreless streak to 32⅔ innings.

That's real interesting and everything, but it's just the Mets, right? How impressive is a Mets pitching record, really?*

* Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Jerry Koosman, David Cone, Nolan Ryan, etc.

So forget about the New York Mets for a moment.

R.A. Dickey is a specialist. He throws knuckleballs. Lots of knuckleballs. This season, roughly 80 percent of Dickey's pitches have been knuckleballs. Wednesday night, 98 of Dickey's 106 pitches were knuckleballs.

R.A. Dickey is a knuckleball pitcher.

Lately, he's been pitching better than any knuckleball pitcher has ever pitched. By one measure, it's not even close.

Dickey pitched exceptionally well in his previous start, after which I compared Dickey's four-start run to great four-start stretches turned in by other knuckleball pitchers. In his last four starts, Dickey had averaged a 78 Game Score (a metric designed by Bill James to measure a starting pitcher's effectiveness in a particular start).

That was really impressive, 78. I found only five other knuckleballers who'd ever equaled or exceeded an average of 78 over four consecutive starts. Or rather, four others because one of them (1970s left-hander Wilbur Wood) did it twice.

One could certainly argue that Dickey's 78 was more impressive than the other 78's. But I tend toward understatement in these matters, so I could only conclude:

I don't know if Dickey deserves to start the All-Star Game. I don't know if these last four starts represent the best run any knuckleballer's ever had.

Everything's different now.

Wednesday night, Dickey pitched a complete game against the Rays, gave up just one hit and one (unearned) run, and set a career high with 12 strikeouts.

Which of course had me scurrying back to my spreadsheet. Dickey's great four-start stretch might have been equaled, roughly speaking, by a few other knuckleball pitchers. I went back and looked all the good and great knuckleballers. I already had the best four-start runs, so it was relatively easy to check the best five-start runs.

Here were the best I found ...

Wilbur Wood, 1971 - 77/82/84/58/83
Phil Niekro, 1974 - 70/87/78/80/79
Charlie Hough, 1986 - 62/78/88/82/80

Those numbers are their game scores. They all come out to roughly the same averages: Wood 77, Hough 78, Niekro 79.

Now, Robert Alan Dickey's last five starts:

05/22 - 74
05/27 - 81
06/02 - 82
06/07 - 76
06/13 - 95

One thing you might notice: Dickey's worst Game Score is better than the other guys' worsts.

Another thing you might notice: Dickey's best Game Score is better than the other guys' worsts.

Dickey's average Game Score over this stretch: almost 82. I am absolutely convinced that no knuckleballer has been more dominant over a stretch of five starts.

But you may quibble with Game Scores if you like. It's supposed to serve as the beginning of a discussion, not the end.

Let's discuss this, then ... In his last five starts, R.A. Dickey has struck out 50 batters and walked three.

I've searched the annals of knuckleball pitchers. It wasn't an exhaustive search. It was semi-exhaustive. It was exhaustive enough to convince me that no knuckleball pitcher has come close to 50 strikeouts and three walks in five starts.

So forget about knuckleball pitchers (just for a few seconds, I promise). Now Dickey's in territory that's previously been explored by pitchers like Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, and Curt Schilling.

In fact, Curt Schilling once struck out 50 and walked three in a five-start run. Just like R.A. Dickey.

Curt Schilling is one of the great control pitchers of all time.

R.A. Dickey is a knuckleball pitcher.

This ... does ... not ... compute.

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